The mainstream media calls farmers in the province of Islay, in the southern department of Arequipa, “anti-mining terrorists” for their opposition to the Tía María mine, a project of the mining company Southern Copper, which has had a presence in southern Peru for half a century.
The investment is estimated at US$1.4 billion. The mine would produce 120,000 tons of high purity copper cathodes per year. Although the mine was scheduled to begin operations in late 2011, the project could not be executed because of the citizen opposition.
The population of Islay, particularly those in the Tambo Valley, has been in an indefinite strike since March 23 in opposition to the Tía María mine, which would operate as an open pit mine for 18 years. Despite of the government and corporate propaganda spread by the press, which ensures that the project is highly profitable and would not affect the environment, the truth is that it would hurt a thriving economic activity: agriculture. In this valley, located just 2.4 kilometers from where the mine would be built, sugar, vegetables, potatoes, alfalfa, garlic and other agricultural products are produced and supply Arequipa and other regions of the country.
“Open pit mining is the most dangerous in the world because, besides contaminating with cyanide gas, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and other gases, which threaten the life of the surrounding towns,” say the experts Carlos Bedoya and Víctor Torres. Also, “it produces water imbalances when the level of river sediments rise as a result of the very fine solid particles that pollute the environment, while ground water is affected by the rain that falls on the chemical reagents, oils and mineral salts that are the waste products of treatment processes.”
Recent protests have left three dead: two civilians and a police officer. Victorian Huayna Nina, a 61-year-old farmer, died on April 22 from a bullet would and Henrry Checclla Chura, 35, apparently also died from a bullet wound on May 4 during a peaceful march in Mollendo, capital of Islay. The police officer Alberto Vázquez Durán, 51, died on May 9 from a fractured skull as a result of a stone thrown by protesters.
History of pollution
The conflict with Southern Copper — founded in 1952 with American capital and acquired in 2005 by a Mexican mining conglomerate — regarding the Tía María mine is not new. In 2009 the company attempted to develop the project and presented an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that was approved by the Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM). However, under pressure from citizens, in November 2010 the assessment was submitted for review to the Office of the United Nations Service for Project Services (UNOPS). The UNOPS made 138 observations, some of them quite serious, such as the lack of a hydrogeological study (study of the water and soil), which is essential to assess the impacts of mining activities, and that the water that would be used for the project would not come from the sea but from the Tambo River. In addition, there was also the possibility that the company would mine gold but made no reference to the use of mercury, a highly dangerous metal.
UNOPS submitted the report with its observations in March 2011. The government of former President Alan Garcia (2006-2011) decided not to make the report public, but it was immediately leaked by the Front for the Defense of the Tambo Valley, triggering violent protests by people demanding the authorities to suspend the project definitely and the prioritization of agriculture, their main means of subsistence. Clashes with police at that time left three farmers dead from bullet wounds and hundreds injured.
In November 2013, the company presented a new EIA report that supposedly had corrected for all observations made by the UNOPS. Nine months later, the MINEM announced the report’s approval, which caused the conflict with farmers to ensue again.
The truth is that the concerns of the people of Islay are based on the company’s history of pollution and infringements of environmental standards. Last January, the Special Prosecutor for Environmental Matters sentenced Southern Peru’s CEO, Mexican citizen Oscar González Rocha, with a two-and-a-half year long custodial sentence and the payment of $1 million for civil compensation for the crime of environmental pollution of the sea in the department of Ilo, south of Arequipa, where the company has a copper smelter. In 2008, the company was fined $2 million for violating various environmental protection laws, and between 2010 and 2014, it received 14 fines totaling $530,745 imposed by the Organism for Environmental Evaluation and Supervision (OEFA).
Ollanta Humala took office in July 2011 and pledged to foster dialogue to solve the abundant social conflicts in the country. Four years later, the conflicts have not ceased, neither in numbers nor in strength of violence. From García’s administration, the current government inherited 214 social conflicts, of which 118 were socio-environmental, particularly against mining projects, according to the Ombudsman’s Office. In addition, 195 people have lost their lives due to the social conflicts.
Currently in Peru there are 211 social conflicts, of which 141 are socio-environmental, and 58 people have died from violence during conflicts since Humala took office.
All the conflicts have in common the unprecedented deregulation of the Peruvian economy. Given the economic slowdown since 2014, Humala opted for implementation of stimulus measures that diminish the regulatory role of the government, weakening the Ministry of the Environment and exempting private investors from certain requirements.
According to Ideele magazine, Humala “has been the president who has gone the farthest in deepening the [neoliberal economic] model,” a model imposed in the early 1990 by the Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) regime.
“Of all the options, President Humala has opted for the worst: forced recovery measures that are at odds with fundamental rights. The government has backpedaled on all the progress it made in regards to environmental regulation and protection of indigenous communities,” points out Ideele