Peru’s long-simmering mining-related social conflicts blew up again last week in the southern province of Espinar, where police shot and killed two local community members who were protesting for greater benefits from giant Swiss mining company Xstrata. As I’ve written previously, Peru has been beset by such conflicts for more than 10 years, as high global prices drive more and more mining in the country – considered to have one of the world’s most favorable geological endowments. Late last year, the Minas Conga project in the northern province of Cajamarca was also hit by protests as community members blocked highways to prevent construction of the project by US-based Newmont. The $5 billion project is Peru’s largest foreign investment.
The protests in Espinar and Cajamarca, occurring at opposite ends of the country, have been cited by some analysts in the country as sort of twin poles of a broad anti-mining conspiracy. This is a fairly ridiculous accusation given, among other things, that the protests in Espinar weren’t “anti-mining” but actually mainly about demanding greater benefits from mining. (How could they be opposed to mining if they want more money to come from it?) There’s also no evidence that people in Cajamarca have any particular ideological opposition to mining. They just don’t happen to want four lakes destroyed that they use to support their agricultural livelihoods. Even Marco Arana, a Catholic priest from Cajamarca who is seen by some as the Svengali of the “anti-mining” movement, has said clearly he’s not opposed to mining in general, but is opposed to mining activities that destroy watersheds and contaminate groundwater.
President Ollanta Humala was elected a year ago with a fair amount of hope that he could provide a solution to these conflicts, but much remains the same. The killing and violence continue, as in Espinar. The Ministry of Energy and Mines retains ultimate authority for approving mining companies’ environmental impact assessments (EIAs) – a direct conflict of interest that undermines confidence in the independence of governmental oversight of the mining industry. And the mining industry continues to push forward at an alarming pace. In research that will be published later this year by Oxfam America, we will show graphically how large swathes of the country have been conceded to mining and oil interests. This is of particular concern in agriculturally productive areas, where mining concessions now cover more than 30% of these lands.