ISSN 2330-717X

Peru: Government Criminalizes Protests Against Mining


By Cecilia Remón

Ollanta Humala was sworn in as Peru’s president on July 28, 2011, promising to foment dialogue to resolve the social conflicts prevalent throughout the country. In his inaugural speech, he said that “the excessive increase of conflicts, many of them absurdly violent, show us every day that it is imperative to redress injustices, correct the course and restore dialogue in our society.”

The new administration inherited 214 social conflicts, of which 118 were socio-environmental, primarily against mining projects, according to the Defensoría del Pueblo, or National Ombudsman. During the government of former President Alan García (2006-2011), 195 people lost their lives as a result of violence unleashed during conflicts.

Ollanta Humala
Ollanta Humala

But after only four months in power, Humala abandoned that dialogue to use an “iron fist” to control social protests against mining activities. The major trigger for the administration’s shift was the Conga project, a US$4.8 billion venture to extract gold and copper from beneath four lagoons in the southeastern part of the mountainous northern department of Cajamarca and developed by Minera Yanacocha, which is owned by US company Newmont Mining, Peru’s Buenaventura, and the International Finance Corporation, or IFC, member of the World Bank.

The population of Cajamarca has strongly opposed the project, which is located in a basin headwater and aims to transfer water from the lagoons to artificial reservoirs. A review last November by the Ministry of Environment of the environmental impact assessment, or EIA, of the Conga project found serious gaps, including lack of a hydrogeological study, which is essential to understand the functioning of the lagoons, and that it did not take into account the environmental services these ecosystems provide. These findings were confirmed in April by three foreign experts hired by the government.

One of the main criticisms analysts make of the EIAs is that, besides being conducted by consultants hired by mining companies, it is the Ministry of Energy and Mines that approves them, the same entity that grants the concessions. It is both “judge and jury.”

For Julia Cuadros, executive director of the nongovernmental organization CooperAcción, the EIAs are tailored “to suit the client” and are just considered paperwork, because after they are approved, no one follows up on whether there is compliance.

Cuadros, along with other analysts and experts, believes the EIAs should be run by the Environment Ministry; however, the Cabinet president and ex-military officer Oscar Valdés told Latinamerica Press in a meeting with foreign correspondents June 5 that wouldn’t happen.

Political repression

Humala’s decision to press on with Conga — which caused the fall of the Cabinet headed by Salomón Lerner on December 10 as a result of the executive order to declare a state of emergency in Cajamarca to control the protests against the project and abandon the dialogue, and the appointment of ministers more in line with the new government position — led to the radicalization of the use of force in Cajamarca, with a call for an indefinitely long strike beginning May 30.

The governmental authorities’ response to the protests has been the declaration of a state of emergency, the detention of local officials, and the repression by police and military. Since Valdés took office in December, 17 people have died in clashes with the police and army, five of whom were shot in Cajamarca in the last week of June.

Until May, according to the National Ombudsman, there were 173 active conflicts and 72 latent ones, primary against mining activities. That month there were also 159 registered collective protests.

One month before the events in Cajamarca, two people died during police repression against the population of Espinar province, in the southern department of Cusco, which on May 21 had started an indefinite strike against Swiss mining firm Xstrata —which since 2006 has run the Tintaya copper mine— claiming that it failed to fulfill its promises to the community and uphold environmental standards. The company says it is respecting the framework agreement signed in 2003 with the communities and inherited from the former owner of the mine, BHP Billiton.

The disproportionate presence of police from the first day of the general strike created a climate of distrust toward the chance that the conflict would be resolved through dialogue with government officials and the company. But dialogue was not on the government’s agenda and its response to the protests was the declaration of emergency rule and the violent arrest of and Espinar mayor Óscar Mollohuanca without a warrant. Illegally and unconstitutionally, Mollohuanca was imprisoned in Ica, south of Lima and more than 800 km (500 miles) west of Cusco. The presiding judge ordered his preventive detention for five months to “investigate” his alleged participation in protests.

Justice Minister Luis Jiménez justified the decision, stating that there was “evidence” of Mollohuanca’s participation in illegal activities.

“It is a court decision that we all have to respect,” said Jiménez. “We have found elements of responsibility that motivate further investigation … The prosecution has elements to link [the actions] to criminal liability.”

According to attorney Carlos Rivera of the nongovernmental organization Instituto de Defensa Legal, or IDL, it was a case of “arbitrary, extrajudicial detention.” Everything indicates that the executive branch pressured the judicial branch to act, Rivera said. An example is the administrative order issued by the Judiciary on May 31 at the request of the Interior Ministry, a day after Mollohuanca’s arrest, which ordered the transfer of legal proceedings and detainees from Espinar to Ica, and those from Cajamarca to the department of Lambayeque, 300 km (186 miles) away.

Rivera called the action “illegal and unconstitutional because it violates the right to due process, the right to defense, the right to a judge pertaining to that jurisdiction, and the guarantees of impartiality. The case against Mollohuanca has been built in the worst way — based on political decisions. He is accused of a number of crimes that are unsubstantiated.”

The “iron fist” model

Due to the holes and inconsistencies in the charges brought by the prosecution against Mollohuanca, a court of appeals in Ica on June 12 rescinded the order to detain the mayor, but this case could be the model for the government’s intervention to control social conflicts.

Although roundtable discussion began in Cajamarca on June 21, with the ministers of environment, agricultural, and energy and mines present, the unyielding positions of local leaders and the community against the Conga project became unmanageable for the government, which preferred to repress protests rather that push for a dialogue.

Enrique Arias Aróstegui said in IDL’s magazine, Ideele, that “in Cajamarca the conflict is constant, and is getting more and more violent. Police are taking the initiative: at the slightest suspicion, and the smallest gathering [of people], there is police action that is increasingly violent as the strike continues. There is no possibility of a peaceful protest; groups of citizens are repelled with blank rounds, tear gas and a lot of batons.”

Government officials, business sectors and most of the media indicate there is a conspiracy between extremists and the anti-mining sectors, in this and other conflicts.

“In the interior of the country, there is another interpretation of the same facts,” wrote attorney Ernesto de la Jara in his column for the Lima-based daily newspaper Diario 16. “There is a real concern in the community for the consequences these companies have on the water, on the integrity of their physical [health], and on the agricultural activities they live off of.”

“Faced with the indifference of the government and the company, the protest is becoming more radicalized,” he added. “Repression follows… but the result is another one: the community members will feel once again that the government places itself unconditionally on the side of the businesses, that these will always win, that their [the community’s] lives aren’t worth anything and their leaders and officials can be treated as criminals.”

The risk of greater escalation led to the appointment on July 5 of two representatives from the Catholic Church, Archbishop Miguel Cabrejos and Gastón Garatea, a priest, as facilitators of a dialogue between the government and Cajamarca’s officials and leaders.

Meanwhile, analysts and experts believe the only way to reach a solution in this conflict is to suspend — at least temporarily — the Conga project, replace the Cabinet given its incapacity to reach lasting agreements, and move forward with the strengthening and application of environmental regulations.

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Latinamerica Press

Latinamerica Press is a product of Comunicaciones Aliadas, a non-profit, non-governmental organization based in Lima, Peru, specializing in the production of information and analysis about events across Latin America and the Caribbean with a focus on rights, while strengthening the communications skills of local social leaders.

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