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Mine games

Gold, copper, zinc – mining in Peru is extremely lucrative. But even the World Bank acknowledges that it despoils the environment, threatens farmers’ livelihoods and returns little, if anything, to communities. Now ordinary Peruvians are increasingly taking a stand to protect their land and rights.

Monterrico Metals plc, a small UK-registered company, has big plans for mining copper and molybdenum. High in the Andes, on the watershed between the Atlantic and the Pacific – within a few metres of Peru’s frontier with Ecuador – it is preparing its environmental study, the key to obtaining the final go-ahead from the newly elected government.

Monterrico’s ambitious Río Blanco Project aims to extract 10 million tons of ore a year for more than three decades, concentrate them and send them down a pipeline to the Pacific Ocean for export.

The company’s initial approach left local people uninformed and worried, raising protests amongst those who were aware of the mining industry’s bad record in other parts of Peru. Locals claimed – and still claim – that the company has no legal right to operate on their land because it did not gain their prior consent. Two protesters were killed in demonstrations.

A woman from the Segunda y Cajas community sums up her concerns: ‘We have lived here peacefully for generations, irrigating the land and producing all we need. Since the mine started its explorations, there has been conflict in the community because they paid people to support their project. We are afraid that our waters could be contaminated and don’t want the mine to go ahead.’

Now it seems the protests have forced the company to change tack, and its new chairman Richard Ralph – until recently the British ambassador to Peru – is seeking to repair some of the damage. In September Monterrico published a statement in the local press describing itself as being ‘currently in a sincere process of change and substantial improvement in its attitudes to approach and dialogue with all those located around the Río Blanco Project’.

It goes on to ‘offer its most heart-felt apologies’ for the past attitudes and actions of some of its employees who ‘have been severely reprimanded and permanently separated from our company’. This unreserved apology, however, holds little credibility amongst the mine’s opponents who feel it is too little, too late. The dispute continues.

There is much evidence in Peru of successful community actions to halt unpopular mining activities. The people of the town of Tambogrande – which produces the best lemons and avocados in the country – came together to halt an open pit gold, copper and zinc mine planned by a Canadian company, Manhattan. It would have uprooted 8,000 people and damaged the prized local agriculture. Some 27,000 locals voted in a referendum: 94 per cent opposed the Canadian plan, and the company was forced to leave.

Now President García has created a new law intended to muzzle NGOs who do not fall in line with national policy – and are vilified by some of the mining companies as ‘terrorists and drug traders’. This is an unequivocal threat to the freedom of Peruvian civil society to protect their rights. Clearly the battle over mining in Peru will continue.

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