Led by the National Confederation of Artisenal Miners (CONAMI), small-scale independent gold miners led strikes and protests across several regions of Peru last week. The southern rainforest region of Madre de Dios was most affected, with regional capital Puerto Maldonado virtually shut down for several days following initiation of the paro (civil strike) on March 5. Thousands of miners filled the streets, wearing helmets and plastic ponchos color-coordinated to represent their geographic zone. Other social movements observed the paro in solidarity, and most businesses shut down. The region’s estimated 18,000 artisenal miners—the vast majority of them “informal”—are demanding the aborgation of recent presidential decrees mandating that only legally recognized mining activity will be permitted. Some 3,000 miners are currently camped out in Puerto Maldonado as they await the arrival of a cabinet-level commission led by Environment Minister Manuel Pulgar Vidal and Energy and Mines Minister Jorge Merino to establish a dialogue on “formalization” of the artisenal miners. Luis Otzuka, leader of the Madre de Dios Regional Artisenal Mining Federation (FEDEMIN), said the strike will be maintained until a solution is reached.
President Ollanta Humala’s “legislative decrees” 1100, 1101, 1102 and 1103 instate prison terms for illegal mining. They were instated under pressure from environmentalists who say the activity leads to widespread deforestation, siltation of rivers, and contamination of water. (La Republica, Andina, March 10)
But Peru’s media speculate that politicians from Humala’s own ruling coalition are linked to Madre de Dios’ “gold barons,” such as Celso Quispe, who is said to reap up to 7 million soles (about $5 million) each month from illegal exploitation. Lawmaker Eulogio Amado Romero—dubbed by the media “Comeoro,” or the Gold-eater—has been suspended from the ruling Gana Perú coalition as he is investigated for possible collussion with the Madre de Dios paro. Press accounts have named him as controlling the Madre de Dios gold trade and related illicit enterprises, such as prostitution to service the mining camps. (La Republica, March 11, El Comercio, March 8)
While the paro continues in Madre de Dios, CONAMI leader Hernán de la Cruz announced that protests would be suspended in Piura, Ayacucho, La Libertad and Apurímac for five days while the government considers the miners’ demands. However, some of the local federations in these regions also expressed impatience. Informal miners in Parinacochas, Ayacucho, pledged to resume their strike if Legislative Decree 1100 is not overturned by March 19. Some 20,000 informal miners are said to be operating in Ayacucho. Informal miners in Puno, Cusco and Arequipa meanwhile expressed their readiness to join the strikes if a solution is not reached. ((La Republica, March 8, El Comercio, March 7, RPP, March 6)
More protests over Doe Run, “Peru’s Chernobyl”
On March 9, hundreds of laid-off workers rallied in Huancayo, capital of Junín region, to demand the re-opening of La Oroya metal smelting plant, owned by the US Renco Group. After nearly 90 years of operation, La Oroya has been compared to Chernobyl and ranked among the world’s 10 most polluted places. According to one study by St. Louis University in 2005, more than 90% of children from La Oroya had excessive levels of lead in their bodies. The smelter stopped production after banks cut off credit to Doe Run Peru, Renco’s local subsidiary, in 2009. The firm pleaded financial hardship and failed to implement the environmental management plan that was a condition of its purchase of the smelter from state ownership in 1997. Now lawmaker Casio Huaire is attempting to get Peru’s Congress to pass a new law giving Doe Run Peru two more years to complete the environmental clean up, while allowing the smelter to operate in the meantime. If passed, the law would mark the third time the company has been allowed to delay completion of the environmental management plan. Families of laid-off workers, who have been struggling without a livelihood since the plant was idled, say the pollution issue is exaggerated. (Diario Correo, March 9; Global Post, Feb. 28)
But the Dialogue Table of the Women of Yauli Province, where La Oroya is located, issued a statement demanding that the plant not be allowed to restart until Doe Run has complied with the remediation plan, dubbed the Environmental Adjustment and Management Program (PAMA). The statement said that if Huaire’s proposed law is passed, it would show that “the health of the inhabitants of La Oroya is worth nothing.” The local civil society group La Oroya for Change has also adopted this position. (Pachcamama Radio, March 9, CNR, March 5, La Republica, Feb. 19)