Reporting on the conflict between the mega mining project Conga and the people of Cajamarca, Peru
|Written by Lynda Sullivan|
|Wednesday, 10 June 2015|
Peru has been rocked once again by a social conflict which pits the government, looking out for the economic interests of a multinational corporation, against its people. The Tia Maria Mine, an open-pit project of Southern Copper Corporation, controlled by Grupo Mexico, is the latest attempted imposition of a destructive mega-project by big business on rural communities in the interior of the country. To date, the conflict has claimed eight lives: four in 2011 and four more since April of this year. The affected communities have been on an indefinite strike since March 23rd and, as a response, President Ollanta Humala has called a state of emergency, permitting the Armed Forces and the National Police to violate the constitutional rights of the local population in the hope that repression will breed consent. However, the threatened farmers say that they will fight to the end, and the company, making use of the red carpet set down by the Peruvian state, also does not appear to be giving up on its 1.4 billion dollar investment anytime soon.
The conflict dates back to 2009, when the company first produced its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of Tia Maria, a copper extraction project hoping to mine 120 thousand tons of copper cathodes per year during its 18 year life span. It would be situated in the district of Cocachacra, though its effects would also reach the districts of Punta del Bombón, Deán Valdivia and Mejía, regions all belonging to the province of Islay, in the department of Arequipa. The most sensitive and threatened area is the Tambo Valley, which is considered the ‘larder’ of the Arequipa region, and wider afield. Ninety-seven percent of its agricultural produce and eighty-eight percent of its fishing catch goes to feeding the south of the country. The valley employs more than 15 thousand families and produces a profit of around 320 million soles a year (roughly $100 million) .
Tia Maria would consist of two open pits; the largest of which, La Tapada, would be situated just 2.4 km from the Tambo Valley. The second, sharing the name of Tia Maria, would be just 1 km further . The subterranean waters that are connected to the Tambo River would pass just 250 meters from the open pits. The communities along the Tambo Valley, on seeing the project’s dangerous proximity to their fertile lands, formed the Tambo Valley Defense Front, a platform on which to project their voice. In October 2009 the Defense Front lead a popular consultation in the districts of Cocachacra, Punta del Bombón and Deán Valdivia, resulting in an overwhelming rejection of the project with 93.4% voting against it .
History of Destruction
The citizens of Islay have another reason for not wanting Southern on their land – the Company`s environmental record in neighbouring regions. In 1960, Southern opened its first mine, Toquepala, in the department of Tacna. By 1976, it was exploiting another mine, the Cuajone Project, in the department of Moquegua, and in 1994 it acquired the Ilo refinery from the Peruvian government . With these projects Southern systematically and irreparably dried up the water supply and contaminated the lands surrounding these operations. A report from the Observatory of Transnational Companies (OET) details the extent of the environmental crimes. Regarding the impact on water supply, due to Southern’s activities the Cinto Valley was left completely without water and the Moquegua and Locumba water basins found their supply greatly diminished. This has lead to the fertility reduction of the impacted zone, migration of animal species and reduced areas of pasture. Obviously this has meant the reduction of farming and fishing activities and opportunities for employment in the region.
The OET report tells of how the rivers in the affected zone were converted in methods of transport for the toxic waste spewing from the mine, carrying it through the productive fields until it reached the sea. It also tells of the contamination of Ite Bay, where Southern discharged 119 thousand tons of mining tailings per day for 35 years. The OET estimates that there is between eight and nine million tones of metallic waste deteriorating over 5 km of marine coast. As a result, various marine species have disappeared, as have the livelihoods of local fishermen.
The OET observes that neither the state nor Southern attempted to mitigate or rectify this situation. Only in the past number of years has Southern seen any repercussions of their environmental destruction. In May of 2008, the Supervising Organism of Investment in Energy and Mines (Osinergmin) fined Southern S/.608,000 soles (almost $200,000) for committing infractions of the environmental standards. Additionally, the Organism of Evaluation and Environmental Control (OEFA) of the Environment Ministry fined Southern 14 times, amounting to a total of $530,745 . Most recently, in January of 2015, Public Prosecutor Ángela Marroquín, specialist in environmental law, charged Southern`s president, Óscar González Rocha with the environmental contamination of the Ilo Bay and asked for a two and a half year preventative prison sentence and civil reparation fine of one million dollars. The process was due to start on February 3rd, 2015, but on the day of the hearing the defense communicated that a judge in Lima had secured protective measures to suspend the case. Environmental leader Marco Arana is not surprised by the manoeuvre as it reflects the corruption and impunity that Southern has enjoyed over the past 50 years in Peru .
It is not only their environmental record that hasn’t won Southern any friends, their treatment of their workers also calls their integrity into question. On May 27th of this year courts ordered the financial intervention into the accounts of Southern for a period of 15 days to investigate the failure to pay 10.5 million shares to workers between 1970 and 1991. The case, which started in 1996 involves more than 900 ex-workers and is riddled with irregularities. After winning a 2000 Supreme Court case the workers were shocked when the Court annulled its own decision fours years later. However it was forced to reconsider when the Constitutional Tribunal, the highest court in Peru, ordered the Supreme Court to emit a sentence according to the law. It did so in 2010, but Southern refuses to this day to reimburse the shares or to handover the relevant documents.
Not on our land
Given this record, fearing that the same issues would take place on their land and the government would refuse to accept the consultation results, the citizens of Islay rose up in protest. Throughout 2010 and into 2011, they held multiple strikes and marches. Attempts at dialogue were frustrated; according to local residents this was because Ministers refused to have the dialogue in the affected communities and refused to put the cancellation of the project on the table . Southern had initially planned to use subterranean waters for their mining needs but backed down slightly and proposed then to take the water from the sea. This did not appease local farmers, as the issue of contamination still remained.
After much pressure, the Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) contracted the United Nations Office of Project Service (UNOPS) to evaluate the EIA of the Tia Maria project. Four months later, in March 2011, just before UNOPS was about to submit its report, its contract was cancelled. MEM claimed the cancellation was due to budget restrictions but, when the report was leaked to the Tambo Valley Defense Front, it came to light that a total of 138 observations were highlighted. Some of the gravest of the observations were that the EIA did not contain a hydrogeological study, that the water to be used would not come from the sea as claimed but rather from an estuary – a very sensitive area due to the diversity of species present and its shallowness, and that the EIA didn’t take into account the planned extraction of gold, which calls for an even more dangerous extraction process using mercury .
Anti-mining community groups called an indefinite strike in the province of Islay on March 23, 2011, when it became clear that the government planned to ignore the EIA’s deficiencies. Scores of protesters were injured and detained and on March 28, the government sent in the Armed Forces to back up the National Police. It wasn’t long before this escalated conflict lead to the deaths of four citizens by bullets fired from police weapons: Andrés Taipe Chuquipuma was killed on April 4th, 2011, while Néstor Cerezo Patana, Aurelio Huarcapuma Clemente and Miguel Ángel Pino lost their lives on April 7th. The following day the government was left with no choice but to reject the EIA of Tia Maria .
However, Southern was not ready to give up. Julio Morriberón was hired as Manager of Institutional Affairs to ‘work exhaustively with the local population’ to socialize the project and, on November 5th, 2013, the EIA was relaunched. Local residents called for this new-look EIA to also be reviewed by UNOPS but MEM refused and, in August 2014, the EIA was approved. MEM claimed that all 138 observations had be resolved, however critics beg to disagree. The Mining Conflict Observatory (OCM) observed the still-existing insufficiencies in the hydrogeological and subsoil analysis – failing to consider for example, the effects explosions would have on the bedrock and geological structure. The OCM also highlighted the lack of information about the placement of the clearing tank and crushing plant – which would be dangerously close to the Tambo River and the water channels .
Engineer César Del Carpio also belies Southern’s environmental safety claims; he raises issues such as the effect of dust on crops during the construction period, the risk of sulphuric acid evaporation causing acid rain, the effects on the marine eco-system when the water is pumped back into the sea after industrial use, the possible leak of said polluted water over the 16 km journey in plastic tubing, causing damage to precious lagoons and wetlands, and finally, the noise pollution that the communities living near to the water pumping plants would have to endure as noise levels reach 80 decibels . Other critics cite lack of community participation in the environmental monitoring plan and the lack of a closure plan as additional deficiencies .
After the approval of this new, but still disturbing, EIA and the permissions that MEM gave Southern in January of this year to advance in the construction of the mine, community members once again took to the streets. On March 23rd, 2015, an indefinite strike was declared with thousands protesting in Cocachacra. In 2014, in the three districts of Cocachacra, Dean Valdivia and Punta de Bombón as well as the province of Islay, local governments had been elected who held strong stances against the imposition of the mining project, thus the indefinite strike was strengthened by the support and presence of their local representatives. As a punishment, and in an attempt to financially strangle these local government rebels, the central government froze the accounts of all four of these provincial and district municipalities, supposedly due to the ‘risk’ that the local governments were financing the strike .
The opposers of the project were briefly relieved when on the morning of March 27th, 2015, the ‘voice’ of Southern, Julio Morriberón, announced to a national news station the definitive retirement of Southern from the Arequipa region. He blamed the decision on two factors – the paralysis of the state in the role of ‘promoter of investments and giver of necessary guarantees’ and the presence of ‘anti-mining terrorism’ . Only a few hours later the Minister of Energy and Mines, Rosa Maria Ortiz, declared to the public the invalidity of the retraction of Southern, claiming that the President, Oscar Gonzales Rocha, would come out the same day to reaffirm the company’s continued dedication to the Tia Maria Project, to which he complied. The motives behind Southern`s declaration are unclear; they may have been actually wanting to pull out, or it may have been a scheme to pressure the government into being more forceful in the imposition of the project.
Whether it was intended or not, the government did indeed step up the force. The First Minister Pedro Cateriano publicly asked the Attorney General and the President of the Judiciary to detain and charge anyone related to the disturbances in Arequipa . As a result, arbitrary detentions became commonplace. One such detention was that of Jesús Cornejo, president of the Board of Users of the Tambo Valley, who was arrested while waiting at the side of the road on a human rights delegation from Lima, not while throwing rocks and trying to block a road as claimed by the General in charge. After a 13 hour hearing on April 19th, Cornejo was released without charge .
Another arbitrary detention hit the headlines when local farmer Antonio Coasaca Mamaní was captured on camera wielding an iron weapon. The image, taken by a photographer from the daily newspaper Diario Correo, appeared the next day on the front page of the same paper, owned by El Comerio, the conglomerate that owns almost 80% of the mass media and which has investments in many companies connected to mining construction . The title appeared ‘The other side of the coin: this is how the anti-miners attack’. The mass media didn’t have long to capitalize on the story when videos appeared on social media sites showing how police officers had arrested Coasaca, beat him, broke his finger then forced the weapon into his hand just in time for the reporter from Diario Correo to appear and snap the photo. The videos published show the constant verbal abuse the farmer was subject to and in an interview with La Republica Coasaca says how he was beaten so badly he nearly lost consciousness . To hide his identity, the police officer who forced the weapon into the farmer’s hand wore a scarf over his face and a name badge that read ‘Filosofexx’. Coasaca was held, along with several others also injured from police brutality, for 14 hours before being able to speak to a lawyer . Other attempts at falsifying damning evidence include the burning of phone boxes and motorbikes and blaming the protesters, fortunately these incidents were also caught on camera and the truth outed .
One scandal that does appear to be true hit the press on 9th May when audio recordings were leaked from a conversation between a lawyer from Southern and the leader of the Tambo Valley Defense Front, Pepe Julio Gutiérrez. Gutiérrez is heard asking for $1.5 million to put an end to the indefinite strike . The first audio appeared to be tampered with, however the audio recordings that followed clearly indicated that Gutiérrez was indeed offering to sell the protest. The local population was outraged, as was his leftist environmental party Tierra y Libertad. He was arrested, thrown in jail and expelled from his party. However practically nothing was said and absolutely nothing done about the lawyer from Southern who was trying to, and had succeeding in, bribing the local leader .
Despite the Minister of Interior´s claims that the police are forbidden to use live ammunition during the policing of the social protest , videos and photos of police wielding pistols and automatic weapons have flood social media sites. Videos show images similar to gang fighting – both sides, police and protesters, with their faces covered and both exchanging slingshots and missiles, the police of course favoured by their ready supply of live ammunition supplied by the state. One video shows a police officer, apparently taken by emotion or excitement of the fighting, take out his pistol and fire repeatedly in the direction of the protesting farmers . Since the indefinite strike began in April four men have lost their lives – three men, Victoriano Huayna Nina, Henry Checlla Chura and Ramón Colque died by police fire and one man, police officer Alberto Vásquez Durand, died as a result of violence from protesters.
Various international human rights organizations have spoken out against the excessive use of force by the police. Amnesty International, as part of an Urgent Action addressed to President Ollanta Humala, states ´violence from some protesters should not be used to quell the right to peaceful assembly of the majority and authorities should ensure that those who are protesting peacefully are able to continue to do so´ . The AI Director of the Americas concluded that the price of social protest shouldn’t be the death of a single person . Likewise, the South American Regional Office of the UN High Commission on Human Rights condemned the deaths and the use of excessive force. The Office called on the Peruvian government to carry out a prompt, independent and exhaustive investigation that permits the identification of those responsible for the deaths .
In addition to tactics of repression and brutality as a means of suppressing the protests, the language of terrorism has also been used to classify those who oppose the mining project. When the voice of Southern spoke of ‘anti-mining terrorism,’ as mentioned above, not a single Minister contradicted him. To the contrary, the concept was taken up and run with by some ultra-right elements within the government. For instance, congresswomen for the right-wing Popular Christian Party (PPC) Lourdes Alcorta called the ‘delinquents’ of the protest ‘enemies of the homeland’ . Fellow PPC congressman for Arequipa Juan Carlos Eguren, in a Twitter exchange with Tierra y Libertad leader Marco Arana, tried to link the protesters with Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), the terrorist group that, along with the government, were responsible for the deaths of 60,000 in the eighties and nineties. Eguren continued by insulting Arana, whose party has declared its support for the protesters, and accused him of being responsible for the widows and orphans left as a result of the deaths in the Tia Maria conflict . Eguren arrived at Congress with the help of the NGO Reflexión Democrática, the President of which is Roque Benavides – President also of Buenaventura, one of the companies at the heart of the Conga conflict in the Cajamarca region that had also resulted in the deaths of protesters. The NGO receives money from CONFIEP – the National Confederation of Business Institutions among other business entities and in turn funnels the money to help business-friendly politicians come to power .
Congressman Eguren not only works for the imposition of the Tia Maria Project by slandering those opposed to it, he also acts as ‘big brother’ to the Collective for the Development of Islay, an entity composed of few people but which claims to represent the interests of the population- Tia Maria being one of the projects in its interest. As Congressman he facilitated the meeting with the group, three Ministers, the First Minister, TV, radio and the Congress itself .
In contrast, the local populations of Islay, the majority of which reject the project, saw their calls for the Ministers to come to Islay, particularly to Cocachacra, the chosen site of Tia Maria, to talk directly to them rejected. A meeting was finally agreed upon to take place in the city of Arequipa on 6th May . The local leaders and the four Mayors of Islay were met with the Minister of Energy and Mines, the Minister of Agriculture, the Regional President of Arequipa and the government representative of social conflicts. However also present was Congressman Eguren and other social commentators who had viciously attacked and slandered them in the media. The meeting lasted three hours and ended with the four Mayors and protest leaders walking out, demanding as they left the cancellation of the Tia Maria project.
After the ostentatious failure of dialogue, the state then proceeded full throttle into the militarization of the area. On May 9th, President Ollanta Humala declared that the Armed Forces would enter Islay to help the National Police in the policing of the social protest for a period of 60 days.
On May 22nd, when the latest victim, Ramón Colque, was killed by police while residents were trying to block the Southern Pan-American Highway, a full-blown state of emergency was called in the province of Islay, tearing away the constitutional rights of its citizens. Engineer Del Carpio says that the state of emergency is being carried out in an arbitrary manner – citizens are being detained in the middle of the night and high school students are being detained and questioned in their schools. Through it all, the residents continue with their daily vigils and still demand the cancellation of the mining project .
The state of emergency has been criticized across the globe. In a letter to President Humala, over 200 intellectuals, lead by Noam Chomsky, expressed their dismay at the state of emergency in Islay. They concluded their letter by reminding the president that copper and gold may make some rich and give a momentary sensation of well-being while external demand persists, but without water and agriculture, we will all perish .
Despite the imposed militarization, the protest continues and spreads. The strike reached a regional level on 12th and 13th of May, with protests taking place, businesses closing and schools suspending classes throughout the region of Arequipa. On the 27th and 28th of May a total of seven regions across the country called a 48 hour strike in solidarity with Arequipa. These included Apurímac, Ayacucho, Cajamarca, Cusco, Moquegua, Puno and Tacna. In answer to this show of solidarity Humala militarized all seven regions, under Legislative Decree 1095, giving the Armed Forces a 60 day entry-visa into what the government sees as the main anti-mining elements opposing the country´s progress. Protesters in Lima, lead by the young people who defeated the ´Ley Pulpin´ , also came out in support and were also met with violence, arbitrary detention and property destruction by the National Police . Coordinated campaigns are underway to carry out a 72 hour nationwide strike from the 7th to the 9th of June, demanding the cancellation of Tia Maria.
The situation in Islay is not an isolated nor a surprising one. Instead, it reflects a worrying trend of the Peruvian state which is increasing in intensity. It starts with the over-concessioned land (the province of Islay being 85% concessioned to extractive corporations  while the Tambo Valley is 96.2% concessioned ), echoing other mineral-rich regions. Additionally the way in which the EIAs are passed is becoming increasingly questionable; the Humala government has passed numerous so-called ‘paquetazos,’ bundles of laws supposedly meant to reinvigorate the economy, but with the underlying intent of removing obstacles to big business. The recent anti-environment paquetazo passed in in 2014 cut the time frame for EIA approval to just 45 days  and, if the tightly-staffed MEM officials can’t complete the work within the short time-scale, they can be sanctioned. It is under these circumstances that Tia Maria’s EIA was passed, along with EIAs of many other mega projects waiting in the wings.
The slander and defamation of protesters is also becoming the norm. This, according to sociologist Raúl Zibechi, is a way of giving a white card to the police and military to repress dissent and clear the way for capital . This white card is used with increasing vigor by the state security forces as we have seen by the heavy-handed militarization which aims to suppress protest and procure the ‘social licence’ of imposed projects. The Cajamarca region endured three state of emergencies and eight months of militarization during the attempted imposition of the Conga Project . However this time we have seen new depths as the government holds seven regions under military control, ready to suppress any shows of solidarity or joining of forces by resistance movements.
The Humala government has governed through the death of 59 citizens who died in social conflicts, and the injury of 1,839. The large majority of deaths and injuries are due to excessive use of force by the national police. Likewise, the majority of these conflicts are socio-environmental conflicts, in which foreign corporations are seeking to destroy the environment to export the mineral wealth that lies beneath community lands. Many Peruvians see Humala as a traitor, remembering his election promises to protect their land and water from the multinationals. In both Cajamarca and Arequipa, Humala gained support by promising to defend water and agriculture before gold and copper. His back-tracking and now open repression of these same communities has lead many to blame Humala for the deaths these social conflicts have brought .
Despite this allegiance to big business, others feel Humala has not gone far enough. The CONFIEP and the National Mining Society, along with big business leaders have branded Humala as weak, lacking firmness and consequently ‘putting investments at risk . As President Humala enters his last presidential year’, many ask whether he will further militarize and repress those who supported and voted for him to try to please those who think him weak. If the answer is yes, then further conflict is sure to come as agricultural communities across the country rise up to say ‘¡No!’ to the destruction of their lands, their water and their lives. They may have lost their hope in the president, but they have not lost their hope in the future.
Photo: La Republica
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