Five hundred years ago, Spanish conquistadors, who conquered the Inca Empire, pillaged gold and silver from what is today known as Peru. Five hundred years later, gold and other minerals are still a source of exploitation, conflict, and violence.
The extractive industry now accounts for seventy-five percent of the country’s export earnings and according to Jorge Merino, Minister for Energy and Mines, there are over fifty billion USD in investment expected over the next decade. While the recent commodities boom has made of Peru one of the world’s fastest growing economies, the royalties paid to the national government often fail to materialize in real benefits for local communities.
The government’s effort to deal with these investments has often been met with discontent and has led to tensions and violence between mining companies, local communities, and the police. According to the ombudsman’s office, conflicts over social and environmental issues have left close to 200 people dead and 2000 injured during protests between 2006 and 2011.
Earlier in May, in the southern province of Espinar, police shot and killed two local community members. Later in July, in Cajamarca, the constant struggle between foreign mining corporations and indigenous populations culminated in violent demonstrations. Hundreds gathered to demonstrate their opposition to the Conga project. The 4.8 billion USD project is operated by Newmont, one of the world’s largest gold producers. The population fears the mining activities will produce enormous amounts of toxic waste; they oppose the US-based conglomerate’s plans to drain the pristine water from three lakes and replace them with reservoirs. Protests against the mining giant have left five dead and dozens more injured.
Following these events and the intensification of the opposition from local communities, a state of emergency was declared for the third time in the last six months, and for the second time in five weeks. For local communities, this implies the suspension of constitution rights, including the right to assembly and transit.
In response to the government’s violent repression of protestors, over eighty human rights and environmental groups from Canada and the US have urged Peru to halt repression and human rights abuse against mining protesters. On July 13, they published a statement condemning the recent events and expressed great concerns about the repression of free speech, police brutalities, and human rights violations.
The signatories include Friends of the Earth, Mining Watch Canada, Oxfam America, Amazon Watch, Rainforest Action Network, and the United Steelworkers. They called on the government to engage in a "peaceful dialogue-based resolution to conflicts related to the Conga mine and other mining and energy projects."
Paradoxically, President Ollanta Humala was elected in June 2011, after promising to ensure that all Peruvians see more benefit from the exploitation of the country’s natural resources. Last year, the Peruvian President also approved a law giving indigenous communities the right to be consulted about development on their lands following the events of 2009 in Bagua, an Amazon region where more than thirty people were killed during protests against oil and mining projects.
In reaction to the government’s handling of the conflict, the Regional President Gregorio Santos, one of the leaders of the protests in Cajamarca, has publicly called for the removal of President Humala from office. According to the Peruvian daily, La Republica, Santos reportedly asked the crowd, "What happens to a president who does not honor his words or his commitments?" To which the crowd responded, "He is removed."
Humala has proved more concerned with economic growth than the protection of indigenous populations. The president is in favor of the Conga project, the biggest mining investment in the country’s history, which, according to him, will bring jobs and tax revenues.
The population is not against all mining activities but demands more benefits and objects to the destruction of their environment, as it often affects agriculture and livestock.
Need to address environmental damages and social development
In order to ensure that mining projects benefit and respect local communities, several basic policy changes should be enacted by the Peruvian government and the extractive industry.
"If you want social legitimacy," says Kurt Burneo, a former Peruvian Minister of Production, "it is important to build trust and for companies as well as for the government to show transparency." Earlier this year, Peru complied to the global standards of the Extractive Industries Transparencies Initiative (EITI). The EITI is a mechanism that aims at reducing corruption by getting extractive industry companies to publish information about their tax and non-tax payments to the state. However, this alone is not enough. So far, the protests against social and environmental harms inflicted on local communities by foreign owned companies have demonstrated the inability to generate the prospected economic benefits and social development from extractive activities.
According to Oxfam America, as a first step in the resolution of the conflicts, Humala needs to ’end criminalization of mining protests’ and respect the citizens’ ’basic human right to peacefully express their views’. The Peruvian president has spoken of a need for a ’renewed vision’ concerning mining activities in the country; he now needs to find a way to coordinate economic activities with environmental protection and social development and benefits.