Conga Conflict

Reporting on the conflict between the mega mining project Conga and the people of Cajamarca, Peru

TESTIMONY: how a mining company mined a society

Marco Arana


By: Marco Arana Zegarra (Resident of Cajamarca, sociologist. Ecopolitics and human rights. Leader of Tierra y Libertad)

Translated by

Many people – friends, journalists and documentary producers, and above all colleagues from various environmental movements I’ve met over the years – suggested I write my testimony of how my commitment to the defence of environmental rights was begun, related to the large-scale mining industry started in Cajamarca at the beginning of the 90’s. For their part, my detractors maintain that it’s for nothing more than ideological motives or petty interests. I will write in two parts how, being a rural parish priest, I ended up committed to the emergence of a broad national civic movement, fighting to defend human rights as well as environmental rights. In that same vein, I would like to reflect from my personal experience of recent years on the emergence of an ecopolitical movement that unleashed the fury of the most powerful economic forces, those same groups who seek to perpetuate the social and ecological injustice in Peru. 

(Part One) 

The Great Opportunity

At first, in 1992-1993, everything seemed promising: a first sign of overcoming the economic catastrophe caused by the corruption and irresponsibility of Alan García (1985-1990) was the announcement of the largest mining investment of the last 40 years. Newmont Gold Corporation, the World Bank and the then-small Peruvian company, Minas Buenaventura, had united to exploit what they also said at that time would be a small mining project named Yanacocha. The investment was billed as a life saver: a) on a national level, Shining Path had declared 1992 as the year of “its strategic equilibrium” and set siege to Lima: b) Fujimori had carried out the coup and was experiencing problems legitimizing himself internationally: c) the economy was in recession – and behold but “generous private investors would bet in faith for the country”. That was also the year in which, at an international level, the Rio Summit took place, which paved the way to questions about the sustainability of development, the limits of growth and provided for the formulation of Agenda 21.

At the provincial level, Luis Guerrero, an ex-communist who had been elected mayor at the beginning of the 90’s, declared the Municipality of Cajamarca to be “the First Ecological Municipality of Peru”, propagandizing the arrival of the “green mine” and the opportunities that would be opened “in jobs, mining royalties and direct investment by the mining company, which would act with full social responsibility. Cajamarca would rise above its deferment and poverty”.

The Early Spoilers

However, a dozen families of Cerro Quilish sector 38 would appear as spoilers (Alan remained a fugitive and could not describe them as “dogs in the manger”). It so happened that the farming families had suffered the first aggravated land seizure the Yanacocha Mining Company would make. Excited by their operations and considerable national and local political support, the miners began a frenzied exploration process in the area surrounding their authorized field of operations, and to do that they promised the neighbours they would make “a few small holes” in the ground, but would have to construct concrete platforms of approximately 6 by 3 meters as drill bases and also require the construction of some small access trails. In exchange for all of this “they would provide jobs and some payment. They also assured that the work would last two or three weeks and there would be neither disruptions nor environmental damages”.

However, more than half a year went by since the drill work was done, and there was neither help nor payment. And when the farmers demanded the mine make good on its payment, personnel of then FORZA (now SECURITAS) responded with sticks and shots into the air. The only thing left on the farmers’ lands were the trails, the cement platforms and the holes with precarious cement covers and cement plaques on which were written a code and the drill depth in meters. In those years, mining legislation didn’t demand higher safety for drill holes.

The farmers went to make a complaint with the Cajamarca government, at the regional office of agriculture and the provincial municipality of Cajamarca, but discovered, once there, that the mine had permits from the government in Lima and nothing could be done. On top of that, the Cajamarca provincial municipality wanted to charge them for the complaint presentation form, the result being they didn’t register it in writing. A few months passed and the rains came. The precarious cement hole covers were expelled by the water-saturated ground, and reddish, grey, purple and cream coloured substances started to spill out, some with a greasy and others with a soapy consistency. The water running into the fields where sheep grazed quickly set off the first alarms of contamination, as several deaths in the livestock occurred and the herders said they couldn’t drink the new filthy, pestilent waters. On numerous occasions, the farmers went to the doors of the Yanacocha offices in Cajamarca or the entrance to the mine operations, but nobody received them, and “the Forza guards threatened them with beating if the ‘cholos de mierda’ kept on harassing”.

The only thing that remained for the farm families was to come and talk with us, young parish priests at the time, in the recently-created “Cristo Ramos de Porcón”. It was November of 1993.

The Dialogue that Never Was

For us, then young parish priests, it seemed as though the plague were descending on Porcón: the summer of 1992 and summer of 1993 we were devastated by the epidemic of cholera. The small populations of several villages had been infected by people who went to work as stevedores in Chimbote, Trujillo or in the rice fields in Chepén. Because they weren’t familiar with the illness, hygiene habits due to the lack of sanitary services and lack of domestic water connections – and the custom of holding a four day vigil for their dead, eating “in company”, in combination with the strike by the few health workers in the area – had done the rest. The hamlet of Hualtipampa was the most devastated. The fire fighting company, personnel from Cáritas and the Marist Brothers did remarkable work in bringing us medicines and also showing us how to confer serums and antibiotics and evacuate the most serious cases. Our rectory, still in construction, had been converted into a precarious field office of treatment or referral for the overwhelmed Cajamarca hospital. The celebrations of the Semana Santa for that year didn’t smell of the burned incense and rosemary of the rural culture, but rather of bleach from the excessive and even obsessive cleaning we had imposed on ourselves. As if cholera weren’t enough, the farmers of Qulish 38 arrived with allegations that their livestock were dying off and the farmers could no longer drink the water because of “the filth coming out of the ground holes made by the gringos from the mine”.

The complaints having been received and the damages confirmed photographically, the new bishop had informed us of his arrival in Cajamarca and said he was “a good friend of Alberto Benavides from the time of his earlier diocese in Jaén”. The new ecclesiastic authority gave little credit to the farmers’ claims, as he said “the mining company had assured him that they used modern technology and took care of the environment, giving assistance to the farmers and their needs”. We had to make a visit to the presbytery (meeting place for all clergy in the Diocese) for the subject to be dealt with in a meeting between the parish priests and the bishop. There was every kind of argument, from that deceased priest – who indicated that “it’s bad luck the farmers have been poor all this time without knowing there was gold and how good it was now that there was someone who would come and extract it and give them jobs” – to others who said “you have to know how to take advantage of help from the mine, instead of fighting with it, because otherwise they will end up supporting the evangelicals” and a majority of us that thought “the church could not return to the role of Valverde, but rather assume the evangelical role of the defence of justice and the most impoverished”.

The First Videos from Yanacocha

In the Porcón parish we needed to make a video collecting the testimonies of the farmers narrating the abuses by Forza and showing the damages done by Yanacocha. When the bishop saw the testimonies, he arranged a meeting with mining company officials: a very young Carlos Santa Cruz, who would later become the scourge of the people of Cajamarca, Peter Orams, Fernando Schwalb and an official of nisei origin by the name of Osada. Two priests, the bishop and these officials watched the video in the presbytery living room of the bishopric in Cajamarca. The officials seemed puzzled, saying they had not been  aware and asked for a copy of the video in order to ascertain what had happened, “surely with field personnel who didn’t know how to treat people” and promising that “if there were problems they would be resolved”. The meeting ended and they asked for a copy of the video, to which I agreed.

A week later, a number of farmers came to the rectory, visibly intimidated, having been visited by people from the mine who told them to “forget looking for work at the mine for having gathered with the communist priests”. They didn’t know what to do and we were outraged. A few days later, we decided the video should be edited and brought to the media outlets of the city. The video, edited for presentation, was called “Yanacocha, the mine that doesn’t contaminate”. All local TV channels showed it. However, the first to show it was Global TV. The press and radio spoke about the abuses for a couple of weeks. The mining company came out with its arguments, which haven’t changed after 24 years: “it was a conspiracy to damage their image. Everything was going fine”.

In a press conference at the Hotel Continental, Carlos Santa Cruz, manager of Yanacocha, even declared “the priest had tampered with the images”. The local press (at this time mostly independent) sharply criticized the mine.

There was no absence of voices from known Cajamarca professionals who came to defend the mine: “any human activity contaminates. The most important thing was that the mine generated opportunities for work.” Of course, several of those were hired as “consultants”, and if not, assured that their relatives would have work in the “ecological mine”. A painful role to play for many of Cajamarca’s principal university lecturers and known professionals.

The Clergy

The bishop sought a new channel of dialogue. This time there would be dialogue with Alberto Benavides De La Quintana in Lima himself, under the auspices of the Episcopal Commission for Social Action (CEAS). The bishop appointed me to go. I asked whether two of the farmers would be able to go, but he said no, there were no funds to cover their tickets. My expenses would be paid by the Porcón parish, which had been receiving a small amount of support since 1992 from a parish in Tettnang, in southern Germany.

I went to Lima. After an overland journey of many hours, I was in the CEAS offices at 4 p.m., the agreed time for the meeting. But after 5 they told us that the meeting wouldn’t be taking place. Mr. Alberto Benavides had decided not attend. Two days later, I returned to Cajamarca. I spoke with the farmers. We later consulted with several priests who were friends of mine and decided to launch a complaint against Yanacocha before the 4th Provincial Penal Court, presided over by judge Pequeño Morales. Later, I learned the judge was the son-in-law of Dr. Cristóbal Arana, who was the legal adviser to Yanacocha (I bear no relation to him). Long months of legal and media battles ensued. More fortunate was, however, the partnership of a young female lawyer from Cajamarca, not feint of heart, who wanted to collaborate disinterestedly and who took up the defence for the farmers.

The former bishop of Cajamarca, Monsignor José Dammert, who had retired in Lima, wrote an article in La República: “if the farmers are not part of the distribution of wealth, a new chapter in the history of the ignominy of gold in Cajamarca will have been written.” During those weeks, the national daily La República would send a reporter to Porcón and publish a centre page on the seizure of lands and the first complaints of contamination by the mine. The new bishop was not pleased with the public face of the dispute. I received the first calls of ecclesiastical attention.

“The Experts and Recognized Journalists”

The mine was on the lips of the whole local world and even of an informed sector of national society. The response from the mine didn’t take long: an anthropologist Juan Ossio appeared in the scene as an “independent consultant” to clarify that “there existed no legally recognized farmer communities in the area and that, historically in Cajamarca, the handling of land ownership had been traditionally individual”, concluding that I “was improperly using the term communal farmers”. Of no avail that I called to attention the studies of Orlando Plaza and Marfil Francke, which claimed that the farmer community, rather than a legal fact, was the set of social, economic and cultural relationships, as was the case of the farmers of Porcón, many of whom besides were joined by a common language, Quechua Cañaris.

On the scene as well was the editor of the column and national TVE programme, “La Torre de Papel”, Luis Rey de Castro, disciple of the controversial Pedro Beltrán, who, when interviewing me in the parish house of Porcón, said he had expected to find “an honourable priest, but was disappointed to have found himself with youngster of a priest, ideologue of the theology of liberation”. This journalist would be one of the first to initiate nationwide media attacks on those of us who showed ourselves to be critical of the abuses of Yanacocha. Impossible to foresee then that in the future this would be a common and systematic treatment by the mainstream media from the principle press.

The Fiscal “Solution”

After several months of tension, of legal proceedings, of the first verbal death threats against me by Forza and in the middle of a time in which there was no absence of offers by Yanacocha to make donations to the parish works, which of course were rejected by the parish priests, the tensions continued and increased. Until one day there appeared Leonard Harris, the Newmont manager for Latin America, who spoke perfect Spanish and said he was married to a woman from Peru. He invited himself to breakfast at the parish house to lend ears to what was happening and said he wanted to hear our version of the story. The meeting ended with the pledge that “everything would be sorted out with the farmers who’d been affected”.

A few days later, the prosecutor verbally communicated to the farmers’ lawyer that the mine wanted to opt for the principle of discretion and therefore asked that a dialogue be initiated with the mine in order to arrive at some compensation for the farmers. The meeting was held in the main room of the parish in Porcón, with an ample presence by the farmer families and several officials from the mine. A disagreeable incident was that the personnel from Forza, without any sort of consultation, had taken charge of even the rectory’s balcony, showing visible evidence that they carried weapons. I had to visit with Leonard Harris and the prosecutor to ask for the immediate withdrawal of all armed personnel, as it was an aggravation and unnecessary. The dialogue nearly collapsed because of this deplorable incident.

The practical result of the dialogue was that the mine, which had been paying the derisory amount of one hundred nuevos soles per hectare of land purchased, utilizing the threat of expropriation, had to admit it should pay two thousand nuevos soles for each platform installed (there were, if I remember correctly, 12 platforms) and also would need to pay an additional amount for damages incurred by the access trails. As to the charge of environmental contamination, this was dropped “for lack of evidence”, since all we had as evidence was the word of the farmers, some photographs and video, as well as a precarious qualitative chemical analysis report conducted by a university professor in a “non-accredited laboratory with samples collected, furthermore, by us, without having followed any protocol nor in the presence of any authority”. At the end of the meeting, which Leonard Harris had made sure was run smoothly, as all his junior employees behaved unusually agreeably and friendly, the prosecutor’s discourse to the farmers at the end of the meeting was that “they ought to give thanks to God for having someone such as Father Marco Arana, who had defended them”. In a few days, in the prosecutor’s document of that meeting, the same prosecutor, son-in-law of the legal adviser to Yanacocha, said in a written response “the relations with the mine had always been carried out in a climate of harmony, but that there had been manipulation by a third party to cause alienation between the farmers and the mining company”. It was never known how much this change of direction would cost.

Broken Promises

The news shook Cajamarca society. Awareness of the abuses committed by the mine only recent, its promises were nothing more than just a charming speech. The majority of the citizens supported the action the parish priests of Porcón had undertaken. The local press in general did outstanding work because of its independence at the time. Several parishes joined in solidarity in the fight taken up by us, the priests of Porcón.

The farmers in Combayo, which belonged to the district of La Encañada, learned of the results, in which the farmers of Quilish 38 had received more than 12 thousand soles just for damages, and so decided to visit the Porcón parish to ask for support. More than 40 families in Combayo, between 1991-1992, had sold thousands of hectares of land at only 100 nuevos soles per hectare and felt cheated by the mine, which had told them they would be given work and that also, when mining work was finished, it would return their land and that meanwhile, where there were no nearby operations, they could continue to graze their livestock. Nevertheless, they felt deceived. Nothing which had been promised was coming true: the work they had been given was for only a few months; the clouds of dust from the explosions prevented the livestock from eating the grass and the Forza guards had ordered them to leave the lands they’d sold.

We went to meet with the people from Combayo, which was another parochial jurisdiction and, with the consent of the parish and the support of the Vicariate of Solidarity of the Diocese of Cajamarca, we edited a second video titled “Combayo and the abuses of gold”. Yanacocha again was the topic of public discussion: since the beginning, the mine had shown that it wasn’t acting in the way it had promised.

New and Unexpected Roads

In 1992 we had decided to create “Cristo Ramos” Parochial School in Porcón. It would be a mixed school to provide the opportunity for women to achieve what was being denied them: secondary education and widening opportunities for access to professional training. The focus should be that of agricultural technician, and environmental education should play a prominent role in the training of teachers, parents and students.

Next to the parochial school classrooms, workshops and small animal farms, there would be a playing field and school gardens with tree nurseries for native trees, including pine, which the parents demanded. We decided to limit the planting of eucalyptus, though would need to have several hundred seedlings available, on the insistence of the farmers.

With “mingas” (neighbourhood projects) each month, we started constructing the first school in Porcón Bajo. Meanwhile, the parish doubled as the first classrooms for children and youths, men and women, some of whom came from two or three hours away. The entire sacerdotal team of Porcón organized large communal “mingas”, which took place once a month to facilitate flattening the ground, carrying stones from the river and laying the first foundations. All told, the small support from the sister parish of Saint Gallus in Tettnang, the support of the Marist Brothers and of some associate priests that worked in Cajamarca, the encouragement from Monsignor José Dammert, bishop emeritus of Cajamarca, as well as the encouragement from my family were fundamental in initiating this great educative project. This was the most beautiful and promising pastoral work in providing opportunities for a new life for boys, girls and youths in the parish surroundings, which comprised communities even in the provinces of San Miguel and San Pablo. But the conflicts with the mine could not be ignored. One instance having only just ended, soon new ones would appear. At the time, I could not imagine the magnitude they would take on in the following years.

After a few months of so many tensions and public complaints of mining abuses, the Bishop put to me the importance of theological specialization studies in Rome. During my university and seminary studies I had distinguished myself as a student and specialization was in reality a predictable option. However, I felt I ought to have more parochial experience in rural surroundings, and so I asked if the decision to leave for study could be postponed a couple more years.

Months went by and the ecclesiastical authority put to me a clear dilemma: “either you go to study in Rome or you leave the Diocese”. I, therefore, had to travel to Rome during the years 1994-1996. Taking leave of the farmers of Porcón was the most difficult. For the last Mass that I celebrated in the small and crowded rectory chapel, attended by the Catholic and Evangelical faithful, the central biblical text was of Jesus, which reads: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.” (Matthew 11:25-30).

Rome, Distance and Proximity

August 1994. On the first tour of the imposing Roman basilicas, one in particular brought to mind old wounds. The tourist guide made note that the immense gold leaf ceiling of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore had been made with the first gold to come from Cajamarca to Spain, which the king donated to the Pope (“It is said that the gold which covers it was derived from the smelting of objects looted from the recently-discovered indigenous people” (“si racconta che l’oro con cui è ricoperto venne ricavato dalla fusione di oggetti depredati dalle popolazioni indigene delle Americhe appena scoperte”)). This gold brought me back to the scene of the Ransom Room (el cuarto de rescate), which still exists in Cajamarca, and the memory of the death of the Inca and the genocide and oppression that befell our original population. Impossible to avoid thinking of the new conquerors that had arrived in Cajamarca, from which I found myself separated.

The two years of study passed slowly. They were intense and demanding. However, a number of farming families never stopped writing to me. The mine was growing. There had been a lot of transit accidents where miners didn’t recognize when they killed sheep, chickens or dogs, which ended up crushed under vehicles that had taken over the road. There was work for only a few and the mine was growing toward the districts of La Encañada, Cajamarca y Baños del Inca. People stopped drinking spirits and started to drink beer. In some families there had been fights over the distribution of money from the sale of lands or due to the struggle to get work at the mine. Some engineers asked for gifts for picking up work at the mine.

In the stocked bookstores in Rome, I bought my first two texts on sociology and ecology. My friends from a small German parish, who were benefactors of the social work at the parish in Porcón, gave me the first studies available in Spanish on modern gold mining with cyanide leaching. These dealt with the topic of mining with cyanide on a small scale, with international standards, and mentioned the lack of knowledge about large-scale mining with cyanide. They spoke of the need to put nets over the pools of cyanide water to prevent birds from dying. It was obvious that this should be mining with clear regulations and strict environmental controls, which I doubted were being taken into account, due to the almost nonexistent environmental institutions of the time and a government which clearly had serious problems with corruption.

All Roads Lead to Porcón

Upon completion of my undergraduate studies in theology, I was asked by the bishop to remain in Rome to begin my doctoral studies. It would be another three years. The study costs were being carried by a grant from the church in Germany and the Collegio Pío Latinoamericano, where we were guided by the Jesuits with wisdom, respect and kindness. However, I decided to return to Cajamarca.

In Rome there were many fine and beautiful things, the intellectual climate and opportunities for study were enviable. But the spiritual climate one had to look for with a magnifying glass. The liberating Christian commitment was nearly banned in spite of having grassroots communities and popular parishes that even made posters commemorating the assassination of Monsignor Óscar Romero. The truth is that it was the heyday of the ecclesial neoconservatism, opened in the late seventies by John Paul II. Those were the days of “ecclesial winter” that supervened in the great reform of Vatican II. The Opus Dei dominated the Roman curia. The Legionaries of Christ were the papal laptop. The Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, in those years the ultraconservative group on the Peruvian bill, sought to achieve papal recognition in Rome. The liberation theology was still being processed. The expulsion of Leonardo Boff was recent. Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, whom they had only formally admonished but not prohibited from practicing theology, was forbidden to lecture in the auditorium of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 1994 and had to do it later in the immense auditorium at the Colegio Brasileño de Roma, which, of course, was attended by more people than initially would have been at the official conference. The reunion with Father Gustavo was very inspiring. In the Roman church were yet places of renewal and hope.

On the return to Cajamarca, the reunion with the families of Porcón was very intense. The parish was then run by Franciscan nuns who had continued and improved on the social and environmental work that we, the earlier parish priests, had begun. The Franciscan spirituality also worked well with the first evangelization, which in Porcón resulted in a highly syncretic sense of religion, in which the love of the water, land, plants, animals, all surrounded in a mystical and spiritual atmosphere, overflows each year in the festival of crosses on Palm Sunday, at the beginning of the Semana Santa: dozens of crosses decorated with palms from the forest, Andean flowers, rosemary, carnations, abundant mirrors that call to mind springs and water sources, with green crosses marching in long, orderly files of “male and female” crosses, “the most holy of men and women”, later colliding in procession around an image of Christ seated on his “donkey with his chicken”, as in the New Testament account of the early Christian era. Only this time it took place in Porcón, in the “place of the hills”, as claimed by one of the studies of Cajamarca place names.

The mine sought to be present at the religious festival, handing out “pisco” (instead of the traditional low-quality spirit), food, candles and sometimes even the canopies used to protect the central image of the procession from the sun. The mayor of the small population centre struggled to get some help from the mine to improve the state school, paint the front of the temple, the medical centre or even the city hall, as well as secure work, foremost for himself, his family and friends. The mine would, intermittently, agree to his wishes. There was no NGO to lend support to the communities affected by the mining activities. The official church had established an agreement of cooperation with the mine, as most of the local NGOs had done. Many media outlets appeared or disappeared with the heat or cold of the coveted mining advertising.

In the middle of all this, Yanacocha proceeded to buy more and more land, only now not at the 100 nuevos soles of 92 – 93, but rather that figure had increased by one or two digits. The investigators from GRADE, Manuel Glave y Juana Kuramoto, wrote a report in which they made a note that, initially, the parish defence action led to a paralysis of the land-buying process for the mine between 1994 and 1997, and later a notable jump in land prices, now that the farmers knew the orders the miners “received from the Lima government” could be questioned and even rejected, since they were the owners of the surface soil, and above all because if the mine violated their rights to property or committed abuse it could be reported. The officials would accuse me of the higher costs of operation. I have several testimonies of how the initial relationship of potential understanding had become an obstacle and a possible threat of making bad practices public. It would begin thus, a relationship marked by various tensions and moments in which, from time to time, the mine would allow a number of visits by me to convince me that its operations were harmless to the environment and were beneficial for the farmers in the surrounding communities.

My more systematic knowledge about the impacts of large-scale mining began at that time, with the help of a biologist friend, Nilton Deza, who discovered more basic literature – my first studies in political ecology were also important stages in my initial efforts in academic self-instruction in mega mining with cyanide.

Another important contribution would be my somewhat belated discovery of the Bull of Pope John Paul II, who in 1979 had already declared San Francisco the patron of ecologists. Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian liberation theologist, who had been sanctioned by the Roman curia, was also beginning to distribute his first writings on ecotheology. A whole opportunity for spiritual and academic training opened before my eyes. I decided then to intuitively discover the pastoral practice inspired by the theology of creation, the theology of the earth, a better understanding of the Andean wisdom in Porcón, environmental education, sociology and the history of socio-environmental conflicts.


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