“These rotten people want this country to be a farm,” the Peruvian prime minister Oscar Valdes tweeted last week. The "rotten people" are villagers and politicians who have lately been making life very difficult for Valdes and Peruvian president Ollanta Humala, by taking aggressive action to stop massive mining projects that threaten their water supplies.
Tensions have reached a new pitch in the past few weeks, as protests against the new copper and gold mines have turned increasingly violent, and the government seems ready to use any means necessary to silence its opponents.
State of emergency
The biggest of the projects that have Peruvian citizens up in arms is the Conga mine, a $4.8bn copper and gold mining project in the northern state of Cajamarca. The US-based Newmont company, Conga’s majority owner, hopes to pull as much as 280 tonnes of gold and 270,000 tonnes of copper from the mine over its 19-year life. In the process, Newmont intends to destroy four lakes and “replace” them with artificial reservoirs.
Not surprisingly, local farmers aren’t mollified by the company’s assurances that their water supply won’t be harmed. They’ve rallied against the project and stopped all activity since last November, when protesters blockaded the town of Cajamarca for 11 days. Similar protests in other parts of the country have resulted in sometimes deadly clashes with police and government troops, and the government has declared a state of emergency. Now, the Peruvian Congress is calling on prosecutors to bring charges against regional president Gregorio Santos, who has led large protest rallies, for inciting “rebellion”.
The bigger picture
The bigger picture is this: Peru’s rapidly growing economy is heavily dependent on mining. The country is the world’s second largest producer of copper and silver, and the sixth largest producer of gold. Foreign mining interests see Peru as a hot spot for investment, and President Humala – a former military officer and a leftist fan of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez – is counting on $50bn in mining investments over the next few years to fuel growth.
Humala insists that opponents of mining are driven by political ambitions rather than environmental and democratic concerns. But that hasn't changed the minds of people on the ground, who have more pressing concerns: their water and their livelihoods.
For now, the protesters show no signs of backing down, and as months drag on with the Conga mine remaining at a standstill, the government will need to face the facts: its strategy isn't working. Perhaps it's time to negotiate?
Learn more: The mine protests in Peru are part of a larger indigenous rights movement across Latin America that's pushing back against the politics of money and power.
Take action: Help Earthworks persuade the American retailer Costco not to sell "dirty gold".