Peru: controversial copper project moves ahead

Arizona-based Southern Copper is set to restart work at its controversial $1 billion Tía María copper project in Arequipa, Peru, within the next 90 days, Mines and Energy Minister, Jorge Merino said following a public meeting with local residents Dec. 19. Merino told Andina news agency that receiving support from the local community is “a big step forward," adding that it shows how "dialogue and coordinated efforts from national, regional and local authorities can make mega-projects happen." Peru's government sees the Tia Maria project as critical to boosting investment in the mineral sector. "It will show we have made inroads to resolve conflicts that have delayed several mining projects in Peru over concerns by communities about their environmental impact," Merino said.

An account of Merino's statement on the industry website stated: "Although the production capacity of most countries has flat-lined in recent years, Latin America's clout in the copper industry has risen exponentially. Peru alone is expected to attract $15bn worth of copper mining projects between now and 2015." Merino hopes to increase Peru's overall copper production from 1.5 million metric tons to 2.8 million by the end of 2015.

Southern Copper, the largest entity in mineral giant Grupo Mexico, has the highest copper reserves of any publicly traded mining company worldwide and one of the best cash cost in the industry. Tía María is expected to generate 120,000 tons of copper a year. reported Nov. 4 that Southern Copper had submitted a new environmental impact assessment (EIA) to the Energy and Mines Ministry. The project had been slated to move ahead in 2011, but was halted after clashes with local anti-mine protrsters and police at the nearby town of Islay that left three dead.

The anti-mine group CooperAcción responded to Merino's optimistic statement by pointing out that the Dec. 19 community meeting was held under the eye of 2,000 National Police troops—actually outnumbering the audience. The days before the meeting saw new protests in Islay, with two demonstrators hurt in clashes with police, and others starting a hunger strike to oppose the project.

In response to Southern Copper's pledge to spare no expense on mitigating environmental impacts, CooperAcción recalled that the 2011 protests were sparked after the company rejected as too expensive a proposal to build a desalinization plant to treat sewater for use in the mine, instead planning to use water from the local aquifer of the Valle del Tambo. CooperAcción asserts: "The case of Tía María demonstrates the collapse of our system of environmental certification."