Mining taps deep reserves of rage in Peru

Demonstrators clash with Peruvian police forces in Arequipa on May 14, 2015, during a protest against a 1,400 million dollars mining project by Southern Peru in the southern region of Islay, 1100 km south of Lima, which could affect farmers in the region. Mining companies and church authorities demanded a truce to calm the violent protests against the Tia Maria copper project that has left three dead in the 50 days protesters have taken the streets. The Army deployed 1,000 soldiers to back up police and order forces already in the area as the government assesses whether to declare a state of emergency in the region. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)©AFP

In a corner of southern Peru the land is so barren that Nasa uses it as a stand-in for Mars to see if potatoes can be grown on that lifeless planet. But the desert of red dirt gives way to the green Tambo river valley, where farmers live off an abundance of onions, rice and sugar cane.

Some locals are taking up arms to protect this oasis. Last year, three were killed and hundreds wounded in violent clashes over the $1.4bn Tía María copper and gold mine, owned by Southern Copper, which is perched by the valley. Black-clad anti-riot police are now stationed there.


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“Whoever is the next president will have to deal with mining conflicts because neither companies nor governments respect communities,” says Jesús Cornejo, head of the water users’ association in the nearby town of Cocachacra, which is peppered with green flags reading: “Yes to farming, no to the mine.”

Mining is the backbone of Peru’s economy. With the commodities downturn, that will represent a dilemma for Keiko Fujimori or Pedro Pablo Kuczynski after June 5, when they face each other in a runoff after failing to secure a presidential majority this month.

Work on the planned Tía María mine was first halted in April 2011 after protests. It is one of 208 hotspots for social conflict
the country, mainly land and water resource disputes over mining, according to data from Peru’s ombudsman office.

Industry insiders estimate that more than $30bn of mining investment is stalled because of conflicts or economic constraints on companies due to lower mineral prices. The $5bn gold and copper Minas Conga in Cajamarca, spearheaded by US miner Newmont, has been on hold since December 2011 over a water use conflict, in which several people have been killed.

Between July 2011, when Ollanta Humala took the president’s office, and September last year, 51 people have been killed during protests, says Human Rights Watch.

As a candidate Mr Humala pledged to support the poor in the country’s many simmering mining disputes, vowing to put water before gold.

But activists accuse him of turning his back on them. “You cannot impose mining activity with blood and fire. While the existing problems aren’t solved, more mining means playing with more fire,” says Marco Arana, running mate of leftist candidate Verónika Mendoza, who lost the second round place to Mr Kuczynski, but still secured almost 19 per cent of the vote.

Mr Arana was at the forefront of protests against Minas Conga. As was Gregorio Santos, the jailed anti-mining former regional governor of the mineral-rich Cajamarca, who bagged 4 per cent of the vote. Both candidates demonstrate a well of support in Peru for the anti-mining movement.

You cannot impose mining activity with blood and fire. While the existing problems aren’t solved, more mining means playing with more fire

– Marco Arana, the running mate of leftist candidate Verónika Mendoza

“Part of the conflict stems from a state that over almost two decades has slanted interests . . . in favour of investors, rather than the populations where the investments were going to sit,” Mr Arana adds. “This has delegitimised investments and the state’s authority.”

José de Echave of CooperAcción, a non-governmental organisation, says: “Mining unrest rocketed along with high mineral prices, and has been very much present in recent years. With Keiko that may worsen, with Kuczynski it may remain about the same.”

Ms Fujimori says she wants a system to prevent and monitor social conflicts, and mechanisms for communities to become shareholders in mining projects. Mr Kuczynski proposes guaranteeing communities advance benefits from mining projects.

“Tensions come before the money arrives,” Mr Kuczynski says. “[So] the money has to be put in beforehand.” The money could be used to improve environmental outcomes and improve community relations.

Oscar González Rocha, Southern Copper’s executive president, hopes whoever wins the election “will devise new strategies to resume the investments that will drive the country’s growth”.

In an area of roughly 30,000 people, the company says it will create 3,000 jobs during construction and 650 permanent ones once Tía María is completed.

But Cocachacra is divided. “I fear the conflict will come back if they try to restart it,” says Helar Valencia, mayor of Cocachacra. “There is rejection of national authorities and mistrust towards the company.”

Mr Kuczynski, an Oxford-educated former prime minister and former mining minister, says he picked Martín Vizcarra, a former regional president, as vice-president because he helped solve a dispute over Anglo-American’s Quellaveco mine by building a dam to benefit the communities. But he warns: “Without a doubt, we are going to have social agitation.”

That sentiment is echoed in the valley of the river Tambo. “Problems like the one here with Tía María are flames waiting to burn,” Mr Cornejo says.

Additional reporting by Lucien Chauvin in Lima

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