Peruvians rise up against the mines

The scale of indigenous-led protests against mining that rocked southern Peru for seven weeks took most by surprise. Vanessa Baird on the circumstances that lead to such flare-ups.

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1,656 – mining concession requests in Puno alone in 2010.
1,222 – peasant communities in Puno which rely on water and natural resources for their livelihood.

For seven weeks Puno was paralyzed by strikes and protests against mining and the government.

Juan Karita / AP / Press Association Images

‘The Santa Ana project is located 140 kilometers south of the city of Puno in the department of Puno,’ said the website of the Vancouver-based Bear Creek Mining Corporation earlier this year, describing the new silver mine it was about to open up.

‘Relations with the local communities in the region are favourable,’ it continued, ‘and the company is working closely with the local communities to ensure the project is developed to maximize long-term sustainable growth in the region.’

Not surprisingly, that part of the website has been taken down now.

Unsurprising because from late March the region was convulsed for 45 days as thousands of people rose up to protest against this project.

Highland communities near the small town of Huacallani complained they had not been properly consulted and that the mine would ruin their environment and their livelihoods dependent on growing quinoa and potatoes and rearing alpacas. Their message was clear: ‘Agro si, mina no!’ (‘Agriculture yes, mining no!’)

The protest spread like wildfire. An estimated 25,000 people were mobilized. The regional capital, Puno, came to a standstill as an indefinite strike was declared. Main highways were blocked with boulders, including the busy frontier with Bolivia at Desaguadero.

After seven weeks of unrest, costing an estimated $117 million, the outgoing government of Alan García took the uncharacteristic step of revoking Bear Creek’s licence, on the grounds that the Santa Ana mine was ‘no longer in the national interest’.1

García also ruled that no new mining concessions would be approved in the region for a period of three years and that measures would be put in place to improve consultation with local residents for the development of mining and energy activities. These moves reflected less a change of heart on the part of García than a willingness to pass the buck to his successor, Peru’s new president Ollanta Humala.

The protest was called off – for the time being.

Bear Creek, however, is not giving up. The Canadian company, which lost 25 per cent of its share price when it lost the licence at the end of June, is taking the government of Peru to court.

‘We took legal action out of necessity,’ said company CEO Andrew Swarthout. ‘But we would rather have a negotiated settlement with the new government.’

The outgoing government’s decision to revoke the licence was, he said, unconstitutional and in violation of Free Trade arrangements between Peru and Canada.

‘We did everything properly,’ he insisted. ‘I do not accept that we did not consult properly with local communities.’

The leaders of the popular movement against mining in the zone are not giving up either. They have made it clear that they are giving President Humala, who took office on 28 July, a period of grace to begin to meet his election promises to respect their rights.

On one key issue he has already delivered: in August Congress voted overwhelmingly to pass the law on prior consultation (ILO 169). Other demands of the protesters may be harder to meet. They want the three-year ban on concessions for mining and oil and gas exploration in the region to be made permanent, and they want a review of all current concessions in order to revoke all those that were obtained in a corrupt or irregular fashion, or without proper environmental studies. The communities are also calling upon the government to protect river basins and make sure that those polluted by mining are cleaned up.

All pain, no gain

There was nothing particularly remarkable about the Santa Ana project. But it served as a lightning rod for discontent about the rapid expansion of mining in Peru. Mineral concessions in the department of Puno increased by 279 per cent between 2002 and 2010; by June 2011 more than 38 per cent of the region was under concession.2

But while the area is rich in gold, silver, copper, tin, tungsten and other minerals, its people remain some of the poorest. More than 50 per cent of those living in the department of Puno are classed as poor, compared with 25 per cent in Lima. This is in a country that’s been experiencing an average growth rate of six per cent per year.

CooperAccion Lima July 2011

The parts in red show the areas under mining concessions.

The parts in white are mainly the jungle region of which 70% is under concession for oil and gas exploration.

Puno – 38% of the region is under mining concessions.

Almost 19% of Peru has been concessioned to mining companies.

Researcher Akram Asanov of Revenue Watch International has found that the presence of extractive industries has no positive impact on poverty and inequality at a regional level. And despite the dominance of mining in the Peruvian economy – it accounts for nearly 70 per cent of export earnings – only one per cent of Peruvians are employed in the sector.3

But of even greater concern to locals is the way that mineral extraction messes up environments and livelihoods. Water is key. Mining processes require large volumes of good quality water, a diminishing resource in a warming world. Many of Peru’s rivers run down to the Pacific from the Andes and are fed by glaciers which are melting away. This is one of the world’s most arid places, so water is highly valued by communities. And on top of this, mining contaminates the water sources that do exist with toxic metals.

‘I am old but I will strike again if necessary,’ says Concepción Consechoke.

Vanessa Baird

According to CONACAMI, an organization that supports affected communities, some 300,000 people have been poisoned by mining companies in different parts of the country, while around 100 people have died in environment-related conflicts in the past three and a half years.

Of the 233 cases of social conflict recorded by Peru’s Public Ombusdman in April this year, more than half had to do with environmental issues and 70 per cent of those related to mining.4

Corruption is another cause for revulsion – the granting of concessions attracts kickbacks like iron filings to a magnet. Having passed laws to attract extractive industries from abroad, outgoing president Alan García had lined up some $40 billion worth of foreign investment in mining projects for the next decade.

Long live the strike!

‘The Aymaras have risen up!’ wrote eco-activist Hugo Blanco as unrest first flared up in Huacallani. He was talking about the Aymara indigenous people who inhabit the highlands of southern Peru.

As the protest spread, several local mayors gave their backing, as did students, churches and even professional bodies such as Puno’s architects.

‘Many of our people have worked in mines,’ says Mauro Cruz. ‘They know what happens...’

Vanessa Baird

Women played a key role, often on the front line, but also serving up food in large pots.

‘We are all against the mine,’ said Aymara grandmother Concepción Consechoke. ‘We left our children and our fields and brought our soups and our potatoes. It was very cold at night and some people had to be taken to hospital. In the main square [of Puno] some people insulted and threatened us. But we are the people who look after the land, who defend nature. The governments, the authorities have sold us. I am old but I will strike again if necessary. I want us to go forward and fight. I don’t want them to poison us, to poison our children.’

Miriam Ramirez, a peasant organizer from the indigenous Quechua community, said: ‘The Aymaras started it but we Quechuas were ready to support. We were warned that we would get shot if we went on strike again, but we are prepared to die.’

Travel south alongside the dark blue waters of Lake Titicaca and you soon enter Aymara territory. Stopping off at the small town of Juli, I met up with Mauro Cruz, the tall, lanky president of the Union of Aymara Communities. There are around a million Aymaras in Peru and they have a reputation for being ‘fighters’.

The granting of concessions attracts kickbacks like iron filings to a magnet

I asked Mauro what he thought of this.

‘It’s true,’ he said. ‘We are strong. We resist harder.’

He put it down to the harshness of life at 3,800 metres above sea level.

‘But we are not violent,’ he was quick to add. ‘We have a cause: we want to defend our natural resources. They belong to the Aymara people, whether in the air or in the soil. When our people found out that the ground under their feet had already been concessioned by the government, they reacted.’

The Aymara resistance to mining comes from first-hand experience. ‘Many of our people have worked in mines,’ explained Mauro. ‘They know what happens; they see how the rivers, the environment, are contaminated.’

Mines are secretive places. The mining camps are quasi-military zones protected by armed guards who are ordered to kill trespassers. No-one I asked would take me anywhere near one. Recently the British company Monterrico Metals paid compensation to 33 victims of torture in connection with a mine in northern Peru, though without admitting liability.

Just off the main square, I found the local mayor of Chucuito-Juli. Juan Aguilar is a mild mannered economist who, along with other indigenous leaders and mayors who had supported the strike, was facing criminal charges for vandalism – which he denies.

‘The people have spoken clearly, they don’t want mining and they don’t want oil exploration. And when the Aymaras decide they don’t want something, that’s it. We hope the new president, who got overwhelming support in this region, will address their concerns.’

That President Humala pushed for the law on consultation and consent is significant. But, as seen in other countries, adopting ILO 169 does not rule out the dirty tricks that mining and other extractive industries employ to buy off and divide indigenous communities (see ‘Avatar – for real’).

River with no fish

‘Bearing in mind the corruption and the involvement of ex-ministers and ex-functionaries of the government, we demand a cancellation of mining concessions to explore and exploit throughout the region of Puno...’ read the document drawn up by indigenous Quechua leaders.

There followed a list of half-a-dozen mining licences in the region they wanted revoked, and a further half-dozen seriously polluting active operations they wanted closed down.

I was in the provincial town of Azangaro with Pablo Salas, a Quechua organizer and the regional director of CONACAMI (see ‘Meet the Defenders’).


During the past decade easy concessions, lax environmental controls, low taxes and a lack of prior consultation mechanisms have made Peru a mining company paradise.

Almost a fifth of the country is now covered with mineral concessions and mining accounts for more than 60% of exports.1,2

Big players that have swooped in to take advantage have included: Rio Tinto (Britain-Australia), Xstrata (Switzerland), Barrick (Canada), Zijin (China), Newmont (US), Southern Peru Copper Corporation (Mexico-US), Freeport-McMoRan (US), BHP-Billiton (Australia) and Chinalco (China). Concessions have been held indefinitely by national or foreign companies for a small fee paid to the government as a land tax.3 It has been almost impossible for a concession to be revoked once it is registered with the Mining Rights Registry.4

Profits from mining have soared, thanks partly to rising commodity prices. But low taxes in Peru (13% compared with 85% in Bolivia) have also helped. Companies were asked to make a temporary and voluntary contribution to supporting local economic and social infrastructure and in 2006 they contributed $160 million – a pittance considering their profits. Had a 50% tax on extraordinary profits been imposed (the norm in many countries) the companies would have been forced to contribute $1.44 billion.2

During the 2011 presidential elections mining companies backed Keiko Fujimori, daughter of ex-dictator Alberto, and funded anti-Humala media campaigns.

1) CooperAcción; 2) John Crabtree (ed), Fractured Politics, University of London 2011 3) Monterrico Metals; 4) Latin America Bureau.

A couple of weeks later six people from Azangaro would be shot and killed by police for taking part in a peaceful occupation of the airport at Juliaca. They were protesting against the pollution of their local river, the Ramis, and demanding that it be cleaned up.

A short cycle rickshaw ride took us to the Ramis, a dead river, frothy spume hugging its edges.

‘It’s often worse than this,’ said Eugenia, a woman in her fifties who has lived here all her life. ‘It turns thick and yellow. There used to be lots of fish but there aren’t any now. If animals drink from the river they become ill and die. Children get skin problems from this water.’

Much of the contamination is thought to be coming from Ananea, a mining centre upriver where minerals are washed with reactive chemicals. Cyanide and mercury are used for washing gold; sulphuric acid used in tin mining; copper sulphate also finds its way into the water that flows into the Ramis and eventually into Lake Titicaca itself.

At the hospital in Azangaro a doctor told us that water samples had been sent to Lima for analysis on many occasions. ‘But we have never had any results back.’

Few indigenous or community leaders are calling for an absolute ban on all mining. But they want a national plan that at least outlines which areas are considered suitable for such activities and which are not.

The communities also want international standards to be applied: activist Pepe Julio Gutierrez points out that while Canada and Australia prohibit cyanide, their mining companies operating in Peru use it. There are similar double standards on the use of dynamite and open-cast methods that cause air pollution.

Pleasing everyone – and no-one?

President Humala has said he will respect the wishes of local communities. But he is also keen to calm market jitters by keeping in with the multinationals. Before the election Humala had promised a windfall tax on mining profits. The $1.1 billion tax increase announced in late August, after weeks of negotiations with the mining companies, was significantly lower than the $2 or $3 billion initially sought.5 The powerful multinational mining and energy sector had threatened to withhold $42 billion worth of investment if it didn’t get a satisfactory deal on tax.

But the protesting communities have shown that they too have power: to mobilize effectively. Halting Santa Ana was not the only victory. Protesters also managed to get Brazilian Egasur’s dam project at Inambari, in the lowlands of Puno, shelved. A couple of months earlier, the strength of protest led to the suspension of Southern Peru Copper Corporation’s licence to open a new mine at Tia Maria, Arequipa. In each case social movements came together to powerfully reject a form of development based on ecologically harmful resource extraction.

Signs of hope: President Ollanta Humala has made musician Susana Baca his minister of culture. She is the first Afro-Cuban to have held government office and will have a key role in indigenous issues.

Vanessa Baird

Across the country, more than 200 towns have organized to stop mining and oil projects.6 Already an estimated 70 per cent of the Peruvian Amazon is under concession, but recently the new head of Peru’s oil agency announced he hoped to attract $20 billion in petroleum and gas investment in the next five years, 10 times more than the previous government.7,6 This has prompted an angry response from indigenous leader Alberto Pizango: ‘The communities had entrusted this government to oversee real, profound change, but Humala has altered his discourse, leading the people to say the government will just be more of the same. I feel the people are increasingly convinced that the only way to be heard is through their protests.’6 There are worries that indigenous groups living in voluntary isolation will be especially vulnerable if virgin lands are opened to oil drilling and mining.

On the bright side, Humala has appointed José De Echave, formerly of the environmental NGO CooperAcción, to the post of Vice-Minister of the Environment – despite De Echave’s criticism of the new president for not going far enough in his statements about reforming mining concessions.

De Echave is a leading advocate for alternatives to exploiting minerals and hydrocarbons, and using current resource income to develop them. The options currently available to Peru include tourism, organic products such as coffee and products that emerge from the country’s rich biodiversity, including hundreds of different types of potato.

How much impact such voices will have within government remains to be seen. What seems more certain is that indigenous-led protest is not over by a long chalk.

  1. Peruvian Times
  2. CooperAcción, Lima, August 2011.
  3. John Crabtree, ed, Fractured Politics: Peruvian democracy past and present, Institute for the Study of the Americas, University of London, 2011.
  4. Reporte de Conflictos Sociales No 86
  5. Jack Farchy and Naomi Mapstone, ‘Peru Increases tax on miners by $1.1 bn’, Financial Times, 26 August 2011
  6. Caroline Stauffer, ‘Peru’s Indigenous losing faith in reformed Humala’, Reuters, 17 August 2011.
  7. Petroleum Economist, ‘Managing social risk: notes from the Peruvian Amazon’,