The Politics of Poverty

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Renewed violence around Las Bambas mining project: Will we learn from past mistakes?

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Photo: Observatorio de Conflictos Mineros en el Perú

Copper mining in Las Bambas, Peru has sparked new violence as the communities surrounding the mine are bypassed again by the Peruvian government and mining company, MMG, on decisions that greatly affect their lives.

Miguel Lévano Muñoz is Land Rights and Extractive Industries Officer at Oxfam Peru.

On October 14, 42 year old Quintino Cereceda was killed during a police operation near the Las Bambas copper mine in Peru. This tragic event follows on a long history of violence around Peru’s mining sector. The Las Bambas copper mine is one of the largest copper mines in the world and a $10 billion investment. The mine is located in the Apurimac region of Peru surrounded by indigenous communities, mainly of Quechua descent, struggling with high indices of poverty and child malnutrition.

The police operation is currently at the center of political debates in Peru as it is not clear who authorised it. Tensions escalated as a result of insufficient attention to the demands of local communities, including the demand for broader participation in the ongoing dialogue process that brings together local communities affected by the mine with the government and mining company MMG. Last week communities in Cotabambas declared a strike, demanding to meet with high level government and MMG officials to discuss to their various concerns. Over the weekend, Peru’s Vice President Martín Vizcarra travelled to the area for a meeting with communities and promised to return 45 days later with a development plan for the province.

MMG operates the mine and began commercial production in July, five years after approval of the project’s environmental impact assessment (EIA). Unfortunately, since the initial approval of the EIA for the project in 2011, the company has made five EIA modifications without consulting local indigenous communities and seeking their consent. For example, the initial project design called for a mineral pipeline that would allow for the transport of millions of tons of copper. Instead the company opted for a much more intrusive form of transport – employing 300 trucks a day to haul the minerals on unpaved roads through diverse communities. The company also decided to install a mineral processing plant in Cotabambas. Community frustration around modifications to the project made without local consultation led to protests in September 2015 resulting in four deaths.

Effective consultation with local communities around proposed project changes early on might have prevented the escalation of local frustrations which ultimately led to protest and violence. However, significant weakening of a number of Peru’s environmental regulations by the national government in 2014 cleared the way for the company to bypass community consultation around these changes. The government framed the rollback on environmental regulation as an effort to promote investment, a very short-sighted approach in light of the history of social conflict around mining projects in the country. Peru’s human rights ombudsman tracks social conflicts and last month reported 145 socioenvironmental conflicts across the country, around 63 percent of which  relate to mining (another 17 percent relate to oil and gas projects).

The dialogue roundtable established for the Las Bambas project represents a critical measure and one which previously had success at a nearby mine. The roundtable helped to facilitate communication and consolidate demands from local leaders and organizations. However, some community representatives have begun to lose faith in the space thanks to persistent delays and questions around te manner in which the government conducted the dialogue. To date the government and company have agreed to meet two community demands: (1) paving the problematic road, and (2) creating a local office of the government’s environmental monitoring unit. However, pressing outstanding demands remain, including:

  • An independent third party technical review of these changes, public information sharing around new changes to the EIA currently in process, and creation of an environmental contingency fund in case of spills or other mine-related emergencies.
  • An agreement between MMG and the local government of Cotabambas outlining the social contributions the company plans to make to the community, in line with the local government’s development plan and reached with civil society participation.
  • The families of the five victims of the conflicts request financial support for the widowed wives and mothers following their loss.
  • And finally, in order to reduce the risk of future violence the Ministry of the Interior should not sign agreements with mining companies regarding mine security, as they did for the Last Bambas mine. The government refuses to make these agreements public, but police continue to play a security role for the company, an arrangement which distorts the role of the police – although Minister of Interior Carlos Basombrío claims the security operation which turned violent on October 14th did not have the approval of his ministry.

The company and the government should respond to these demands. The communities affected by the mine have not adopted a position of strong opposition to the mine. They accept it, but with a few essential conditions in light of significant changes to the project made without community consultation. The last Peruvian administration failed to prioritize the demands of communities sufficiently – leading to the crisis in September 2015. With recent elections and a new President in Peru, the government now has a fresh opportunity to achieve an effective dialogue process. The government must prioritize reaching agreements with communities through a highly participatory and transparent process, and must monitor agreements reached closely to avoid future violence. Establishing strong dialogue processes with project-affected communities and prioritizing conflict prevention and management at the national level will help to restore confidence in government and prevent further conflict and deaths.

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