By Cecilia Remón
“Which is more important: water or gold? You don’t drink gold, you don’t eat gold. So mining cannot take over the waterbeds,” said President Ollanta Humala, during his campaign last April in the northern city of Cajamarca, one of Peru’s main mining cities.
On Nov. 16, almost four months after taking office, Humala seemed to have changed his mind about the issue following violent anti-mining protests in four regions, including Cajamarca.
In a press conference in the Government Palace, Humala said that the “government will not accept anyone’s ultimatum.”
“As a government, we are going to protect natural resources as well as productive activities.”
“We are not anti-mining,” he said. “We don’t want to have extreme positions and we have to make the population understand that. We want water and gold.”
Humala was referring specifically to Conga, a US$4.8-billion gold-and-copper project owned by Minera Yanacocha, a consortium of US-based Newmont Mining, Peru’s Buenaventura and the International Finance Corporation, an affiliate of the World Bank.
But the metal is located under three lagoons in the southeast of the Cajamarca region. The company planned to move the lagoons’ water to new, artificial reservoirs, which sparked the protests.
Don’t touch the water
It is not the first time the local population here fought large-scale mining’s threats to its water resources. Seven years ago, Yanacocha abandoned plans to explore for gold in Cerro Quilish, a major source of water for the local communities — and considered sacred by them — under pressure from massive protests.
The new conflict began in mid-October, when communities blocked the highway that runs to the mining camp and set mining machinery on fire, after they said the project put their water resources at risk.
“They said that we are anti-mining and that we don’t want development, but it’s not like that,” said Daniel Gil Terrones, a resident of El Lirio village and one of the protesters. “What we don’t want is for the water we use to drink and farm to be affected. We want to conserve our natural lagoons.”
These communities, mainly dedicated to small-scale farming, are among the poorest in the country, with around 80 percent of their population living in poverty, according to the National Statistics and Information Institute.
In early November, Agriculture Minister Miguel Caillaux, Energy and Mines Minister Carlos Herrera and Environment Minister Ricardo Giesecke visited the area, but protests resumed on Nov. 9 when no agreement was reached with the local demonstrators.
What is currently in the spotlight is the environmental impact study, approved in October last year and guarantees that the project will be developed.
According to a government official who asked that his name be withheld, “Yanacocha presented its environmental impact study in February 2010 and it was approved in October 2010, in just eight months, a record. The process for approval in Peru takes around two years on average.”
The Environment Ministry, which is reviewing Conga’s study, has already found several omissions including a hydrological study that would detail how the lagoons work and their role in these ecosystems.
“The lagoons provide an environmental service, capturing and redistributing water; it’s about quantity, quality and availability of the resource,” said Julia Cuadros, director of the nongovernmental organization CooperAcción. “It’s not possible to replace a natural ecosystem for an artificial one, even if it has more water. What you have to protect are the refill areas. Conga is an example of everything that should not be done.”
“The country’s main mining pits are high in the Andes, where there are river heads and water refilling areas,” she continued.
For Cuadros, the Energy and Mines Ministry needs to map out land use, where mining activity can occur and where it cannot. “There is no technical mechanism to determine whether this area can be concessioned off.”
One of the root problems is that the environmental impact studies are conducted by private, outside consultant firms which try to please their clients, that is, the mining companies themselves,” Cuadros points out.
Additionally, the assessment of environmental impact studies are conducted by the Energy and Mines Ministry, the same sector that grants the concessions, not by the Environment Ministry, as it should be.
Surge in social-environmental conflicts
There are more than 100 unresolved social-environmental conflicts in Peru, 70 percent of them tied to the mining sector, according to Peru’s Ombudsman’s Office.
Over the past two months, in addition to the Conga dispute, other protests erupted over mining projects in the highland departments of Ancash and Apurímac, as well as in the Amazon region of Madre de Dios. The surge in conflicts is an end to Humala’s honeymoon with his support base, since many Peruvians in these departments with high poverty levels voted for him earlier this year.
Successive governments have failed to address the reasons for why these conflicts arise in the first place, such as the government’s policy of awarding concessions, land disputes, the growing mining sector, water rights and state and mining companies’ tendency to ignore local communities’ rights and opinions.
“The rights that are ignored are what’s at stake,” Cuadros said.
Even though a sector in the government has said that ultra-left-wing groups intending to destabilize the administration are behind the demonstrations, the government official who asked that his name be withheld said that this is not the case, and each one has different causes.
They “are so weak so as to think that what is happening is part of a common strategy, that there is a political group behind these conflicts,” he said. “Rather, I think that we are in a new political stage, a turning point,” he added, referring to President Humala’s new stance about mining.