Reporting on the conflict between the mega mining project Conga and the people of Cajamarca, Peru
The following article was written by three activists who joined the people of Hualgayoc-Bambamarca and Celendin as they met in Sorochuco, Celendin to reafirm their commitment to the defense of water on World Water Day 2013.
The Andean town of Sorochuco appears to sight after a bumpy two-hour drive from its provincial capital, Celendin. Narrow rocky mountain roads which zig-zag through cliffs and cross surging rivers such as the Sendamal, climbing one peak after another, finally lead one to this small town comfortably perched on a plateau at 2540 meters above sea level. After a brief incident on an “alternative” route (which ended up with three women – one on high heels – pushing a 4-by-4 pick-up truck stuck in the mud), our party of 8 people and their bags somehow managed to reach their destination in one car, accompanied by the merry notes of a Cajamarca Carnavales.
Entering the valley where Sorochuco is located, one would think oneself in a semi-tropical climate : all around the houses, a thick luxurious vegetation can be admired, and inhabitants enjoy fruit from their trees while sitting in the warm sun, after a rainy morning. M., having walked 5 hours under the rain from her adobe house next to the lakes affected by the Conga project, smiled and handed me a lucuma : “It’s from this area. It’s produced from the earth, with water from the lakes”.
On the 22nd of March, delegations from the provinces of Hualgayoc-Bambamarca and Celendin met in the town of Sorochuco to celebrate the world day of water and renew their commitment to the social struggle against the large-scale mining project “Minas Conga”. Resistance to the project has to date cost 5 lives, countless wounded and denounced activists, months of military presence in local hometowns, and paid off politicians on various levels. For the day of water, men and women like M., from the farthest communities of Sorochuco, gathered in the central plaza to demonstrate once again their rejection of the project and their concerns for the springs their communities depend on for subsistence. Around us, the walls of the houses reflect their preoccupations: alongside the pictures of Carnival masks, “Agua si, oro no” (Yes to water, no to gold”) graffiti are painted in vivid colors.
While we were sitting around the Plaza de Armas, waiting for the last delegations to arrive, a rondero (a member of the communal organization known as “peasant rounds”) asked me if I have already seen the “El Chaquil”. He then led me to an open-air, tiled-floor public washing space, where frog-shaped fountainheads gushed water he told me came directly from the Lake “El Perol”. Two women were washing the entrails of a sheep, while a third prepared to pluck a chicken.
At the center of the washing grounds stood a statue of a woman holding an overturned vase, from which a slender stream of water trickled. He told me that trickle never stopped. He then grinned and said legend has it that foreigners who drank that water would not be able to leave Sorochuco, they would stay and get married in this land. I was actually considering taking a sip, when I remembered he had told me earlier that the water was already showing signs of contamination, and that there were no longer any frogs in the highlands.
In the Plaza I started talking to J., a rondera woman from a nearby community who stood under the scorching midday sun, holding the flag of Celendin. She pointed to a line of women sitting on the church’s steps : “They are from my community, many of us women have come today, for the meeting. In our community the water used to be sweet, and clear. Now it’s white, and it doesn’t taste the same. We get sick now more than we did, it’s the water that isn’t good”.
Around midday, the delegation from Bambamarca finally arrived, after a harrowing ride of many hours from the neighboring province. What we first heard were their voices: they marched in to the Plaza, greeted with applause, chanting slogans such as “My blood, my life, everything for water!”. Those present joined them, and a stream of people started marching around the town, accompanied by the sound of fireworks. At the end of the march, the Plaza was filled with protesters and bystanders, gathered to listen to speakers from all over the region. In the corners of the square, police officials watched, filming participants to keep records of the “extremists”, a current surveillance practice since the beginning of the protests.
On the stage, surrounded by the red-and-white Peruvian flag under which children swung between the supports, rejoicing with their improvised jungle-gym, representatives of various communities took turns sharing their experiences of struggle and concerns for the mine’s effects. Around us, loomed green peaks with cloud ponchos, each and every one of them concessioned to a mining company : Yanacocha, AngloAmerican and Lumina Cooper.
Beneath the music and the chanting and the jokes, the tone of the meeting was grave. Sorochuco’s water issues from the area of the lakes which will disappear, if the Conga project is implemented. Two of these lakes, “El Perol” and “Mala”, find themselves precisely on the site to be excavated: they shall therefore be violated to make way for two enormous open pits, 2 kilometers wide and one deep. Although the mining project is officially suspended for two years, mine machinery continues operating in the highlands, supposedly constructing water reservoirs for the population. A road meant for construction machinery, and possibly for future operations, has been slowly advancing. Recently, it has circled the lake “El Perol”.
According to local myths this body of water hosts a pot of gold, from which a lucuma tree bearing golden fruit arises at times, luring lonely travelers to drown in its waters. Because “El Perol” finds itself in Sorochuco’s territory, the objective of the meeting was to organize its defense : unanimously, participants agreed that this was the priority at the moment and committed to organizing local brigades, the “Guardians of the lakes”, to ensure constant vigilance. As one of the movement leaders concluded, at an altitude of over 4000 meters, in an extremely harsh environment swept by wind and rain, “The essence of the struggle is not in the city, it’s in the local communities. With leaders or without leaders, with authorities or without authorities, the world is with us, God is with us, do we choose life or do we choose death?”.