Typical aerial photographs of the Amazon rainforest show a green expanse of trees so thick you can’t see ground. But the ones Ernesto Benavides captures are almost entirely brown, revealing a wasteland pocked by muddy, gaping holes where trees once fought for light.
Benavides’s images depict illegal gold mining camps inside the Tambopata National Reserve, a 1,061-square-mile park where more than 12,000 species of plants, insects, and animals make their home. Benavides photographs them from the open doors of helicopters manned by armed police. “From the air, you can see the whole ecosystem has been affected,” he says. “It’s sick.”
Illegal gold mining is a multibillion dollar industry in Peru more lucrative than cocaine. Tens of thousands of miners operate thousands of small-scale settlements. They raze trees and create pit mines, using dredgers, pumps, and other machinery to extract the riches beneath the soil.
The consequences have been devastating: The Madre de Dios region of Peru, which includes Tambopata, has lost an estimated 148,000 acres of forest. Liquid mercury from the mining process also makes its way into the Madre de Dios River, poisoning tens of thousands of people living along it.
The rate of forest loss has more than quadrupled since 1999. Experts blame the soaring gold prices that followed the 2008 financial crisis, as well as the construction of the Interoceanic Highway, which allows prospectors to transport heavy equipment into the heart of the jungle.
The government does what it can to fight it. Since 2012, police have carried out hundreds of raids on the mining camps—more than 200 last year alone. They burn buildings and blow up millions of dollars worth of equipment, but the miners return. “This cancer is still growing, and the Amazon is really threatened by these gold fields,” Benavides says.
Benavides lives in Lima, Peru’s arid desert capital. He started visiting Madre de Dios a decade ago for various photographic assignments. But he never dared visit a gold mining camp until 2015, when Agence France-Presse sent him on a helicopter spin arranged by the Ministry of the Interior. It shocked him. “At the beginning you see a huge field of green,” he says, “then suddenly it begins to appear: holes and mud, a man-made desert.”
He has shadowed the police three more times on raids to La Pampa, the area inside Tambopata where the camps are located, and plans to go back. Benavides shoots out the helicopter’s open door, a strap holding him tight as he cranes his upper body far enough out to point his Nikon D4 straight down. It’s loud and windy, requiring a shutter speed of 1/5000 to counter the camera shake. The scene below is often deserted, as the miners, on a tip, cleared out before they arrived.
His jaw-dropping images make the extent of the destruction clear. But it’s on the ground, when the wind from the chopper dies down and the heat of the place envelops him, that Benavides says he feels it most. “The jungle is hot, but you always have the shade of trees,” he says. In this jungle, there are none.