Politics of Poverty

#MaximaNoEstaSola: Troubles again at Peru mine

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Although Máxima Acuña de Chaupe won a court case against the Yanacocha mine in Peru in defense of her land last year, her family's home was destroyed by the mining company last week. Photo: http://bit.ly/17ZfCw2

A local farmer and activist’s home is destroyed. What will get through to Yanacocha?

Of the many problematic mining projects in the world, few have been so troubled for so long as Peru’s Yanacocha. Violence, protests, contamination, and poverty have surrounded South America’s largest goldmine, located in the northern province of Cajamarca, since the project began operations in 1993.

Problems flared up again last week with the mining company’s destruction of the house of Máxima Acuña de Chaupe, a local farmer who has opposed Yanacocha’s plans to expand operations onto her land. (The company actually posted photos of the episode on its website.) This situation highlights yet again the gap still existing between what companies say in their corporate social responsibility policies and what they actually do in practice.

For nearly 15 years I’ve followed Yanacocha, which is majority owned by US-based Newmont Mining in partnership with Peruvian company Buenaventura and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC). I’ve visited communities around the site several times. What makes the case unique – and particularly depressing – is the sheer volume of independent studies, investigations, and recommendations that have been done by the UN, the World Bank, consultants, NGOs, and even company-appointed review bodies that have all called on the company to reform its community relations practices.

I’ve participated in some of these interventions, including the first complaint filed with the IFC’s ombudsman’s office in 2001 following a mercury spill that poisoned villagers near the Yanacocha mine, and a complaint we filed against Newmont under the Voluntary Practices on Security and Human Rights in 2007. An independent report produced in that process called on Newmont to cut its ties with Forza (now Securitas), the private security company that was involved in the destruction of the Chaupe family’s house.

We brought a group of activists from Newmont-affected communities, including Cajamarca, to the Newmont Mining’s annual shareholder meeting in Denver in 2005, where we met with then CEO Wayne Murdy. This was shortly after massive protests in 2004 prevented the company from expanding to Cerro Quilish, which is viewed as source of community water. Mr. Murdy and other Newmont officials said they understood the concerns and would take action to address them.

In 2007, after several years of protest at its sites around the world, Newmont, at the request of shareholders, commissioned a community relations review process that analyzed its relationships at its various projects, including Yanacocha. The final report of that process identified a “climate of fear” among communities around the mine and called for proactive steps to address this. Yanacoha commissioned yet another study in 2012, this time by the respected Center for Social Responsibility in Mining at Australia’s Queensland University, which found, among other things, that people in Cajamarca believed that “Yanacocha suffers from an inability to listen effectively to the community.” In response, Yanacocha officials stated that they were “not proud of the current state of our relationships with the people of Cajamarca” and apologized for the “stress” they had caused to the community.

Despite this apparent contrition, the company’s behavior in the Chaupe case raises a fundamental question about what it has learned after all this time and from all these reviews and recommendations. Last year Máxima Acuña de Chaupe actually won a court case against Yanacocha in defense of her land. The company argues that the land on which the house it destroyed last week sat wasn’t in the area covered by the ruling. Even if that’s true, sending in security forces to destroy the house in the manner that took place last week is disturbing.

I’ll never forget several years ago riding around the Yanacocha site in a pickup truck with a member of the local campesino community. “Que mal asesor de relaciones publicas tiene Yanacocha,” he said. What a bad community relations advisor Yanacocha has. That struck me as a very perceptive comment. He knew that the company was mishandling basic aspects of it relationships with local communities, and for reasons that no one could really understand.

I don’t mean to oversimplify the situation. Not everything bad that has happened there is the company’s fault. It’s a very complex social and political environment in which communities have not been well-served by their local government. Cajamarca is officially the poorest province in Peru, despite hundreds of millions of dollars of mining revenues that have been transferred to the regional government.

Newmont Mining, for its part, has demonstrated that it is capable of doing the right thing. For example, Newmont been an industry leader on revenue transparency, something for which we have publicly praised them. In a statement on the Chaupe case, Newmont stated its preference to resolve differences through “direct engagement and dialogue” and its intention to “make every effort to reduce tensions and minimize conflict.” Despite this, however, the company continues to take aggressive legal and physical actions against the Chaupe family. There has to be a better way for the company to handle these kinds of situations.

At the conclusion of postings on this blog, we’re encouraged to present recommendations for actions. In this case, it’s hard to know what to say. Everything that could be said to Yanacocha about what it needs to do to improve its community relations has been said – multiple times. Yet things don’t seem to change.

This time it’s Máxima Acuña de Chaupe. Next week, next month, next year it will be someone else. The company needs to fundamentally rethink its approach to community engagement if it wants to regain trust and put an end to the cycle of conflict that has affected the project for too long.

In the immediate term, our friends at Amnesty International and Frontline Defenders have posted an action calling on the government of Peru (and by extension, Yanacocha) to respect Mrs. Chaupe’s rights. Please take that action.

Today, February 12, international and Peruvian NGOs have called for an international day of solidarity, using the hash tag #MaximaNoEstaSola (Máxima is not alone). Please take part if you can.

Hopefully some day, actions like this, stories of people in Cajamarca like this, and the weight of all the studies and recommendations over the last 20+ years will have an impact on how Yanacocha operates.

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