Tainted gold: thousands join protest against Peru's largest ever mining project


Protests against the mining project have been supported by the regional governor for Cajamarca, Gregorio Santos

A US-backed billion-dollar gold mine has attracted thousands of protestors in recent weeks. Many have the poor economic legacy of existing mines fresh in their minds, reports Gervase Pouldon in Cajamarca, Peru

For Segundo Ortiz, a worker at the San Antonio Market in Cajamarca, a city in the north of Peru, the reasons for taking to the street in protest are clear: 'It’s about protecting our water supply, nothing more.'

Ortiz feels that if his generation fails to act to stop the construction of the nearby Conga project, a $4.8 billion venture to mine for gold, he will be forced to answer to future generations. ‘Just as we ask our parents and grandparents, when there was a war, did you fight? Our children will ask, when Conga was first proposed, did you protest or did you accept it?’

Ortiz was marching with over 1,500 Cajamarcans last week in the latest in a series of protests and strikes, partly organised by the regional government, which aim to put a halt to what would be in financial terms the largest mining project in Peru’s history. The protestors say the project would threaten local water supplies whilst Conga’s proponents claim this is untrue and that the scheme would bring development to Peru - and the wider region. 

The majority shareholders of the Conga project are the Peruvian company Buenaventura and the US firm Newmont, the second largest gold mining company in the world. Both are no strangers to the region of Cajamarca; also owning the main stake in nearby Yanacocha gold mine. Yanacocha has at times suffered a strained relationship with some of the surrounding populace.

‘What has 20 years of Yanacocha brought..? Contamination and exploitation,’ says Hugo Gongora, who works as a market administrator for the municipality of Cajamarca, ‘It’s destroyed everything that was there, the land has been contaminated with cyanide and mercury, and the lakes have disappeared.’

Conga too could pose a threat to local lagoons and it is this issue which forms the basis of the protesters’ opposition to the project. Conga would be located in a headwater basin area which provides the water supply for the surrounding area, including the city of Cajamarca. ‘There has been an ecological study of these headwater basin territories which concluded that they are exceedingly fragile and they won’t support mining activity’, says Cesar Augusto Aliaga, Vice President of the Regional Government of Cajamarca.

The fact that the scheme will drain water from some of the area’s natural lagoons is undisputed. However, Newmont has carried out an environmental impact report and say that they could substitute the four lagoons with ‘four engineered reservoirs,’ which they claim would provide the people in the surrounding area with a more reliable year-round supply of water.

‘They are lying’, says Dr. Roland Reategui, Regional Manager of Natural Resources and Environmental Management for the Department of Cajamarca. ‘There’s no scientific or technical justification whatsoever in Newmont’s report….they claim the reservoirs would be filled by rainwater, but scientifically this just isn’t possible.’ Reategui explains that Conga would destroy the pasture lands which currently condense fog into water which feeds the subterranean water supply. Without this pasture, the reservoirs would never be full. He also points out that all the lakes in the area are interconnected, ‘if they drain four, all the others will come under threat.’

The US mining company Newmont says the Environmental Impact Assessment [EIA] was 'one of the most comprehensive ever conducted for a natural resources project ever conducted in Peru’s history’.

‘The water study has spanned 13 years, the EIA process went on for three years and was public open and transparent. If the regional government has data or statistics or figures which can counter what’s in the EIA I would invite them to offer it to whomever they feel comfortable giving it to,' says spokesperson Omar Jabara.

Finding a sympathetic body might be difficult however. The central government has currently ordered that the construction of Conga be suspended whilst an independent international review of the EIA report is carried out. Gregorio Santos, the regional president of Cajamarca, claims, however, that this is all for show, and the government is intent on steamrolling any opposition. He rejects the idea that consultation will resolve the issue. ‘Whenever we meet I am effectively asked the same question, are you ready to change your mind yet?’ says Santos, ‘that isn’t dialogue.’

President Ollanta Humala has indeed already stated that he is unequivocally in favour of the project.

Humala came to power in July of last year having run a centre-left campaign in which he promised to protect the rights of local communities affected by mining projects. His candidature received almost universal backing from all the forces of the political left in Peru and in Cajamarca there was clearly an expectation that this support would be repaid by a rethink of Conga. ‘We regret supporting Ollanta directly.

In government he has turned his back on the people of Cajamarca,’ says Cesar Guevara Hoyos, President of an Urban Citizen’s Patrol Group for Sector 16 de Cajamarca. There is a feeling that Humala has abandoned the principles of putting the environment and people before big business.  ‘It’s sad for a citizen of any country, when his government shows itself to be more disposed to international companies than to its own citizens,’ says Vice President Aliaga.

Humala and other supporters of Conga contend, however, that the project is not only vital for Peru’s economic development but will also bring numerous benefits to Cajamarca. Newmont has highlighted that Conga would contribute $2 billion in ‘canon’, the special tax on mining companies, half of which would go directly to the region of Cajamarca, and that the project would also bring employment ‘tens of millions spent with local contractors to perform work and provide services, goods and materials.’

Gold mining has not brought economic benefits

Some of the protestors in Cajamarca are skeptical that working people will ever see any of these benefits. ‘The project will bring benefits but not for Cajamarcans,’ says furniture trader Carmi Uños. ‘They will bring workers in from outside. What have mining taxes done for Cajamarca in the past? We’re just the same now if not worse. There have been no advances. Mines just bring crime and contamination.’ Peruvian economist Carlos Anderson says that facts support this interpretation, ‘after eighteen years of having the second biggest goldmine in the world on their doorstep, Cajamarca still only ranks 153rd of districts in the human development index of Peru.’

Anderson argues, however, that this is not necessarily the fault of the mining companies; often it is due to the corruption and inefficiency in local government itself. ‘If you go to any area in the country where there’s canon, you’ll see that it’s badly spent.’ Rather than investing in infrastructure, Anderson claims that corruption and a lack of expertise leads to money being spent on short-term projects likes sports stadiums. ‘People should be out in the streets protesting against ineptitude and corruption of their own regional governments, not necessarily the mining companies,’ says Anderson.

Vice president Aliaga admits that some money has been poorly spent in the past. He claims that it is the mine’s social projects which are unsustainable and ad-hoc, and points to the regional government’s own investment in a rural electrification program of over 800 villages as evidence of sensible use of Canon.

Yet this is not the only critique of the regional government and other organizers of the protest. Newmont alleges that those responsible for the protests are an isolated minority with a far-left political agenda. ‘We believe that the communities surrounding the project support it and are eager to see it built,’ says Omar Jabara. ‘It’s very easy to make a lot of noise with just a few hundred protestors. If you look generally at who’s been leading these protests, it’s primarily men that object to the concept of central government. We feel that they are using the Conga project as a way to advance their political agenda within Peru.’

This argument has been given legs by the language and actions of regional president Santos, who has maintained a strong public presence throughout the crisis. On 28 December, Santos, who is a member of Patria Roja, Peru’s Communist Party, issued a rallying cry to protestors preparing for the marches in the first week of January by declaring on his Twitter account ‘Long live the Revolution of Cajamarca’.

Santos has defended his actions, claiming that he is not waging an anti-capitalist campaign against mining or international investment. ‘We are not against mining per-se,’ says Santos. ‘There are already four other large mining projects in Cajamarca with which we have no objection. We are against unsustainable mining in headwater basins, which threatens the water supply of the people.’

Amongst the protestors themselves there is an almost universal affirmation that they are simply concerned with protecting their region’s environment. ‘We’re not protesting against the government or for political reasons,’ says Segundo Ortiz, ‘we are taking to the streets in a peaceful, intelligent fashion, without recourse to violence, to protect our water. We’re not against mining, there can be other types of mining, like the kind there is in the USA or Europe. The Incas mined for gold here for hundreds of years without contaminating the environment, so it is possible. That’s all we want to see.’

Whether the protestors will get their wish remains to be seen. Either way, it is clear that Gregorio Santos is right when he says, ‘all Peru is watching Cajamarca to see what happens’. Conga has come to represent a battle over the future nature of the country’s economy and how it treats its natural resources.


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