Campesinos Stand Up to the Mineral Oligarchy

by Bill Weinberg, WIN Magazine

In what has become an emblematic struggle against government plans to open peasant lands to mineral interests throughout the sierras of Peru, local campesinos continue to hold strikes and protests in the northern region of Cajamarca—in defiance of a state of emergency and a heavy presence of army and National Police troops.

The months-long campaign to halt the mega-scale Conga gold mine high in Cajamarca’s alpine zone—which Colorado-based Newmont Mining hopes to develop with Peruvian partners and investment from the World Bank—cost five lives last July 3 and 4, when government troops opened fire on protesters in the rural towns of Celendín and Bambamarca. The youngest of the fallen was only 17 years old.

At issue are four highland lakes that would be destroyed at the site where Newmont hopes to develop the giant pit mine. The company proposed to replace the lakes with new artificial reservoirs, and says this will not affect the underlying watersheds. But in an aridifying region, the local campesinos pledged they would not allow the lakes to be destroyed. When President Ollanta Humala was on the campaign trail last year, he promised to put an end to the project; upon taking office in July 2011, he promptly reversed his position and started backing it.

Newmont declared the project suspended after a clash with National Police that November, when protesters attempted to occupy the mine site amid a civil strike that had been called in the region to demand a halt to the project. Five local comuneros (peasants who work communal lands) received bullet wounds, and several others suffered injuries. Some are still hospitalized in Lima, facing charges and, supporters say, receiving inadequate care. At activist meetings in Cajamarca, collections are taken up for their families.

In February 2012, a “National March for Water” was held, with hundreds trekking cross-country for ten days from the Conga site to downtown Lima for a thousands-strong national rally in support of their cause.

The regional government in Cajamarca, controlled by the left, strongly supports the movement against the Conga project, and officially declared it ecologically unsustainable—a move rejected by Humala as beyond its legal powers. Humala proposed to dialogue with the movement, but his suggested compromises (including a plan for only two of the lakes to be destroyed) were rejected. Civil strikes—known as paros—continued to bring transportation and business to a halt in Cajamarca region to demand the project be dropped.

In May, National Police repeatedly opened fire on protesters in Cajamarca—with rubber bullets and, by some reports, real bullets—as well as using tear gas to break up human roadblocks. And in July, as human rights observers had warned, it finally came to deaths.

At the moment, it seems that the movement will prevail. In an interview with Dow Jones in August,  Newmont CEO Richard O’Brien acknowledged that the conditions do not exist to move ahead with the project. O’Brien said there must be a “consistent environment that we would need for the successful conduct of both mining and all those things that go with mining, whether that is transporting people or equipment. Right now we don’t see that environment in Conga.”

Humala’s Prime Minister Juan Jiménez also admitted that the Conga project is on the “back burner.”

But the state of emergency in four provinces of Cajamarca region has not been lifted, and the Cajamarca Unitary Struggle Command—a coalition of popular organizations opposing the mine project—has not called off its campaign of paros

Despite government and media attempts to portray the Cajamarca struggle as extremist, the Unitary Struggle Command is explicitly committed to principles of nonviolence. The police gunfire in November 2011 came after a shoving match when protesters attempted to push their way through a phalanx to enter the Conga site. The Unitary Struggle Command was formed subsequently, with a strict nonviolence code as one of its founding principles; all demonstrations since then have emphasized discipline and not giving security forces any excuse for repression. The gunfire of July 3, 2012 came after a group of protesters broke windows at the provincial government building in Celendín—one of the few local governments in Cajamarca region to support the Conga project. The local campesino committee in Celendín suggested this breach of the nonviolence code was the work of agents provocateurs.

Elsewhere in Peru
Similar struggles are spreading across the Peruvian Andes, as successive governments have moved ahead with a policy of aggressive mineral development since entering into the Free Trade Agreement with Washington in 2009. While Peru’s old landed oligarchy was broken up in the agrarian reform of the 1960s, with lands redistributed to campesino communities, peasant advocates now say a new “industrial oligarchy” of foreign mineral interests is consolidating. The depletion and degradation of water sources by mining operations has especially spurred resistance.

Last year, there was a months-long paro by Aymara campesinos over a project on the shores of Lake Titicaca in southern Puno region by Vancouver-based Bear Creek Mining. The situation de-escalated when Humala was elected and pledged to negotiate with the Aymara regarding protection of their waters.

This May, four were killed when National Police fired on Quechua campesinos protesting the Anglo-Swiss company Xstrata’s Tintaya copper mine in Cuzco region’s Espinar province. Espinar’s mayor, an opponent of the project, was arrested on charges of abetting the protesters before the national government blinked and agreed to dialogue—similarly de-escalating the situation, but not resolving it.

There have also been recent conflicts (some deadly) over Arizona-based Freeport-McMoRan’s operations in Arequipa, Australia’s Antiminas Corp. in Áncash, Grupo Mexico’s Southern Copper in Tacna, and Chinese-owned Chinalco Mining in Junín. In La Libertad region, bordering Cajamarca on the west, the comuneros of Quiruvilca village are opposing Toronto-based Barrick Gold’s plans to mine on alpine lakes at a place called Lagunas Sur. The campesino communities of Ayavaca and Huancabamba in Piura region, also bordering Cajamarca, in August issued a statement pledging to resist plans by Chinese mining company Zijin to move ahead with the long-contested Río Blanco copper project. All these movements are unarmed and civil, although not all with an explicit commitment to nonviolence.

The issues behind such struggles were crystalized in a ghastly incident in August at Santa Rosa de Cajacay in Áncash, where over 100 villagers were sickened by a spill of toxic copper concentrate. Most of those affected had joined in efforts to prevent liquid copper slurry from reaching the nearby Río Fortaleza after the pipe linking the Antamina mine to the coast ruptured. Rushing to protect their water, they were themselves provided with no protective gear. Many have likely suffered permanent chemical burns to their lungs.

The situation in Bolivia is complicated by the fact that President Evo Morales is a longtime Aymara popular leader who took office in 2006 pledging to empower indigenous communities and extend greater state control over the resource industries. But in Bolivia too, where an agrarian reform in the 1950s broke up the old oligarchy on the Altiplano, foreign mineral interests extend growing control over lands and waters.

In April 2010, just as Morales was hosting an international meeting on climate change in Cochabamba, Quechua campesinos occupied the site of the giant San Cristóbal copper mine in Potosí, ransacking equipment and blockading the rail line out, to protest the facility’s free use of vast amounts of water as local lands go dry. Japan’s Sumitomo company, owner of the mine, cited technical studies denying its operations had any effect on local agricultural watersheds. But the peasants were not appeased. Morales was able to de-escalate the situation by opening a dialogue in time for the opening of the Cochabamba summit.

However, the new Mining Law just introduced this year by the Morales government only calls for companies to renegotiate their contracts. Some will have to enter into a partnership with the Bolivian state. But the government assured that the San Cristóbal mine, Bolivia’s largest, will remain entirely in private hands. It continues to use 50,000 cubic meters of water every day.

The perceived inadequacies of the new mineral law have set off a new wave of protests. In August, Aymara comunarios (as the word is rendered in Bolivia) launched an occupation of the installations of the Inti Raymi Mining Company at La Titina, outside the Altiplano city of Oruro, in protest of the pollution of local water sources with cyanide and other toxins. Traditional Aymara authorities of the local ayllus (agricultural communities) issued a statement saying: “We view with profound concern…that the government…has drawn up…the Mining Law…without the participation of social sectors, and especially of the indigenous nations and original peoples.”

In July, following a wave of protests by local Aymara campesinos that left one dead, Morales agreed to revoke the permit for the Mallku Khota mining project in Potosí The accord was announced after a gathering at the presidential palace of Aymara leaders from both sides of the conflict—those who oppose the project as a threat to local waters, and those who support it as source of new employment. The situation escalated after indigenous ayllu authorities detained—”kidnapped,” in English-language media coverage—seven mining company employees. Local Aymara comunarios said the mine personnel were illegally operating on their ayllu, a traditional communal land-holding recognized by Bolivia’s constitution.

Under the new deal, the concessions granted to Canada-based South American Silver in 2004 will be cancelled, and the Mining Ministry will explore creating a state entity to exploit deposits of the rare element indium at Mallku Khota. Aymara leader Cancio Rojas, who had been jailed after the “kidnapping” incident, was released, after paying a fine of 10,000 bolivianos (about $1,500), in an apparent compromise solution.

In Ecuador too, a government with an ostensibly populist program faces growing opposition from an indigenous movement over big mineral development plans. On March 22, World Water Day, a “March for Water, Life and Dignity,” more than 1,000 strong, reached Quito, the capital, after a two-week, 700-kilometer cross-country trek to oppose plans for large-scale mining projects on indigenous lands. Carrying the rainbow-colored indigenous flag, marchers were joined by thousands of supporters as they arrived in the city. In a brief confrontation outside the National Assembly building, police used tear gas against rock-throwing youth, and at one point charged the demonstrators on horseback.

Led by the  Confederation of Indigenous  Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), the march began in the province of Zamora Chinchipe, just across the border from the Peruvian region of Cajamarca and likewise targeted for massive mineral exploitation. Humberto Cholango, CONAIE’s president, called on Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa to “humbly accept the message of this mobilization.”

“The indigenous movement once supported Correa, but his policies have gone too far, and are threating our rights instead of protecting them,” said Cholango.  The organizers sent a late-night delegation to meet with the leaders of Ecuador’s National Assembly, with a 19-point list of demands—including no large-scale mining, no expansion of the “oil frontier” in the eastern rainforest, and no hydro-electric “mega-projects.”

In mid July, the Andean Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations (CAOI) held its congress at Chinauta in Colombia’s central Cundinamarca department, bringing together representatives of regional struggles for indigenous land and water rights from Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. The closing statement charged that “in the Andean Region and all the continent, States, whether openly neoliberal, ‘alternative’ or ‘progressive,’ persist in application of a neoliberal extractive model, that undermines the fundamental rights of indigenous peoples, plunders the natural resources, and defiles Mother Earth…”


This story first appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of WIN Magazine

Photo of March 22, 2012 World Water Day march at the Conga site by the author.

Bill Weinberg is the author of Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico (Verso Books, 2000) and is at work on a new book on indigenous struggles in the Andes. He covers global movements for land and autonomy on his website, World War 4 Report.

From our Daily Report:

Peru: villages to hold referendum on Conga project
World War 4 Report, Feb. 7, 2013

Bolivia: Aymara declare mine personnel “fugitives”
World War 4 Report, Dec. 29, 2012

See also:

by Bill Weinberg, The Progressive
World War 4 Report, October 2012

Climate Change and Indigenous Struggle
by Bill Weinberg, NACLA Report on the Americas
World War 4 Report, January 2011

Reprinted by World War 4 Report, Feb. 10, 2013
Reprinting permissible with attribution