The Newmont Mining Corporation, based in Colorado, has embroiled itself in a controversial project in northern Peru that locals say threatens their water and their future. Peasants and workers in the region have engaged in mass demonstrations and general strikes, and the president of Peru has responded by declaring a state of emergency. At stake is the economic model of aggressive resource extraction lubricated by the new free trade agreement with Washington.
Newmont wants to proceed with its $4.8 billion Conga gold mine in the Cajamarca region despite the unrest. The project, as originally conceived, called for the destruction of four alpine lakes. And local residents fear several others in the area would be degraded. The company proposed to replace the four with artificial reservoirs. But the campesinos (peasants) pledged they would not let their lagunas be destroyed — and the leftwing regional government backed them up, butting heads with the country's president.
On March 13, I accompanied a delegation of the Cajamarca Defense Front to a meeting in a village called El Alumbre. Before the meeting, village leaders guided our car over unimproved roads to view the lagunas they fear will be degraded. We briefly entered the Conga concession area — and our two vehicles were quickly followed by a pickup truck full of national police, wearing camouflage and black ski masks.
At the meeting, village leaders gathered around a lone microphone. Chewing coca leaf and occasionally passing around a bottle of cane liquor to ward off the misty cold, villagers in traditional ponchos and rubber work boots listened as the leaders of Alumbre and nearby hamlets each pledged to defend the zone's waters and oppose the mining project. The proceedings were punctuated by chants of “El agua es un tesoro que vale mas que oro” (“Water is a treasure worth more than gold”) and “El agua es por la vida, no por la mineria” (“Water is for life, not for mining”).
“This is the participatory direct democracy we are building in Cajamarca, with every village represented,” said Ydelso Hernández, leader of the front. “Not the corrupt, mafioso democracy of the state.”
On our way back to Cajamarca city, Hernández received a call informing us that three movement leaders have been detained by the national police and charged with obstruction of public transport in connection with last year's protests against the mine.
The next day, Peru's attorney general released a list of forty-one activists facing identical charges. Cajamarca's regional president, Gregorio Santos, is also on that list.
“If a project is going to impact a body of water, we have the right to intervene,” Santos tells me a few days later. “The law of Hydraulic Resources says that watersheds can be declared intangible zones. If the central government is not going to do it, we have the responsibility.” The Law of Hydraulic Resources, passed by Peru's Congress in 2009, defines water as an “inalienable and imprescriptible” public right.
I ask Santos for his reaction to being charged with obstruction.
“This is the cost I have to pay for fulfilling my commitment to the communities of Cajamarca,” he says. “This is an act of reprisal by the central government and the transnationals.”
The Conga mine would be an offshoot of the Yanacocha gold mine — South America's largest. One of several foreign-backed mines in Cajamarca, Yanacocha is 51 percent owned by Newmont, with the remainder held by Peruvian partners and the World Bank's International Finance Corporation.
At nearly 14,000 feet, the Conga concession area lies near South America's continental divide. Lakes Perol and Chailhuagón, in the southern part of the bloc, are slated to be turned into mining pits. The waste rock would fill in a third, Azul, and a nearby pond, Chica. The northern part of the bloc is to be a tailings holding area. The new reservoirs would lie on the outskirts of the bloc.
The lakes, lying on the mining company's lands, have not been directly used by the campesino communities for years. But numerous other lakes that dot the alpine plain are used for agriculture and trout farming. Locals fear that these lakes will be polluted or even disappear if those at the Conga site are destroyed.
Even before the Conga project, Cajamarca has seen many of its water resources vanish over the same years that the Yanacocha mine has carved huge pits into the mountains.
“Lakes have disappeared, wells gone dry, social conflicts have been exacerbated,” says Sergio Sánchez, a member of Cajamarca's Training and Intervention Group for Sustainable Development, which goes by the acronym GRUFIDES.
Today, much of Cajamarca city has only two or three hours of water a day — residents say that just five years ago it was twenty-four hours.
Peru's president, Ollanta Humala, in an about-face from the populist position he took when running for office, is intent on saving the project. His administration recognized the controversial environmental impact study (EIA, by its Spanish acronym) that had also been approved by the corporate-friendly predecessor administration of Álan García. (It was García who signed the free trade agreement and opened vast additional areas of the country to oil and mineral interests.)
That environmental impact study “does not represent independent, disinterested science,” says Colorado-based hydrologist Robert Moran, who was hired by the sustainable development group in Cajamarca to do his own assessment. He says the study “was produced by companies having a financial interest in ensuring that the Conga project goes forward.” Moran's report warned of long-term threats to the local water supply. Plus, he tells me, “If the mine goes ahead, the company will control local access to water. They can turn off the spigot. They can start charging for it.”
Newmont spokesman Omar Jabara, reached in Colorado, denies any impropriety in Yanacocha's own contractor conducting the study.
“As is standard accepted practice with EIAs conducted in the U.S., Canada and many European countries, the company is responsible for hiring and paying for an accredited firm to conduct the EIA,” he says.
Jabara dismisses Moran's concern that locals could be left with a toxic mess. “The Conga Project will bear the construction, operation, and maintenance cost during the life of the mine,” Jabara says, “and will establish the sufficient financial guarantees of reservoirs for all the useful life of them.”
But Moran worries about what will happen after the life of the mine.
“Just like roads need to be maintained or they collapse due to erosion and weathering, those same forces are going to be working on a tailings impoundment,” he says. “Who is going to keep them under water after the mine is closed? Who is going to make sure the site is maintained and the walls don't collapse?” He adds: “This is going to be a long-term problem in an area prone to earthquakes and storms.”
Last November, national police fired on protesters attempting to occupy the concession area, wounding several peasants. The mining company suspended the project temporarily, saying in an official statement that it was “required” to do so by the government “for the sake of reestablishing tranquility and social peace.”
After the November violence, Humala declared a state of emergency in Cajamarca and froze bank accounts and financial services.
The Cajamarca government, which supported the strike, did not back down. On December 5, regional president Santos signed Order 036, declaring the ecological “unviability” of the project, and citing the need to protect the region's water resources. The national government immediately went to court to block the order, charging that Santos had overstepped his authority.
Five days later, Humala purged his cabinet — dropping the prime minister and a slew of left-leaning officials. The sacked prime minister, Salomón Lerner, had on the previous day met with local leaders in Cajamarca. Replacing him was the interior minister, Oscar Valdés — like Humala, an ex-military officer. (The interior ministry controls the national police force.)
Also among those dismissed were the minister of energy and mines, Carlos Herrera, who had pledged to take a harder line against the companies, and environment minister Ricardo Giesecke, who had just raised questions about possible irregularities in the environmental impact study. Days before he was sacked, Giesecke submitted a memo to the cabinet calling for a review of the assessment, saying: “Getting rid of the lakes would be like dynamiting the glaciers in the Andes.”
“The people are completely justified,” Giesecke tells me during my visit. “If you are in the lower part of the watershed, you say ‘please, no hanky-panky above, because it will affect us too.'”
Peru's press reported that Giesecke's replacement as environment minister — Manuel Pulgar Vidal, one of the country's foremost experts on environmental law — was in talks with Yanacocha last year about doing public relations work in support of the Conga project. Vidal was approached, in his own words after the scandal broke, to “improve relations with the regional and local authorities.”
Humala's state of emergency pressured Cajamarca leaders into suspending their general strike on December 16 to give the government a chance to hear their case.
But when Valdés flew to Cajamarca three days later, his meeting with Santos and other leaders came to nothing. On January 2, demonstrators held a huge protest against the project in Cajamarca's central plaza. In February, a “National March for Water” was held, with hundreds trekking cross-country from the Conga site to Lima for a thousands-strong national rally in support of their cause.
“We are confident in this new period of struggle,” says Wilfredo Saavedra, president of Cajamarca's Environmental Defense Front. “It won't be easy, but we have faith in the force of reason. The government will have to listen to us.”
Noting numerous conflicts related to mining projects across Peru's sierras, he adds: “Our struggle in Cajamarca has evoked a response from throughout the country. The challenge now is to centralize this struggle.”
Humala tried to appease critics by commissioning an “expert review” of the project by three technicians from engineering schools in Madrid and Lisbon.
But the demonstrators have not relented.
On March 22, World Water Day, protesters from throughout Cajamarca gathered for a rally in the concession area. I rode up in the back of a truck provided by the regional government. At the entrance to the bloc, a national police checkpoint barred our way, but as a long line of vehicles full of protesters backed up, they relented and let us through.
As hundreds of campesinos converged, I witnessed a replay of what I had seen at El Alumbre — this time with village representatives from across the region each staking their honor to the struggle against the mine. Rifle-toting police looked on, but speakers emphasized the peaceful nature of the struggle, giving no excuse for a replay of November's violence.
After the rally, the campesinos marched in procession down to the shores of Azul for a ceremony giving thanks to the water — and vowing to protect it.
On April 20, the “expert review” was released, and Humala went on TV to echo its recommendations that two of the lakes — Azul and Chica — should be preserved. The company said it would explore technical “alternatives” to allow work to resume.
But there is no alternative to destroying the other two lakes, as the gold lies below them. Thousands marched in Cajamarca April 20 to reject the review, and Santos charged that Humala “is on his knees before the transnationals.”
A week after the review was released, Peru's high court struck down Order 036. That same day, a new Unitary Struggle Command — bringing together all Cajamarca's popular organizations — declared a “Permanent Peaceful Resistance for Life and Dignity” until the Conga project is cancelled.
In May, National Police again opened fire on protesters in Cajamarca — with rubber bullets and, by some reports, real bullets — as well as using tear gas to break up human roadblocks. The escalation came just after four were killed when national police fired on protesters opposing the Anglo-Swiss company Xstrata's Tintaya copper mine in the Cuzco region. Protests remain ongoing in Cajamarca as we go to press.
In early July, it again came to bloodshed, as National Police and army troops fired on protesters in the towns of Celendín and Bambamarca — this time leaving four dead. The Humala government again declared a state of emergency for three affected provinces of Cajamarca region, and protesters were arrested for violating restrictions on freedom of assembly.
For its part, Newmont has threatened to abandon the Conga project if too harsh conditions are imposed. Company president Richard O'Brien said that if the project cannot be developed “in a safe, socially and environmentally responsible manner” while earning shareholders “an acceptable return,” Newmont will “reallocate that capital to other development projects in our portfolio, including opportunities in Nevada, Australia, Ghana, and Indonesia.”
Research support for this article was provided by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, now known as Type Investigations.