Conga No Va: Peruvians Die in Gold Mine Protests

CAJAMARCA, PERU –– “I think we have to find another place to meet,” I shouted into the phone on the morning of the Fourth of July.  I was supposed to meet a local professor in the downtown Plaza de Armas here in Cajamarca, Peru, but at our designated meeting time, police were throwing tear gas into the plaza, and I saw them kicking and beating people who were too slow, or too defiant, to move out of the way.

I’m here researching mining conflicts – reading, observing, and interviewing protestors, government officials, NGO staff, community members, and other stakeholders. On Tuesday night, July 3, a State of Emergency was declared here in the city of Cajamarca and two neighboring provinces of Celendín and Bambamarca after clashes between police and anti-mining protestors turned fatal.  In Peru, a State of Emergency suspends certain constitutional rights such as freedom of assembly, gives police power to arrest without warrant, and gives the armed forces a frighteningly broad mandate to help the police maintain order.  That evening, tear gas and violence swept through downtown Cajamarca, as described by OnEarth Magazine’s George Black.  Many activists interpret the crackdown as a piece of a bigger puzzle: the criminalization of social protest in Peru.

National police patrol the streets of Cajamarca on the fourth of July.

The protests are attacking a proposed new mine, called Conga, which will be operated by a Denver-based company, Newmont Mining Corporation. Newmont has had a foothold in the region for decades in the form of its the Yanacocha mine – the second largest gold mine in the world.  But the new Conga gold-copper mine is slated to be even bigger: it’s a $4.8 billion investment, and its gold deposits are worth an estimated $15 billion thanks to today’s skyrocketing gold prices.

People here seem genuinely concerned about the effect that the mine will have on their lives and livelihoods, in spite of claims by the national media that these protests are led by a small number of politically-motivated radical environmentalists, who are allegedly manipulating the masses for their own political gains.  In reality, however, it’s clear from talking to people here that citizens feel hugely impacted by the mine at the personal level.  You can see it in the dedicated peasants who come to town in rotating shifts to be part of the protests, in the ubiquitous anti-mining graffiti, in the buses and shop windows covered in anti-mining posters, and in people’s stories about how past mining projects have affected them.

This isn’t the first State of Emergency recently declared in Cajamarca.  The last time was in November/December 2011, after protestors used boulders to block roads to Cajamarca.  People here tell me that, during that time, there wasn’t much food because deliveries were also unable to access the city.  Throughout Newmont’s decades in Cajamarca, large-scale protests have ebbed and flowed every few years to prevent proposed expansions of the Yanacocha mine.

Newmont’s first mine, Yanacocha, slashes a wound into the Peruvian landscape.

Fresh local outrage has simmered over the Conga project, particularly as the national government continues to usher it forward in the face of local opposition from civilians and the regional government.  Peru’s President Ollanta Humala gave the project the green light a few weeks ago, and construction on some artificial reservoirs began last weekend.  After initially not speaking out about this week’s violence, the President finally made a public request yesterday for a well-known Catholic priest to help mediate the conflict.  A few weeks ago, the central government also launched a new commission to improve environmental, social, health and safety standards in mining throughout the country.

Protestors rally against the Conga mine before the national government declared a state of emergency.

In Cajamarca, local anti-mining actors frame their concerns about the proposed Conga mine around three themes: water, lack of benefits, and lack of inclusion in decision-making.

1) Water. The Conga mine would be located in a fragile headwater ecosystem, home to 20 lagoons and 600 springs.  Since the region relies heavily on agriculture and livestock, people fear that further contamination of their water with heavy metals would spell an end to their way of life.  The Conga mine would destroy four high-altitude lagoons; although the company has proposed to replace them with manmade reservoirs, residents are dissatisfied with this solution.  When President Humala came to Cajamarca as a candidate, he asked the people whether they wanted water or gold.  They responded “water,” and Humala promised to listen.  However, he has now changed his position and supports the mining project.

A woman washes her pots in a stream. Local communities claim that the Conga mine would destroy their water supply and thus their livelihoods.

2) Lack of local benefits.  In the decades that Newmont has operated in the region, most Cajamarcans have seen few benefits despite the massive foreign investment funneled into the area.  The poverty rate has decreased slightly in recent decades, but remains over 50 percent.  Newmont has employed few local people (Bury and Kolff 2002), often because they lack the education and technical expertise needed to fulfill the available jobs.  Most of these jobs, therefore, have gone to people from other parts of the country and world.  Newmont does lead “civic action” projects in the villages surrounding the mine, building schools and providing medical clinics, to which people respond with both gratitude and cynicism.  In these cases, the company is essentially filling the role of the regional government, but these projects are no substitute for long-term investment in education and healthcare.  Through Peru’s Canon Law, sub-national governments receive a portion of the income tax paid by regional mining operations, but they often do not have the capacity or know-how to spend the revenue.  For example, last year Cajamarca spent only 45 percent of the budget assigned to public investment.

3) A sense of voicelessness and distrust.  Humala campaigned with a promise of a new type of mining that would include social inclusion.  Public sentiment, however, is that he has effectively turned his back on the people here.  Despite Cajamarca’s evident anger and indefinite strike against the mine since May 31, the national government had been notably absent until they declared a State of Emergency and sent in the national police and army. (Granted, the national government had offered to start a dialogue, but the regional government declined the offer.)

Former President Alberto Fujimori made sweeping neoliberal reforms to the mining sector throughout the 1990s, which were followed by new tools of accountability and transparency, such as Environmental Impact Assessment requirements.  Critics such as Fabiana Li (2009), however, have argued that these EIAs prioritize mining interests by defining their own standards and metrics, and by offering a nominal role to local stakeholders to advance the image of inclusiveness without creating a real opportunity for dissent.  A member of the Regional Government’s office on Natural Resources drilled this home to me during our meeting as he angrily pointed to dozens of binders lining his office: over 17,000 printed pages of the Conga EIA report, which the office of the local water authority in Celendín (with a staff of four people, including a secretary and administrator) was given a mere 40 days to evaluate.  An expert report by Robert Moran pointed out some of the substantive shortcomings of the Conga’s EIA as well.

Further, mining companies haven’t exactly endeared themselves to Cajamarcans with their past actions, which include spying on anti-mining activists, bribing the national government, and turning a blind eye to allegations of police torture against anti-mining protestors.

Anti-mining graffiti adorns walls and buses throughout Cajamarca.

On the morning of the Fourth of July, the professor and I found a new spot to discuss the anti-mining movement over coffee. Partway through our conversation, however, we had to leave: new plumes of tear gas from the street were creeping in through the front doors of the restaurant and burning our eyes and lungs.  Around the same time, Marco Arana, a former Roman Catholic priest and key leader of the movement, was violently arrested and beaten, and held overnight in prison (the widely-circulated video of his arrest has caused outrage over the conduct of police here).  I’m meeting soon with Marco Arana and look forward to hearing his account of the situation.

On Wednesday, after a State of Emergency was declared, the police occupied the downtown church –– which had been hosting hunger strikers and meals for activists –– to prevent assembly.  The next night, however, the church reopened its doors to hold a funeral mass for the fifth person to die in the mining conflicts this week, a 29-year-old man named José Antonio Sánchez Huamán. Huamán had been shot in the neck in Celendín, and was denied medical care for four hours.  About 500 people attended the service, during which the priest spoke about the need to protect life and protect the environment.  An anti-Conga flag was draped over José Antonio’s coffin, and the feeling in the church was a combination of sadness and outrage.  It remains unclear whether a serious investigation will be launched into these five civilian deaths.

Author’s note: You can sign a petition against the Conga gold mine here


One Comment

  1. David Verstockt says:

    Stop the abuses from the Peruvian government and make Newmont listen!
    Please sign the petition against the Conga mine project:

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