By Naimah Hussain, Cajamarca (Peru)
Although the Northern region in Peru has had large-scale mining for more than twenty years, the citizens in the region do not experience a rise in wealth or improved living conditions. Instead, they are without water during daytime and they have to live with the environmental impacts of the second largest goldmine in the world.
As the beautifully paved road is winding further and further up the Andes, more and more trucks and large oil tankers appear. They pass each other in high speed on the newly asphalt double-track road that is in sharp contrast to the dusty dirt roads, characterizing the remaining infrastructure here in the northern part of Peru. Settlements become a less frequently sight; from time to time grazing cows appear in the horizon, only to once again disappear behind fields and treetops. When the heavy loaded oil trucks are not swishing by in a high speed, the scenery looks almost idyllic and peaceful.
Latin America’s largest gold mine is situated in an altitude of more than 4,000 meters, sheltered by the Andes. The activities of the Yanacocha mine, including 5 massive open pits, are spread out over an area of more than 1,500km2. Broad and well-paved roads lead to the mining area, wheresigns on the fencing warns intruders that this is private property. The tranquility has been replaced by barbed wire fences, red dusty mine pits, Catepillar machines that work monotonously, and wide black pipes which we are told contain residuals of cyanide and wastewater that is being led into the nearby river.
No water for the town
According to the opponents of the mine, 250,000 liters of water is needed to keep the production running. Per hour. In comparison, a regular Peruvian family uses around 30 liters of water. Per day. The massive water consumption in the mine has consequences for the 280,000 inhabitants in the town, Cajamarca, and the surrounding area. If they turn the tap between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., literally nothing happens.
But after around 20 years of extraction, the gold reserves have nearly been exhausted. If it is left to the mining company behind the Yanacocha gold mine, they will open yet another gigantic mine only 24km northeast of here. American Newmont, the main shareholder behind both mining projects, describes itself as one of the world’s largest producers of gold. They are active in both Latin America, Africa, Australia and Asia. With around 40,000 employees and many years of experience, they are one of the big players that have now moved into a country characterized by a fragile democracy, high level of corruption and low trust in the central government. However, gold is the second largest export for Peru and thus, the large-scale projects meets general political support.
However, among the population of the region, both the Yanacocha mine and the now even larger planned 30,000km2 cobbers and gold mine Conga, meets strong opposition. This is in part because of the lack of water and in part because of the use of cyanide by the mining company along with other environmental impacts. It’s led to massive protests, demonstrations and sit in blockades in the area.
1,000 poisoned because of accident
An accident with one of the mining company’s trucks caused a large emission of mercury in 2000. This led to health problems for the local population, where around 1,000 people showed signs of mercury poisoning. The mining company provided cleanup and health checkups, but since the accident many have lost faith in the company’s ability to take care of security surrounding the mine. The group affected by the accident brought their cases to court where some of the cases led to settlements. Others have still not been resolved. Critics of the mine believe that there are still health problems related to the accident. Although this hasn’t been confirmed.
Protests against the Conga mine have caused delays in the mine more than once. The protests have been so violent that the government declared a state of emergency in the region in November 2011. According to the movement against the mining projects, 5 people have died in relation to the demonstrations and another 140 have been injured during the last year and a half. The opponents speak of police violence while the authorities believe that the protesters are violent troublemakers.
Protesters are being punished more severely
The violent incidents have led to a tightening of the legislation according to Mirtha Vasquez, a lawyer and employee in the NGO GRUFIDES:
”The state is implementing and approving laws that promote the criminalization of protests. And it is not only the laws and the violent oppression; there is also a tendency of naming the people who are fighting against the mining companies terrorists. This is a new way of criminalizing people”, says Mirtha Vasquez while recounting thousands of deterrent and random arrests of what according to her are legitimate activists.
The opposition against the mining projects has been organized in a movement which has been active for the past 10 years. However, at the mining site no life, apart from the monotony of the mining machinery, seems apparent. Until almost out of the blue a primitive little farm appears on the side of the mine road. A farmer and his old mother are walking in their courtyard. Assuming that we are representatives of the mine company, they refuse to talk to us at first; the mother tries to hide and shakes her head at all of our questions. The family is smallholder farmers, like many others in this region, but fears that their plot of land will be seized by the mining company or destroyed by contamination from the mine.
At the same time, they are lacking water to keep their crops alive: “Water is life”, she says softly and hides her contracted, wrinkled face behind a cobalt blue scarf, while chickens are roaming around her legs. When asked about their position on the mining project, the mother answers laconically: “You cannot eat gold”.
“We have to do it right”
According to an assessment by the municipality of Cajamarca, the region is the second poorest in Peru. Neither the number of illiterates, maternal mortality or the general wealth has improved since the entry of the mining companies, explains the Chief of Staff in the municipality, Dr. Vargaq Mosqueira. However, the infrastructure at and around the mining areas has improved. At the mayor’s office, though, they do not believe that the town has benefitted significantly by the billion dollar enterprises:
“The mines do not leave behind much money for the region. The majority of the tax revenues goes to the central government; not nearly enough is allocated to our region. And at the same time, not nearly enough money are allocated for the close up of the mines, and dealing with the environmental impacts”, says Second Deputy Mayor Mr. Ginez.
The Chief of Staff is not impressed either:
“It is true that the mine has helped with the infrastructure and other growth, but Cajamarca used to be the 3rd poorest region in the country, and now we are even poorer. Revenues are generated, but they are not distributed in a way which benefits the population”.
There are not many signs of optimism when it comes to employment rates either: “The mine needs experts which are brought in from outside”, says Dr. Vargaq Mosqueira; however, he is not dismissive of mining: “The way forward is sustainable mining. We have to deal with the fact that the future growth of Cajamarca depends on mining. We just have to figure out how to do it right”.
Naimah Hussain (born 1982) is a journalist and sociologist living in Nuuk, Greenland. She has a special interest in the effects that the oil and mineral sector has on the environment and climate. On behalf of Crossing Borders, she participated in a study tour to Peru in June 2014 arranged by Climate Alliance as part of the project “From Overconsumption to Solidarity”. The focus of the tour was on mining and oil extraction projects in Peru. The delegation visited the capital, Lima, along with the northern provinces of Cajamarca with large-scale mining activities and Iquitos in the Amazon where international companies are drilling for oil.