The Conga gold and copper mining project is becoming one of Latin America’s most significant environmental battlefronts. It is pitting almost the entire population of the northern Cajamarca region of Peru against the invasive forces of the multinational mining industry and its governmental puppets in Lima.
In recent years, there have been many strikes and protests. This has led to hundreds of arrests, scores of injuries and several protester deaths.
The struggle has broken out again with renewed intensity, provoked by the aggressive posturing of a mining company with a deeply flawed history in the area.
At the end of last year, the Peruvian government reluctantly announced a suspension of building work at Newmont-Buenaventura’s proposed open-pit copper and gold mine at Conga.
The US$5 billion mega project is an extension of the existing Yanacocha mine, notorious for devastating mercury spills that have led to a local epidemic of birth defects and cancer. It is backed by Wall Street and the World Bank, whose investment arm has weighed in as a minority shareholder.
Conga is resolutely opposed by an overwhelming majority of Cajamarcan residents.
Four highland lakes are slated for conversion into toxic waste dumps. In return for this woeful act of vandalism, the company claims it will build a network of artificial reservoirs for the local population.
The rural communities that rely on the water from these lakes have rejected the company’s plans. The plans will profoundly disrupt the fragile ecosystem and place a centuries-old tradition of sustainable agriculture entirely at the mercy of a profit-driven corporation.
The government would receive some revenue from the project in the form of taxes and royalties, which it claims will enable more spending on social programs. But the Peruvian people have been sold this textbook neoliberal lie too many times.
The truth about foreign capitalist investment in the Peruvian mining sector is that corporations reap huge profits in return for unjustifiably tiny remittances to the general population. US foreign policy supports the “business friendly” Peruvian ruling elite for this very reason.
During the first half of the year, the tense stand-off between Minera Yanacocha (majority owned by US-based Newmont) and local protesters continued in stalemate, punctuated by occasional flare-ups.
In spite of the official suspension, Yanacocha has continued with building work, relying on the collaboration of Peruvian police.
Only the continuous presence of “The Guardians” — a network of volunteers who maintain a round-the-clock vigil at the endangered lakes — has stopped the wholesale destruction of these precious natural resources, as precious as life itself for the communities who depend on these natural waters for their entire way of life.
For their courageous stand, the Guardians have been subjected to a campaign of persecution. On May 28, 30-year-old Jose Guillermo Cueva joined the long list of anti-Conga protesters injured by police violence when he was struck by rubber projectiles fired from a police shotgun. He was struck in the arm and abdomen.
A government and mainstream media propaganda campaign vilifies the strikers and protesters, accusing them of everything from idiocy to terrorism.
One of the most repeated lies is that the people of Cajamarca (usually characterised as simple and unwitting) are being manipulated for political purposes by regional leaders such as Gregorio Santos (Cajamarcan regional president) and Marco Arana (leader of pro-environmental party Land and Liberty).
The insightful eloquence with which the rank-and-file explain their position belies this absurd claim.“The waters from those lagoons are not moving from their original place — and that’s final”, commented one Cajamarcan on the website of newspaper La Republica.
“[President] Ollanta Humala can shove his reservoirs, and then he might understand that the people are in control, not corrupt governments and corporations that are uninterested in anything but money even if it involves selling their own mothers.”
In recent weeks, there has been a dramatic rise in regional tensions sparked by an announcement in late May from Minera Yanacocha that construction of one reservoir at Lake Chailluagon had been completed and work would immediately begin at Lake Perol.
This deliberately provocative declaration of intent was accompanied by a series of governmental announcements in support of the Conga mine.
In response to this renewed assault, the people of Cajamarca launched fresh mass mobilisations. On June 17, about 4000 protesters from adjacent communities marched to join the Guardians, establishing a permanent camp by Lake Perol.
This development was aptly described by one Peruvian commentator as “the opening of the second chapter in the war for water [in Cajamarca]”. Hundreds of activists have pledged to stay at the lake until the national government cancels the Conga project for good.
Brigades of volunteers have been organised, with reinforcements arriving every three-to-four days to relieve other protesters needing a break from the bitter highland winter nights. The level of cohesion is impressive, sending a clear signal to the world about the depth of anti-imperialist resolve in Cajamarca.
For the people of the Celendin district, it is a fight for survival. This is why more than 1000 residents assembled in the village of Sorochuco to re-pledge their lives in defence of the lakes.
The mood of the June 6 gathering was summed up by Edy Benavides, a key organiser: “All of us are absolutely conscious that it’s now or never in the fight for our water and for our lives. My message of struggle is keep organising, keep preparing for the fight.
“I don’t call it an insurgency, but yes, I am radical with those who want to do us harm, with those who have always trampled on our dignity and I believe now is the time to say enough is enough.”
A big strike and protest action is planned for July 3-4. Idelso Hernandez Llamo, president of the Cajamarcan Defense Front said: “The aim of this mobilisation is to exhort the President that the Conga project is unviable, that is why we are calling for the civil organisations in Cajamarca to unite in this peaceful march.”
Outside Peru, the anti-Conga struggle has received scant attention in the corporate press, aside from a fairly regular series of updates from business media outlets.
The mining industry is keeping a close eye on developments in Conga. In many ways, it represents a litmus test for the viability of their plans for the Andean zone more broadly.
The strategic long view for the region is to turn it into a vast mining reserve for mining conglomerates. This task involves dispossessing the local agricultural population with the assistance of US-backed client regimes.
If Conga goes ahead, in spite of the large regional opposition, it will represent a major victory for the global “market forces” who believe themselves to be the rulers of the world — and recognise no limits on their jurisdiction.