Politics of Poverty

Peru: Torture settlement highlights urgent need for mining reform

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As Peruvian president Ollanta Humala takes office on Thursday, he should take specific and concrete steps to help resolve ongoing mining-related conflicts.

Last week, British mining company Monterrico Metals agreed to pay compensation to 33 farmers from Peru’s northern Piura department for torture and other human rights abuses suffered after a 2005 protest at the Rio Blanco copper mining project. The farmers alleged that the company, now a subsidiary of Chinese conglomerate Zijin Mining, was complicit in the violence carried out by Peruvian police. The company denies any wrongdoing (indeed, there’s no mention of the settlement on the company’s website). Oxfam produced a video which can be viewed below on the incident in 2010. The video tells the moving story of Cleofé Neyra a farmer who participated in the protest and was beaten by police.

The Rio Blanco settlement highlights the urgent need for incoming Peruvian president Ollanta Humala (who will take office on Thursday) to move quickly to address Peru’s ongoing mining-related conflicts, which are threatening the viability of the country’s mining sector. In late June, five people were killed in another round of anti-mining protests in the southern province of Puno. This followed previous mining protests in April in Arequipa in which three people were killed. This cycle of violence, which we first documented two years ago, has become untenable. Humala has the power to put a stop to it if he acts quickly and wisely and brings people into his government with the appropriate knowledge and skills.

His first order of business should be to adopt a consultation law, which will effectively regulate how indigenous communities, who often bear the brunt of mining’s impacts, are consulted prior to the commencement of mining operations. Under international law, indigenous peoples have the right to be consulted and to grant or withhold their consent for projects going forward. This doesn’t mean an automatic “veto” right, but instead means that communities get an opportunity to participate in an informed way in decision-making and that their opinions count for something in the decision that is ultimately taken. Currently (and somewhat amazingly) Peru, unlike its neighbors Bolivia and Ecuador, does not have a legal framework for guiding how these consultations should be carried out. (See a recent report we sponsored on this subject.)

Secondly, Humala needs to work with local governments and civil society to build capacity and participatory processes for deciding how mining revenues should be spent at the local level. Under Peru’s “canon minero”, half of all revenues generated by mining are supposed to go back to mining-affected areas. This sounds good in principle, but in reality this money rarely makes it back from Lima, or if it does, there is little government capacity to spend it on productive activities and so it ends up getting blown on what some in Peru call “cementos”, i.e. cement projects, like soccer stadiums, plazas and fancy government buildings (all of which have their uses but do nothing to promote poverty reduction). Building this capacity will be even more important if government revenues increase via a windfall tax on mining profits that Humala has proposed.

Third, Humala should decree that the Ministy of the Environment — and not the Ministry of Energy and Mines – should have final say over approval of environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for mining projects. EIAs, which document the potential impacts of a mining project on water, land and other resources essential for rural communities’ livelihoods, are critical information for communities’ making informed decisions about whether or not to accept mining. As of now, the Ministry of Energy and Mines retains final authority for approving these documents. This is a direct conflict of interest, and one that serves to undermine the confidence that communities have in these documents and the government’s ability to independently hold companies accountable for protecting the environment.

Fourth, the new president can work to promote what civil society groups call the “zonification” of the country, i.e. creating areas in which mining may be acceptable and others where for reasons of social and/or environmental sensitivity, it is not. The establishment of these “no go” zones can help avoid conflicts at the beginning by not allowing companies to push projects in areas where fears of their impacts will almost inevitably lead to conflict and violence.

Finally, Humala can break cleanly from his predecessor Alan Garcia and decriminalize protests against mining and other extractive projects. Garcia pursued an aggressive strategy of harassment and prosecution of mining activists, often on trumped up charges. Humala can reaffirm his government’s respect for peaceful protest as a legitimate expression of a community’s views and concerns. Protests and opposition to mining projects should never be subject to the kind of police repression and violence that occurred at Rio Blanco in 2005.

As I noted in an earlier posting, there is hope now among Peruvian civil society that Humala can help the country break out of the cycle of violence and protest that is affecting the mining sector. To do so, however, he needs to act quickly and decisively, even if that means provoking the wrath of the country’s entrenched mining elite. If he takes the right actions, he can help bring the benefits of this dynamic sector to all Peruvians, and at the same time ensure that the horrors of Rio Blanco in 2005 are never again repeated.

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