Peru: BHP spill devastates community

August 17, 2012
An oil spill in Peruvian villages in 2009.

The highland agricultural community of Santa Rosa de Cajacuy, in Peru’s central Ancash department, has been severely affected by a toxic spill from the BHP Billiton and Xstrata-operated Antamina mine.

Antamina is one of the world’s largest sources of copper and zinc. It relies on a 300 kilometre high-pressure pipeline to pump resources from the mountains to coastal port facilities.

In a scenario repeated throughout Peru, the pipeline that helps to generate billions of dollars of profit for its multinational corporate owners passes through some of the poorest and most neglected regions in the Andes.

In Cajacuy, there is neither sewage nor running water. But there is plenty of malnutrition and a pumping station for the Antamina pipeline.

On July 25, 45 tonnes of copper concentrate slurry exploded from Cajacuy’s pumping station, dousing the village with a brew of highly injurious material.

Toxic spills of this nature occur often in Peru, where successive neoliberal administrations have encouraged low-taxed mining giants to operate with relative environmental impunity.

When reviewing the record, it is striking how often the mining companies have relied on local campesino (peasant) populations to clean up their mess.

In what amounts to an unwritten policy of deliberate exploitation, mining companies are fully aware that they can mobilise large workforces of emergency response volunteers when spills of this nature take place.

Andean agricultural communities are caught in a cruel bind that the mining giants knowingly take full advantage. Either they help clean up the company’s spill, exposing themselves to health risks in the process, or their lands and water supplies may be contaminated beyond repair.

In the aftermath of a spill, company representatives turn up in affected villages. They provide basic equipment to the concerned volunteers, who are expected to bear the brunt of initial clean-up operations.

This is what happened in Cajacuy, another variation on an all-too familiar theme in neoliberal Peru. Associated Press reported: “Many in this community of 410 pitched in at the request of Antamina's director of community relations to help stop the slurry from reaching a nearby river.

“They isolated the mucky mixture using absorbent cloth provided by Antamina, using no protective gear or masks or gloves.”

The remorseless logic of resource capitalism is always to cut costs and maximise profits. Using local bodies to absorb mining sludge is a part of that process.

In the aftermath of the spill, between half and three-quarters of Cajacuy’s population had been treated for symptoms including migraines, uncontrollable nosebleeds and constant nausea. At least 42 residents required hospitalisation for 11 days.

Dr Juan Villena, dean of Peru's College of Physicians, said scores of children in Cajacuy had been treated, some with “serious muscular and respiratory problems, bleeding from the nose”.

Antamina and the Peruvian government have done everything they can to play down the incident, even denying at one stage that the spill contained any toxic compounds.

“Happily there have been no regrettable cases,” the health minister said. In other words, accidents happen, get over it — but thanks for helping out.

This sort of attitude is standard operating procedure, designed to gloss over the fact that another community in the Peruvian Andes has been devastated by mining.

Hardly a month goes by without some new mega-project starting up. Canadian mining company Hudbay announced on August 8, for example, a US$1.5 billion investment in a new mine at Constancia in south-eastern Peru.

One by one, the villages are slowly disappearing, their people relocated to urban slums. It’s a slow-burn demographic catastrophe, almost totally ignored by global opinion makers.

This is why a big anti-mining protest movement has emerged in regional Peru.

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