At least 2,000 Quechua marchers and dancers in traditional costume filled the streets of Cusco, Peru on March 5 to protect the Andean sacred site of Q’oyllur Riti from mining activities. They came by bus or on foot from eight different communities in Ocongate district, about six hours away from Cusco.
“Q’oyllur Riti is a sacred and historical site,” said Felipe Achahui, president of the Brotherhood of Senor de Q’oyllur Riti and one of the demonstration’s organizers. “Nobody can touch it.” Organizers say the Peruvian Ministry of Energy & Mines had leased Lot 28T, within the traditional festival site, to the local mining interest Minsur. Achahui said Ocongate residents only found out about the concession by reading public notices in the newspapers.
During the demonstration, protesters entered the Ministry’s offices and brought officials out onto the streets with them. Officials then addressed the crowd gathered in the central plaza, pledging to protect the site. The mayor of Ocongate, representatives of indigenous communities and a Catholic priest also spoke.
Ministry spokesman Abel Ayerza Romero told Indian Country Today the protest was a result of “miscommunication” and that there were no mining activities taking place within the sanctuary, a site at almost 14,000 feet that draws more than 25,000 indigenous dancers and pilgrims a year.
Romero admitted Minsur has received mining concessions in the Ocongate region over the last three years, and said he didn’t know how close the concessions were to the sanctuary. Cusco newspapers reported the Minsur was working several miles away from the sanctuary. As a result of the protest, a special commission has been created to delineate the boundaries of the 3,600-hectare site. “If for some reason they don’t accomplish that task,” said Achahui, “we’ll demonstrate again, with all our traditional dances.”
The festival takes place on the full moon closest to the June winter solstice and honors the spirit of Mount Sinakhara, or Q’oyllur Riti (Snow-Star). It has survived in spite of attempts by the Spanish to supress it, meging with Catholic traditions. A legend dating to the 18th century holds that a vision of the Savior as a young boy appeared to a shepherd boy on the mountain, leaving a rock crucifix image in the rock when he disappeared again. Pilgrims bear freezing temperatures on the five-mile trek from Ocongate to the site. Young men impersonating Ukuku, the Andean bear, continue to the top of Mount Sinakhara—and return carrying huge blocks of ice on their backs to offer as nourishment to Pachamama, the Earth Mother.
“Local people know there is gold in the region,” said Cusco resident Gabriela Callo Guzman. “The minerals are what gives the area its magnetism. Without the minerals, the mountain spirits would die.”
Mining is a booming business in Peru, with minerals making up 62% of exports in 2006. Peru is the world’s sixth largest producer of gold and the second largest of silver. Last year total mining exports increased 51%. The expansion has drawn protests from campesino and indigenous groups in many regions of the country. (Lisa Garrigues for Indian Country Today, April 2)