Reporting on the conflict between the mega mining project Conga and the people of Cajamarca, Peru
Today I caught up with the two Swedish girls, Maria Nordin and Johanna Moller, who have lit up the headlines both across Peru and in their home country. According to the Peruvian press they were there to cause trouble – throwing stones at the police and even, as once source claims, armed with dynamite.
Are you here to cause trouble?
`No, not at all` states Maria Nordin, 25 year old student from Uppsala University, ´We came here to write our thesis for our bachelor degree, for which we received funding from the Swedish government. We are interested in how the young people here in Celendin perceive the conflict regarding the mining project, and how they feel about their future and their well-being in light of this conflict.´
Are you just speaking to young people who are against the project?
`No, we set out to get all sides of the story. We spoke to young people who are involved in the anti-Conga campaign certainly, however we also spoke to young people who are neutral, and also those who are in favour of the mine. As investigators we have to remain impartial`.
Why did you go up to the lagoons on 13th May?
`We decided to visit the lagoons because we felt we needed to get a sense of the place in dispute. We had heard so much about Conga, the heart of the conflict, so to understand better we felt we needed to see it for ourselves´.
Why did you decide to join that particular group?
`We heard that delegations from the local communities that would be affected by the Conga mine were going to travel to the lagoons to carry out an inspection. We were informed that they had received permission to do this. We thus assumed it would be safe to accompany the group.
So what happened when you arrived?
`When we got there we met up with community members from various different parts. We also saw the police, approximately 80 of them and all heavily armed, and we realized that they weren`t going to let us pass. So the group waited peacefully on the road to get organized and decide what to do. Then the police came and surrounded us, we all held up our hands showing that we wanted no trouble, but still they closed in on us. We felt scared, we had never been in such a situation before, never seen such heavily armed police. So we stuck together. As the police began to run towards us shouting, some people started to run away. We thought it was best to stay where we were as we were not doing anything wrong. However the police surrounded us and demanded to know if there were any more foreigners. They were very aggressive and pushed their weapons very close to us. They demanded to see our identification but when I tried to show them they wouldn`t accept it. They wanted to take us away.
´So they took us to the other side of the mountain to a police construction, which was surrounded by bus loads of police. The entire time they were constantly taking photos of us and staring like we were monkeys in a cage. They then took us inside and took away all our possessions. We sat there for five hours not knowing what we were being held for, and worried for the others as we heard many bullets being fired outside. It dawned on us that the police strategy was to remove the foreigners so they could come down heavy handed on the locals.´
Were you held alone or with others?
´There were six others detained with us: Victor López Abarca from Chile, Cesar Estrada – a local reporter, our friend from Molinopampa Jessica Cerdán, Elvira Vasquez, Edelfonso Cesnero Vasquez, and Victor Vasquez Miranda. Victor is a veterinarian who did not have anything to do with the group carrying out the inspection, he simply wanted to pass by to carry out his work of looking after the animals, but he was beaten and detained and he, like us, had no idea why.
When did the news come that you were being taken to Cajamarca?
We first heard that we were being taken to Cajamarca at about 5.30pm, and we were indignant as we still had not been told what we had done. We had all come from Celendin, where all our possessions were and were the others lived. We also heard that if we were taken to Cajamarca it was likely that we`d be taken to Chiclayo – eight hours travel from Cajamarca and where all cases regarding Conga now have to be seen. We protested but we were told that if we didn`t get into the truck to take us to Cajamarca that a woman police would come and make us get in by force.
How was the journey to Cajamarca?
Well it wasn`t very comfortable as we were squashed in with a police officer constantly watching us. On the journey down we got another shock as we passed by the huge open pits of Yanacocha. We thought ´this is what waits Celendin´.
How were you treated in Cajamarca?
In Cajamarca everything passed so slowly. A policeman checked us and went through our bags about ten times, noting everything from the serial numbers of our money to how many ear-rings we wore. We were tired and thirsty as we had nothing to drink all day. Luckily we were brought bread and water from a growing group of supporters who had gathered outside to demand our release.
You were helped by a number of lawyers including Doctor Zulma Villa, Doctor Noelia Mendoza, and Doctor Sehe Castañera, no? How did that help your situation?
Yes, five lawyers met us and were working for our release. Doctor Zulma was very helpful and presented a Habeas Corpus – a legal mechanism aimed at preventing arbitrary detentions.
Eventually their work paid off and at 11pm we were told that we would be released. However it wasn`t until 2am that we walked free.
How do you feel after your detention?
We would like to clarify that we are not violent, we threw no rocks, bombs or dynamite. We didn’t` commit any crime. We were international observers who were subject to arbitrary detention for more than 14 hours. Before we heard that the police attacked the people without reason. We believed it, but now we understand it.
Is there anything else you`d like to add?
We`re very grateful to all the people who helped us through this ordeal: the lawyers, the people who came out onto the streets of Cajamarca to demand our release, all those who made phone calls to put pressure on the authorities, to the Swedish ambassador, and to all those who worried for us.
This has not given us a bad impression of Peru, we have gotten to know so many amazing people here. This is still a good place for us. But we feel sad for the people who have to live with this corruption, with this abuse of authority. It is the system we are angry at, not the people nor the country.