The first day we arrived in Cajamarca, the Plaza de Armas (town center) was barricaded from vehicular traffic and heavily guarded by a league of police outfitted in riot gear.
The big danger? Just people protesting their right to have water that isn’t contaminated by cyanide, mercury, arsenic….you know, the fun stuff.
The government has announced a state-of-emergency to stop the Conga mining protesters. The new mine is an extension of the Yanacocha mining project, Latin America’s biggest gold mine, operated by U.S. based company, Newmont.
A Brief Background of Mining in Cajamarca
The sheer scale of the Yanacocha gold mine in Cajamarca, Peru, is enormous. It is the largest open pit gold mine in Latin America, and the second largest in the world, covering 535 square miles. The Minera Yanacocha company runs the mine, which is owned by Newmont Mining Corporation from Colorado, a Peruvian mining company, and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC). Majority-owner Newmont refers to Yanacocha as its “crown jewel” and the mine generates a large portion of Newmont’s profits. But ever since its launch in 1993, the mine has also generated unprecedented environmental and social damage for the people of Peru.
The seedy start of it all….
The government granted the concession to Minera Yanacocha after accepting bribes from Newmont, and without properly consulting with, and obtaining consent from local communities, which are now deeply suffering. Yanacocha also began operations using massive open pits and leach pads in an environmentally sensitive area full of farms that rely on water coming from the mountains in the mine area. (FYI, the northern highlands of Peru are the biggest suppliers of livestock and dairy in Peru…they need clean water not only for their own survival but also to supply their domesticated animals that feed most of the country).
Locals complain that their water sources have become contaminated, their traditional medicinal plants have declined and that the influx of job seekers to the area has increased crime. The mine, itself, and the failure to properly recognize the community’s right to consent to the mine have infringed on peoples’ rights to a sustainable livelihood and ability to determine their economic development.
To add insult to injury, the mine has become known for toxic contamination that it has caused. In June 2000, one of Minera Yanacocha’s contractors spilled 150 kilograms (335 pounds) of mercury from the mine along a 43-kilometer stretch of road through the towns of Choropampa, Magdalena and San Juan. More than 1,000 people maintain they were affected by the spill and many continue to report health effects.
During the administration of former right-wing president Alan García, the government gave the US company Newmont a concession to exploit an open-cast gold and copper mine in Conga, 150 km from Cajamarca, directly on top of the town’s principal watershed. The US$4.8 billion project was going to start production in early 2015.
For obvious reasons, the local population is very fearful that the project will affect water supplies. According to the Frente de Defensa Ambiental (Environmental Defence Front), FDA, an umbrella organization of protesting communities, the company has made inadequate provisions to prevent a disruption of water supplies and the possible contamination of lakes.
Why is water so important for the people of Cajamarca?
Again, the region is the biggest supplier of livestock and dairy products in Peru. Protesters believe that the contamination of the water will affect their production, and they say that neither the government nor the company has done enough to protect water supplies.
What do the company and the government say?
They argue that they have already taken precautions to prevent a water shortage and the contamination of water supplies. Newmont says that they will transpose the water of three lakes, situated 3,700 m above sea level, to reservoirs to be built by the company. And these reservoirs will supply the local population with its water needs. The company argues that it drew up its plans after consulting NGOs and representatives of the local communities.
What do the protesters says?
Protesters, however, are not convinced. They argue that the reservoirs are not an adequate replacement for the lakes, which are also used for other agricultural activities such as watering pasture for livestock.
The people of Peru are not stupid. They have been betrayed so many times that they know not to trust the false promises of the U.S. based Yanaconcha mining company or of their complicit Peruvian government. They have too much at stake; their whole livelihood is contingent on the health of their environment. No amount of monetary profit could ever value more than potable water or fertile land.
If only we were all as wise and brave as these people…
Why did president Humala declared a state of emergency in Cajamarca?
Although Newmont had suspended work in Conga, the FDA (i.e. the locals) demanded the total cancellation of the project. They gave the government the deadline of midnight on Monday 5th December to stop Conga all together and, despite attempts by government ministers to negotiate in situ during the weekend, this deadline expired without the cancellation of the project. So the people continued protesting, and the government decided to crack down, claiming that they needed to protect the locals (i.e. the protesters) from themselves.
From Lima to the tiny villages in the Andean hillsides, the people of Peru stand in solidarity against the new Conga mining project…against the 1%.
“Only when the last tree has died,
the last river has been poisoned,
and the last fish has been caught,
will we realize that we cannot eat money.”
-Stevie Trujillo, reporting live from Cajamarca, Peru