LIMA, Aug 4 (IPS) – Seven local farmers were killed when police attempted to block a protest march to the site of a copper mine under exploration by a British firm in the northwestern Peruvian region of Piura, according to local residents and authorities and a Catholic bishop.
The police, however, have only acknowledged the death of Amado Velasco, a protester from the village of Puján, who was reportedly killed when the gun he was trying to wrest away from a police officer went off.
The protesters from the Andean highland communities of Yanta, Puján, Segundo and Cajas in the region of Piura, located 1,000 km from Lima, were killed in clashes with the police on Monday and Tuesday, said Bishop Daniel Turley, who is based in the district of Chulucanas, near the mine where the demonstrators began to converge last week.
Carlos Martínez, the mayor of the town of San Ignacio in the neighbouring region of Cajamarca, also said seven people were killed.
In addition, 40 people were injured, six or eight remain missing, and 32 were arrested, the bishop said Wednesday.
Turley was attempting to broker talks between the local communities and the Minera Majaz mining company, a subsidiary of the London-based Monterrico Metals that is exploring a copper deposit in Río Blanco near major fresh water reserves that could be polluted by the mining project.
Minera Majaz has been operating in Piura for four years. It estimates that the deposit holds 1.3 billion tons of ore and would have a life of up to 50 years, while requiring an investment of more than 800 million dollars to develop. The company says the mine will generate around 3,000 jobs.
But local communities are opposed to the mine arguing that it will pollute a major aquifer, the source of the Quiroz and Blanco rivers which are an essential source of water for the local highland villages on the slopes facing the Pacific Ocean to the west as well as the Amazon jungle to the east.
Local residents of San Ignacio told the daily newspaper La República Wednesday that a police helicopter should fly over the mine ”because there are several bodies scattered around the camp.”
A document sent to IPS, which was signed by several organisations and activists involved in the conflict – including Ramiro Ibáñez, president of the Environment Defence Front of Huancabamba – describes ”the brutal police action” and demands an investigation to identify those who were ”politically, intellectually and materially responsible for this massacre.”
The document does not specify how many people were killed or remain unaccounted for, but it states that several campesinos (peasant farmers) ran away from the police into the woods and that ”their fate is uncertain, and there is fear for their lives.”
Several demonstrators fled into the forests and may have fallen into surrounding ravines, Miguel Palacín, president of the National Confederation of Communities Affected by Mining (CONACAMI), told IPS in Lima.
Deputy Minister of Energy and Mines Rómulo Mucho was set upon Wednesday by angry local residents in San Ignacio as he came out of a meeting in which a commission was set up to investigate the incidents at the mine.
The verification commission, which was to travel to the remote mining camp on Thursday, agreed to talks between representatives of the company, the government, the Catholic Church and the local communities.
After he was rescued from the angry crowd, Mucho told a local radio station that ”now the national police must live up to its duty” – a call for an even tougher police crackdown on the social unrest.
The area where Minera Majaz is exploring is rich in biological diversity, which could be affected by the mining project, said Palacín.
Activist José de Echave, with the non-governmental organisation CooperAcción, which specialises in mediating in this kind of conflict, said that although no precise research has been carried out in the area, it is environmentally sensitive.
The problems began on Jul. 25, when around 1,000 campesinos set off on a march to the mining company’s camp in the highlands of Piura, several hours by foot from the city of Huancabamba, the capital of the province of the same name.
According to the PNP, the marchers intended to take the mine by force, to stop the exploration work from going forward. But the document sent to IPS by the campesino organisations maintains that they were merely trying ”to peacefully enter the mining camp.”
On Jul. 28, another 1,500 people from communities closer to the camps joined in the march. Jul. 31 brought the first clash with the police, who used teargas to try to break up the march.
Much more violent skirmishes followed on Monday and Tuesday, in which the police indiscriminately fired their guns into the crowd of demonstrators, according to the campesinos.
Meanwhile, a press release issued Thursday by Monterrico Metals stated that a protest march approaching the company’s exploration camp at Río Blanco was halted by the police, who are monitoring ”approximately 400 people (who) have maintained a presence close to the project.”
The statement noted that there had been ”isolated confrontations with police officers over a period of days,” and that one fatality had been reported, although ”details of the cause are unclear at this stage.”
Monterrico’s CEO, Chris Eager, was quoted as saying, ”It is highly regrettable that people have been injured during this protest.” He added that the company ”has made every effort to encourage open dialogue and community participation in planning the development of Río Blanco.”
Deputy Minister Mucho stressed that the exploration would not be halted because ”this is a good operation.” But in Huancabamba and San Ignacio, opposition to the mining project appears to remain very much alive.
Majaz is one of six subsidiaries of Monterrico Metals, a British resource development company that operates exclusively in Peru.
Monterrico Metals’ website states that the Peruvian mining law was ”simplified” in 1991 and ”now provides an attractive framework for development of minerals projects.”
”There are few limitations on holding mineral concessions in Peru,” which ”can be held 100 percent by national or foreign companies indefinitely provided that an annual fee of three U.S. dollars per hectare per year is paid to the government as a land tax,” the website explains.
”The same concession title is valid for exploration and for mining, hence there is no complicated ‘conversion’ procedure,” it adds.
The case of Majaz and the Río Blanco project is one of at least 27 conflicts between local communities and companies exploiting Peru’s mineral wealth. In 16 of these confrontations, opposition is based on the grounds of environmental damage.
Mariano Castro, executive secretary of the National Environmental Council – the Peruvian government environmental authority – told IPS that information is essential to prevent these situations, but that ”people often begin protesting before an operation even begins, without any evidence of a latent risk.”
De Echave admitted that there is a negative perception of mining activities, but added that in the last 10 years ”not a single environmental impact study submitted by a mining company has been rejected” by the local authorities.
”We have been facing mining conflicts for 10 years and nothing has changed,” he remarked, stressing that the government needs to adopt a preventive policy with a more effective strategy for spreading information and ”proper mechanisms for dialogue to prevent these outbursts.”
Fifteen percent of foreign investment in Peru is in the mining industry, while 50 percent of the country’s exports (some 4.5 billion dollars worth) come from this sector, which has been given a boost in recent years by high international demand and rising commodities prices on the world market. (END/2005)
Protesters stormed BHP Billiton Plc./Ltd.’s Tintaya copper mine in southern Peru in May, forcing a month-long closure. The La Zanja gold project owned by Buenaventura was put on ice last year and Buenaventura and Newmont Mining Corp. abandoned their Cerro Quilish gold exploration project in 2004 after protests.
Demonstrators also claimed victory when Canada’s Mediterranean Minerals Corp.’s $315 million Tambogrande copper and gold project was dropped in 2003 after months of trouble in which one person died.
Even a partial list of recent conflicts is long.
An attack by thousands of residents in late May led BHP Billiton Tintaya SA (BHP) to temporarily shut down its copper mine, after protesters demanded, among other things, that the company increase payments to the community to $20 million a year from $1.5 million. The mine remains closed.
Last year, residents blocked the road to the giant Yanacocha gold mine, arguing that development of the still-undeveloped Cerro Quilish deposit would pollute water supplies, something Minera Yanacocha SRL denied. The government later pulled the exploration permit for the Cerro Quilish site.
Groups plan a peaceful march to the Yanacocha mine in the Cajamarca region this week, supposedly to inspect the Cerro La Quinua to ensure that water supplies are safe, prompting the company to ask the government to ensure that order is kept.
A small group of local residents tried to enter into Compania Minera Antamina SA’s giant copper-zinc mine in central Peru recently, and began destroying property.
Last year, several people were injured after protesters attacked Buenaventura SAA’s (BVN) La Zanja exploration camp, located in the Cajamarca region, demanding an end to the project.
Buenaventura has since restarted exploration work at La Zanja.
“Foreign investors are looking at what is taking place in Peru, especially with Tintaya, which has taken a long time to resolve. In regards to possible investments in Peru, they are thinking of going to other countries,” Southern Peru Copper Corp. chief executive Oscar Gonzalez Rocha said this week.
Mining company officials say various groups and politicians are using the attacks on the industry to raise their profiles before regional and national elections scheduled for next year. Ramiro Escobar, IPS News