Peru’s farmers at odds with foreign miners

Richard Synge

Confrontations between mining companies and traditional farming communities persist across the Andes and Amazon regions, which are still the very poorest parts of this vast country, writes Richard Synge 

Newly-elected Peruvian President Ollanta Humala’s first policy announcements in July this year suggested that foreign mining companies could proceed with their plans to invest as much as $40 billion in extracting the country’s astonishing mineral wealth over the next ten years. 

Xstrata, the Anglo-Swiss conglomerate, and Newmont of the US were quick to express confidence in Humala’s plans for Peru’s rapidly expanding economy by confirming their own project commitments. Newmont is a major investor in the $4.8 billion Conga gold and copper mine, the country’s largest single project. Southern Copper, a company intending to invest $1 billion in its Tia Maria mine, said that it was “confident that good investment conditions, stability, social inclusion and growth will prevail in Peru.” 

Rather than hindering new investment or even, as was once feared, nationalising the mining sector, Humala’s team of ministers have indicated a preference for a cautious review of the current taxation levels. 

Peru has immensely rich reserves of copper, gold, silver, zinc and tin, but its mining industry has been beset by a long history of conflict between companies and local communities. The confrontations have only intensified as new investors have arrived since the 1990s. Peasant farming communities in remote highland areas have tried to block projects that they fear will contaminate their land and precious water resources.

Recently, UK-registered Monterrico Metals paid compensation to 33 farmers who claimed they were shot at, beaten and tortured by police during a protest in Piura province in 2005. In June 2009, more than 30 people were killed in the Amazonian town of Bagua when police confronted indigenous residents who tried to prevent oil and gas exploration on their traditional lands. 

In May this year, similarly violent protests broke out in the highland Puno region bordering Lake Titicaca as farmers demanded a halt to exploration by Canada’s Bear Creek Mining and eventually forced the outgoing government of President Alan Garcia to revoke the firm’s operating licence. Other companies that have faced community protests in recent years have included Rio Tinto and China’s Zijin Metals. 

A typically contentious project is the $2.2 billion investment by China’s Chinalco to extract copper at Morococha, requiring the construction of a new town to house nearly 6,000 residents currently living directly above the planned mine. 

A 2009 report by Oxfam America acknowledged that some of the leading companies had worked to improve their practices and build better relationships with local communities but also warned that some risked repeating past mistakes. 

Peru is still only a candidate, rather than a member country, of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, and activists are stepping up the pressure for all mining companies to fully disclose how much they give the government in royalties, taxes and other payments, to give communities access to their environmental monitoring records and to disclose their plans for the eventual closure of each mine. 

Efforts to reduce high poverty levels in Peru in recent years have made some progress but the latest statistics show that they have not yet reached the very poorest parts of the country, such as the highland areas of Huancavelica, Apurimac, Huanuco and Puno, where more than half the people still live in poverty. 

In his inauguration speech in July, President Humala promised to make sure that Peru’s economic boom reaches the poor, especially in the country’s Andean highlands and Amazon forest regions. “Democracy in Peru will be complete when equality is the patrimony of all, and social exclusion has vanished, even in the most remote corners of the country,” he said.

About the author:

Richard Synge is a freelance journalist, editor and writer, specialising in the politics and economics of Africa.


Post a comment

November 22, 2011 9:53 am

Frimpong makes a good point; the worth of a country should always be judged on the way in which it treats its animals.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Amnesty International