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Indigenous Peoples of Peru March in Protest of Mines

A caravan of about 700 people from Peru’s northern Cajamarca region arrived in Lima, the capital, on February 9, at the end of a nine-day journey to protest a mine they said would destroy key watersheds.

“We want the president to say that there won’t be mining at the tops of watersheds,” said Jaime Lozana Infante, 38, of the community of Huasmín, near the site of the Congas mine. Congas is a project of Yanacocha, a mining company consisting of Colorado-based Newmont Mining Corporation, Peru’s Compañía Minera Buenaventura and the International Finance Corporation.

Justin Verlander

Protesters call for the government to halt the Conga mining project, which would destroy four lakes and a wetland area in the northern Cajamarca region. (Barbara Fraser)

The gold and copper mine would destroy four lakes and a high-altitude wetland at the top of three watersheds that drain toward the Amazon River. Plans call for the company to replace the lakes with reservoirs of equal or greater capacity, but small farmers in the area fear the mine will dry up the water supply for their crops and livestock.

Cajamarca, where the Spaniard Francisco Pizarro murdered the Inca chief Atahualpa and launched his conquest of the Inca Empire, is known for its cheeses and other dairy products.

The Peruvian government approved the environmental impact study for the Conga mine in late 2010 and construction was to begin in October 2011. When heavy machinery moved in, however, local communities began to protest.

President Ollanta Humala, who had been in office just three months, sent Cabinet ministers to negotiate, but residents called a regional strike and blocked highways. The government declared a state of emergency and sent some 3,000 troops and police to Cajamarca. Escalation of the conflict finally forced the entire Cabinet to resign in early December, and the mining company put its plans on hold temporarily.

Although the government agreed to order an outside review of plans for the mine, it also said the country cannot afford to halt the $4.8 billion project. Several protesters said they felt betrayed by President Ollanta Humala, who campaigned in Cajamarca on a platform of “water before gold” before he was elected in July 2011, with strong backing from voters in Cajamarca and other rural areas.

“Ollanta’s message was the one the people had hoped for,” Lozana said. “He took advantage of us. He’s not keeping his promise.”

The conflict over Conga is the latest in a series of battles pitting mining companies against rural communities – most of them indigenous – in Peru they worry that the mines will pollute rivers and dry up lakes and springs.

Of 223 conflicts registered in the country in December 2011, more than half involved environmental issues, according to the government Ombudsman’s Office. Cajamarca was the scene of seven environmental conflicts, including Conga.

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This is not the first time communities have confronted mining companies in the region, where Yanacocha, the largest gold mine in South America, opened in 1993. Protests stopped a planned expansion of Yanacocha to a hill known as Quillish in 2004.

Although the Conga mine’s environmental impact study was approved in 2010, protesters said they did not have enough opportunity to question the project or give input, and their communities lacked the expertise to examine the thousands of pages of technical information in the three months allowed.

Critics say the study lacks detailed hydrological and geochemical data and underestimates the impact of the mine on rivers and wetlands.

Protester in the "March for Water and Life" carries a sign reading, "Water is a treasure worth more than gold." (Barbara Fraser)

Protester in the "March for Water and Life" carries a sign reading, "Water is a treasure worth more than gold." (Barbara Fraser)

Protesters also said there was no prior consultation about the project, a requirement under International Labor Organization Convention 169 on the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples.

In the past, Yanacocha has argued that the farming communities around its mine are not really indigenous, and the prior consultation therefore does not apply to them. Because many local residents no longer speak an indigenous language, government officials have also said they cannot be considered original peoples.

“Cajamarca is a complicated case,” said anthropologist Richard Chase Smith, who heads the Institute of the Common in Lima, which assists indigenous communities seeking to gain title to their land. “There was a very early Spanish settlement in Cajamarca, which changed the complexion of the communities.”

Nevertheless, more than 100 communities are registered with the government as “campesino communities,” which implies that they are indigenous and therefore subject to consultation about development projects that would affect their lands, he said.

Local residents may press for both a consultation process and a referendum for non-indigenous communities and urban areas, according to the Rev. Marco Arana, a Catholic priest who heads the Tierra y Libertad (“Land and Liberty”) political movement and was one of the leaders of the march.

They are also drafting proposals for legislation that would ban mining at the tops of watersheds and prohibit the use of toxic chemicals such as mercury and cyanide in mining, he said.

Arana said the protesters wanted to draw attention to the need for a different model of development for Cajamarca, based on tourism, farming and forestry.

“This isn’t an anti-mining march,” he said. “This is a march for integral development, for sustainable development, and against the kind of mining that destroys the land, violates human rights, corrupts authorities and spends huge amounts of money to conceal the truth.”