There’s also been a big increase in malaria in the region, according to Kopenawa. “We are suffering," he said. "We’re suffering from threats, suffering from danger, suffering in health. It’s a lot.”

The indiscriminate use of mercury by gold miners around Puerto Maldonado in Peru, the world’s sixth largest gold producer, has wrecked the Amazon’s lush vegetation.

Through the years, miners have devastated an area of the Peruvian Amazon that’s almost five times the size of Manhattan. Meanwhile, Peru’s government has seen limited success containing illegal mining, despite raids by armed forces. More than 90% of the gold coming out of there is mined illegally, but the government has so far formalized just 5,000 miners out of the 300,000 operating in the country, according to estimates by Lima-based consultancy Macroconsult.

Overall, there’s probably around 2,300 illegal mining sites in and around the ecologically-sensitive Amazon rainforest, with most located in Venezuela, according to the Amazonia Saqueada dabatase that includes data compiled by a wide association of non-governmental groups.

Trouble with illegal miners is not exclusive to Latin America, though.

In South Africa, for instance, illegal miners are a law unto themselves. The criminal syndicates are called “zama zamas,” a native Zulu name for “take a chance.” They are armed, and often dig their way into underground shafts where they illegally mine for days or even months at a time, according to James Wellsted, spokesman for Sibanye Gold Ltd.

Industry body Minerals Council South Africa estimates 14,000 people are involved in these syndicates, with trade in illegally mined precious metals estimated to be around 7 billion rand ($470 million) annually.

“Confronting them underground could lead to fatalities,” Wellsted said by telephone. “There is also a broader environmental and social impact. They are a source of terror in some of the communities around the mines.”

These were familiar scenes years ago in Puerto Maldonado, the capital of Peru’s Madre de Dios region, said Fred Inti, a businessman and the vice-president of the city’s Chamber of Commerce. The government’s attempt to crack down on illegal mining hasn’t stopped desperate people from flooding in.

"They have moved away from traditional mining areas and deep into the Amazon," Inti said. They work in places where the law can’t reach them and they don’t care if these are protected areas."