Moving Mountains


Moving mountains
Stephanie Boyd looks at life under
the helmet in Peru's mining towns.

  A larger-than-life metallic replica of a miner’s helmet shelters a solitary bench overlooking the small mining town of Morococha, on the slopes of Peru’s Central Sierra. Beneath the giant helmet, through the cold winter drizzle and muddy backdrop, rows of single-story workers’ lodgings are distinguished by their red roofs and yellow sides – an attempt at creating colour in a world of greys and browns.

Chemical pollution from the mine killed off most things green or life-sustaining in this place years ago. Now even the large, shallow pond spreading out from the look-out point is stagnant, its surface patterned with various shades of murky water.

The monument is a tribute to those who labour in Peru’s most important industry – comprising 20 per cent of the country’s GDP – but its view is a stark reminder of the workers’ share of this multi-billion-dollar pie. State-owned mines like Morococha have no difficulty finding or exploiting labourers. Discredited and weak unions, government corruption, high unemployment and Peru’s unrelenting neoliberal economic policy have left many miners feeling lucky simply to have a job. But the Peruvian Government’s drive to privatize its consortium of state-run mining industries, known as ‘Centromin’, is threatening even this dystopia.

Concepts like workers’ rights and health-and-safety standards have no place in today’s global mining race and since the early 1990s the Peruvian Government has accelerated its liberalization to join the leading contestants. To attract foreign investors, the Government has devastated mining communities with a series of mass firings and ‘invitations’ to retire (those who did not accept their ‘invitation’ with its meagre stipends were fired). Ex-Centromin workers, still wearing their yellow helmets, beg for change on the streets of Lima. Others return to their farming families or cluster in makeshift camps on the outskirts of mining settlements.

In 1990 Centromin had more than 17,000 miners – now there are around 8,000. They are left grappling with salary reductions and the threat of being replaced by cheaper contract workers who have even less job security or benefits.

Few miners believe that the rules for state-run mining companies – provision of housing, schooling, medical care, electricity, water and ‘a dignified salary’ for their workers – will be followed by the new companies. Already, the regulations for private mines have been cut to a bare minimum and even these are regularly stretched.

With over 200 new mining-exploration missions, the promise of high-tech new mines lights up dollar signs in the eyes of global shareholders and executives. Centromin’s employees have good cause to be concerned about their future.

Some workers look back to their colonial past to predict what life will be like after privatization. Ruben Chavez Velasquez, a 33-year-old winch operator, says older workers tell him; ‘There was much exploitation then, but miners were paid bonuses on top of their salary for extra work so they said the money made up for the hardship.’ But Ramon Pajuelo, a Peruvian scholar, says the older workers’ nostalgia is a throwback to an out-dated colonial mindset and hopes the younger, more nationalistic generation will not be afraid to demand their rights from new foreign bosses.

Centromin’s formation in the mid-1970s (from the expropriated holdings of the US Cerro de Pasco Mining Corporation) coincided with the beginning of the ‘golden years’ of Peruvian labour movements. The adoption of a standard IMF reform package pushed unions into mobilizing a series of strikes and rallies that eventually brought a return to democratic government in 1980. The unions’ influence peaked and they won an eight-hour workday, minimum safety regulations and the provision of basic living standards now enshrined in law.

Somewhat ironically, Peru’s return to democracy signalled the advent of Sendero Luminoso’s (Shining Path) armed struggle, with devastating results for the trade-union movement. In their quest to become the sole ‘voice of the people’, Sendero threatened, intimidated and allegedly murdered union leaders and members who refused to join their ranks.

At the same time, Sendero’s infiltration of the unions provided President Fujimori’s Government with the perfect excuse to repress all union activity. Sadly, thousands of innocent workers and campaigners were caught between Sendero’s activities and the Government’s anti-terrorism campaign. Pedro Huillca, former leader of Peru’s main labour union and a vocal campaigner for miner’s rights, was assassinated in 1992. The Government blamed his death on Sendero, but an ex-secret-service agent has now come forward claiming an élite army unit was responsible.

The legacy of this oppression still weighs heavily on the struggling unions. Hoping for a popular revival, they are scrambling to build support and prove their legitimacy with new and prospective employers. But many miners are still afraid of discrimination if they are perceived as union advocates, or are simply too disillusioned to back the labour movement. Throughout Centromin communities, the general mood is one of tense anticipation. The questions on everyone’s lips are who will buy the remaining mines slated for sale in 1998, or, in cases of mines already sold, what the new owners have in store.

The mine where Ruben works has recently been bought by a Peruvian company, but he is not sure whether this will be better or worse than working in a state-owned mine. ‘We will have to wait and see,’ he says a bit nervously.

Ruben’s family lives in La Oroya, the crossroads of Centromin’s mining activities. He travels to a mine 40 kilometres away in San Cristóbal. Because he is a specialized labourer, needing two years of training to operate his machine, he is not overly worried about losing his own job. He also makes a good salary for a miner – after taxes, about $350 a month – but he is still concerned about the long-term effects of privatization on working conditions and what would happen if he becomes ill or is in an accident. He says carbon monoxide fumes that fill the mine tunnels often impair everyone’s vision. And while at work, ‘I am forever afraid of rocks falling on my head’.

Last October, Ruben’s friend, also a winch operator, was killed by a rock slide while checking the front of his machine. The man, about Ruben’s age, left behind a wife and young daughter. Although the company is required to provide insurance, the family was soon poor. ‘It’s not even insurance really, just 2,000-3,000 soles ($750-$1,200), no more,’ complains Ruben bitterly. Compared to his co-workers, Ruben considers himself lucky because the cab of his machine offers ventilation and some protection from accidents. Still, he grows quiet when speaking of silicosis and tuberculosis: ‘Sooner or later most miners succumb to some form of respiratory disease.’

The hazards are not confined to the mine – nor to the miners. Ketty Anticona Bamos, a doctor with a non-governmental organization (NGO) health clinic in La Oroya, says about 90 per cent of the town’s population has unacceptable levels of iron in their blood. Children are particularly affected by exposure to iron which gives rise to low birth weights and learning disabilities. People also suffer from high incidence of cancer, anaemia and infertility. Although levels of contamination are greater amongst those living closer to the plants, the pollution is so widespread that it is inescapable – even the daily routine of washing clothes in the river exposes people to dangerous toxins.

Adding to citizens’ concern is the company’s apparent refusal to enter discussions. And the lack of a strong national union has left each Centromin community isolated, without the means or power to negotiate.

But the view from under the miner’s helmet in Peru is not yet – and never has been – set in stone. Rather than giving up, pockets of community activists who participated in past labour struggles have regrouped. Mining agitators say there is a new form of organization brewing. Acutely aware of the global forces affecting the mining industry, these groups are infiltrating the enemy’s home territory – seeking foreign aid and support from unions and governments in North America and Europe.

‘Filomena’ is an organization seeking better conditions for mining communities. It was named after Filomena Tomaira Pacsi, a 19-year-old miner’s wife who died in childbirth in Lima, in 1982, after marching 185 kilometres from the Canaria mine in Ayacucho to demand improved wages and terms for mineworkers.

‘Filomena’ and two other local groups recently decided to band together. These groups were frustrated with the decline of worker’s unions and felt a need to act to alleviate the social pressures which followed privatizations. The new coalition is still in its planning stages, but hopes to join forces with unions and municipal officials to demand miners’ rights and implement social and environmental projects throughout Centromin communities.

But funding is tight and without government support their work is difficult. José De Echave, an economist with the coalition, believes the key is reaching corporations before they arrive in Peru. He and Esther Hinostroza Recaldi from Filomena have visited Canadian mining unions to exchange information and make contacts with prospective investors. José tries to convince companies that the future of sustainable mining development is in cultivating a fair workplace with proper environmental standards.

After weathering over 20 years of mining struggles to improve the living and working conditions of miners and their families, Esther is confident the new companies will eventually listen to them. She knows organized action is capable of moving mountains: ‘I have seen Canadian miners with cars and nice houses,’ she says. ‘All we are asking for is basic human rights.’

When asked what will happen if the new companies refuse to negotiate, Esther sets her jaw in determination. ‘They will have to listen to us,’ she says flatly. ‘We won’t stop bothering them until they do.’

Stephanie Boyd is the associate editor of Latin America Press, a weekly news publication based in Lima, Peru.

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New Internationalist issue 299 magazine cover This article is from the March 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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