The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Peru’s mining conflicts explode again: Protests and violence in Espinar

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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 […]

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.

Villager from Espinar, Peru views Tintaya mine’s tailings dam. Diego Nebel/Oxfam America.

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.

Humala has spoken of a need for a “new vision” for mining in the country. To this point, however, that vision hasn’t included a lot of details. There are a few basic starting points that we would propose for his consideration. One is zoning, or “ordenamiento territorial” in Spanish—basically identifying those areas in the country that are socially and environmentally viable for mining and those that aren’t. Our partner Cooperaccion has done extensive work on this issue.

Another key point is security sector reform, particularly relating to security forces that protect mine sites. This is a sector that is rife with abuse, as we saw in Espinar. In Peru, mining companies employ private security contractors and local police to protect their operations. In fact, police often use mine camps as bases for operations, including storing large caches of weapons. Companies are therefore ultimately accountable for actions that these forces take. A few years ago, in the process of resolving a complaint we filed against Newmont Mining for human rights abuses at its giant Yanacocha Mine in Cajamarca, we learned that police forces can in effect instantaneously “deputize” private security contractors in the midst of a police operation. This situation is ripe for abuse; one in which accountability becomes ambiguous. These ambiguities need to be resolved and mining companies and police need to reaffirm their commitments to human rights standards including the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, a global standard for human rights in the extractive industries.

Additionally, the Humala government needs to end criminalization of mining protests. Peruvians, like all people, have a basic human right to peacefully express their views. In no situation should peaceful protest be met with violence or human rights abuse as happened in 2005 in the northern department of Piura in which 28 community members were detained and tortured (yes, tortured) by private security forces and police for opposing the Chinese-owned Rio Blanco project. (Just this week false charges brought against these protestors were dropped, thanks to the dogged efforts of Oxfam America partner Fedepaz.) In Espinar, the national government has declared a state of emergency, suspended civil liberties and detained mayor Oscar Mollohuanca, allegedly for inciting the protests.

Finally, strengthening Peru’s environmental management capacity is critical to increasing confidence among local communities in the government’s ability to protect their lives and livelihoods. It’s simply not the case that mining-related environmental problems are a “thing of the past,” as some in Peru argue. All mines, including those run by big modern companies, pollute the environment in some way. Closely monitoring these impacts and holding companies accountable is critical. Moving final authority for approving mining EIAs out of the Ministry of Energy and Mines and into a strengthened Ministry of the Environment would be an important step in this direction.

Ultimately, if Peru is to find a way out of this cycle of conflict (which at present shows no signs of abating), the government should take steps like those above and also articulate a vision for how mining – and the revenues it generates—can link more harmoniously and beneficially to traditional agricultural livelihoods that predominate in the highland areas where most mining takes place in the country. Finding a way to channel the substantial revenues coming from mining to sustainably support these livelihoods and protect the water and land on which they depend seems to me to be critical to finding a way out of the current cycle of conflict. Short of that, the protests—and violence—will surely continue.

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