One year has passed since the community of Cajamarc, in Peru's northern highlands, rose up against the “Conga” copper and gold mine, a US$5 billion mega-project proposed by the World Bank-backed Newmont-Buenaventura consortium.
The unified cry of the protesters is still: “Conga no way!”
The region bordering the mine site is home to an agricultural population that relies on the natural highland water system. Destroying this precious and fragile asset would end the viability of their existence.
And even if it were true, as the mining company claims, that artificial reservoirs could supply local water needs, this would place the population at the mercy of private corporate interests. It would deprive them of a publicly-owned natural asset in exchange for a privatised one. Similar moves have proved disastrous elsewhere.
The Peruvian government has been complicit in this crime against the central government.
What follows is a timeline of the struggle as it has played out so far:
* October 27, 2010: After a brief period of review, Peru’s mining ministry approved the Conga development, the largest mining project in Peru’s history. Four mountain lakes are set to become toxic waste dumps. Environmental Impact Assessment was manifestly inadequate. The local population was not consulted. Corruption was widely suspected.
* November 24, 2011: A general strike began in Cajamarca. Thousands of villagers gathered in the regional centre to reject Newmont’s proposals. Conga is an extension of the existing Yanacocha mine, which has caused untold environmental damage during its life span. Regional Cajamarcan government (led by Gregorio Santos) adopted a position in complete sympathy with the protesters.
* November 29-30, 2011: After six days of regional paralysis, the central government called on the company to temporarily halt its mine expansion operations. Newmont reluctantly complied, threatening to take its capital elsewhere if regional resistance was not neutralised.
* December 4, 2011: Prime Minister Salomon Lerner arrived in Cajamarca to issue an ultimatum to civic leaders and protest groups. They refused to back down. President Ollanta Humala, elected in June on a left-nationalist platform, declared a state of emergency in four provinces, making public gatherings and protests illegal.
* December 10, 2011: The crisis brought internal tensions within the ostensibly left-leaning Humala administration to a head. Most of the cabinet resigned over the controversy generated by the government's handling of Conga, including Lerner. He was replaced by right-leaning ex-military officer Oscar Valdes.
* December 16-19, 2011: The state of emergency was lifted when regional authorities agreed to meet with Valdes. The talks resolved nothing, however, with Santos accusing Valdes of trying to impose his will without listening to the clear and reasoned objections of the Cajamarcan people.
* February 1-11, 2012: A national “Water March” in defence of water rights began in Cajamarca and ended in Lima. Significant protests involving a coalition of campesino, leftist and environmental protesters took place in the streets of Lima. This raised the national profile of the anti-Conga movement.
* March 14: The Humala administration arrested three prominent activists and summoned 41 others (including Santos) to appear on traffic violation and public disturbance charges. Thanks to anti-protest laws dating the previous hated right-wing president, the protesters face 15-30 years in prison.
* April 17: A second government-commissioned environmental impact study was released. Despite arguing that improved environmental safeguards are required, it gave a green light to the Conga project. The three international scientists were paid a total of nearly US$250,000 by the Humala administration. Cajamarcan protesters rejected the report, arguing that it flies in the face of genuinely independent hydrological research.
* April 20: Armed with the “scientific evidence” he paid for, Humala gave the go-ahead to Newmont-Buenaventura to resume operations. He justified this by promising more environmental safeguards.
* May 31: The regional government declared a permanent general strike in Cajamarca. The strike was supported by a coalition of anti-Conga organisations representing at least 75% of the regional population.
* June 15: The strike intensified. Police broke up protests with tear gas and beatings. Six protsters were arrested and held incommunicado.
* June 18: A hunger strike was begun in the main square of Cajamarca. “To defend our water is to defend the next generations,” said one participant. “We are offering our lives, and hopefully the government will open its heart and listen to the cry of the people,” another said.
* June 23: Humala reiterated on national television that Conga would proceed.
* July 3: Three anti-mine protesters were shot and killed by government security forces in the village of Celendin. More than 30 others were injured.
* July 4: Father Marco Arana, an environmental activist and leader of the “Tierra y Libertad” party, was arrested and detained.
* July 5: Two more Celendin deaths were confirmed. One, 29-year-old Jose Antonio Sanchez Huaman, died of wounds received on July 3 after being refused adequate medical treatment by police.
* July 6: The government declared a state of emergency in Cajamarca and further arrests take place.
* July 23: Valdes was dismissed as prime minister, replaced by the more “conciliatory” Juan Jimenez (a human rights lawyer by background).
* August 23: With the strike continuing, the Humala administration publicly acknowledged the extent of popular resistance in Cajamarca. In a dramatic turn-around that angers Newmont and dismays international markets, Jimenez says that Conga “is on the back burner”. The government issued instructions for Newmont to halt construction work until a new agreement can be reached.
* September-October: Thousands of local residents maintained a continuous peaceful highland vigil to prevent the company from transferring workers and equipment to the threatened lakes. More than 600 police were also posted to the proposed mine site. Protesters were continually harassed.
* November 11: Humala’s environment minister indicates that the government is considering “resuming talks” with opponents of the Conga project.
* November 24: Protesters peacefully marking the first anniversary of the anti-Conga uprising were attacked and dispersed from the lake area by a detachment of DINOES (special forces) police. Shots were fired and death threats issued.
The fight is clearly not over, but there can be no doubt that the people of this northern Peruvian region have offered the world an inspiring example of popular resistance to corporate power.
Standing united in the streets and plazas for the past 12 months, setting aside political differences, the Cajamarquinos have stared down the cashed-up and politically-connected Newmont juggernaut.
Although Humala has emerged as a bully on behalf of the mining lobby, it is also worth pointing out that an openly right-wing Keiko Fujimori administration would probably have adopted an even harsher position, perhaps escalating a brutal crackdown situation into a bloodbath. However, this probably offers little comfort to the families of Celendin’s victims.
With Newmont clearly poised to begin operations at the earliest possible opportunity, the struggle is certain to intensify in the months to come.
[For more information, and to sign a petition against the Conga project, visit Congaeuropa.wordpress.com.]