Reporting on the conflict between the mega mining project Conga and the people of Cajamarca, Peru
Today, Friday 6th November 2015, the judicial process of 16 environmental and human rights defenders continues in the courts of Cajamarca, northern Peru. On the 29th October, after four previous occasions of frustrated process due to failure on behalf of the Prosecution or the Court, the Prosecution finally presented its case. Now, today, it is the defendants’ turn to prove their innocence.
The 16 community leaders are accused by the governors of the province of Celendin and the district of Sorochuco of kidnapping, coercion and irreverence to patriotic symbols. The Public Prosecution is asking for a prison sentence of between 30 and 35 years for each accused and a reparation of ten thousand soles.
Milton Sánchez Cubas, President of the Plataforma Interinstitucional Celendina (PIC), a local leader and one of the accused, highlights the injustice of the situation: `The governors of Celendin and Sorochuco accuse us of entering their reunion and kidnapping them with knives, sticks and stones. This is completely untrue and they have absolutely no proof of it happening`. Due to this lack of evidence the case was previously archived, however the governor of Celendin, according to the official testimony of the Public Prosecution`s Office, pressured the Public Prosecution into reopening it. The case was further complicated when the lawyer previously representing the accused did not present the ample evidence showing the accused `s innocence on time. Now the 16 `Guardians of the Lagoons`, which includes 5 women, are up in front of three judges at the oral hearing stage, the next step of which is the sentencing.
This case is a prime example of the systematic criminalization of environmental and human rights defenders, not just in the resistance movement against the mega-mining project Conga, but also across Peru. The vast majority of these charges have no evidence base but they fulfill their function in harassing and debilitating leaders who are resisting the imposition of destructive mega projects. To highlight the case, for each hearing these 16 leaders have to travel from the province of Celendin, many from remote rural areas, to the capital city of the region of Cajamarca, leaving their farms and their means of subsistence; in the case of the five women – leaving their children and some their lactating babies. One woman, Maritza Emperatriz Bolaños Ayala even had to leave her hospital bed in Lima, where she needs an urgent operation and treatment for two hernias. Flying in the face of all decency, on four occasions that these rights defenders made their way to Cajamarca for a hearing the Public Prosector simply failed to turn up or claimed not to have read up on the case, forcing a suspension of the hearing. In contrast, each accused has to be present at each hearing or runs the risk of imprisonment.
It is clear that behind this persecution of the environmental and human rights defenders is the Yanacocha mining company (owned by US Newmont, Peruvian Buenaventura and the IFC of the World Bank). All accused are community leaders or people who have spoken out against the would-be disastrous consequences of the Conga mining project (Yanacocha and indeed Latin America`s most ambitious gold mining project to date). Indeed the two governors (who represent the central government and have an obvious bias that the project goes ahead) showed up to court with one of Yanacocha`s leading lawyers.
All the 16 ´Guardians of the Lagoons´ can hope for is that the three judges who have been assigned to reside over this case do so in a fair and just manner and stop the delay tactics of the Public Prosecution.
International human rights organisation Front Line Defenders recently release a statement showing its concern about the criminalisation of these 16 human rights defenders from Cajamarca who are facing these charges ‘solely as a result of their actions in the defence of their communities and the human rights of those around them’. See the full report here.