Peru: Mining conflict heats up

February 4, 2012
Protesters in Cajamarca demonstrate against the planned Minas Conga open cut copper and gold mine. Photo from

Cajamarca, a town with tragic associations in Peruvian history, is the setting of another devastating imperialist onslaught.

In 1532, a band of Spanish conquistadores ambushed the Inca king Atahualpa in the central plaza of this Andean town.

The brutal spirit of conquista is alive and well in contemporary Cajamarca, in the form of the US-based Newmont mining corporation, an outfit with a slick PR machine and a very dirty environmental and human rights track record.

Newmont runs the Yanococha gold mine and is seeking to open a new, open-cut, copper and gold mine in the region.

When the 16th century conquistadors attacked, the influx of European diseases, which preceded the arrival of the Spaniards, had already destabilised the vast Inca empire.

Disease killed tens of thousands of people, including a king, and provoked a civil war between rival claimants for the vacant throne.

The empire was in a weakened state when Francisco Pizarro’s gold-hungry band arrived on the scene at exactly the right moment to take full advantage. They were small in numbers but large in ambition, greed and brutality.

Employing cannon, horses and swords of hard Toledo steel, the Spaniards relied on the psychological shock of these unfamiliar weapons to compensate for their numerical inferiority.

The tactic succeeded and in the ensuing massacre, thousands of Incas were systematically slaughtered until the square ran with blood.

Atahualpa was taken hostage and later executed, despite having paid his ransom price in gold and silver, worth probably hundreds of millions of dollars by today’s currency standards.

It was just the beginning of five centuries of exploitation of Peru and its indigenous people by European imperialists.

Not far from the plaza where the Inca empire died, the hills of the majestic Andes are being ravaged by today’s sociopathic gold seekers.

The Yanococha gold mine, Latin America’s largest, has already consumed five mountains and looks set to destroy a sixth peak, Quilish, the source of much of Cajamarca’s drinking water.

In 2000, a Yanococha truck spilled 150 kilograms of mercury along a 20-kilometre stretch of mountain road. As a consequence, thousands of people were exposed to the highly toxic substance.

It was reported that many locals hastily recruited by Newmont to help with the clean up were not issued with appropriate safety equipment. Hundreds required hospitalisation, but the true extent of the contamination and its impact on future generations will probably never be known.

But this is acceptable, according to respected neoliberal institutions such as the World Bank, which has itself acquired a 5% stake in the lucrative Newmont project.

Newmont now claims its planned US$4.8 billion Minas Conga open cut copper and gold mine will improve infrastructure and boost the living standards of the provincial population.

Behind Newmont’s false promises and carefully-chosen weasel words, however, lies a different reality.

If the mine proceeds, the environmentally-sensitive water network that supports thousands of small farming families will face certain contamination as four pristine mountain lakes are used for extractive mining purposes.

Over time, entire peasant communities will be displaced, forced off their land, effectively wiped out. Dispatched by the “invisible hand” of the market into seething urban slums, their future will resemble a post-apocalyptic nightmare.

This is happening all over the country in hundreds of locations.

Determined to resist, more than 10,000 Cajamarcenos took to the streets in courageous protest in November 2011.

Equally courageous has been the stance of the regional government, which listened to its electors and passed a law blocking any further development of the Conga mine.

In response to these stirrings of popular democracy, the administration of President Ollanta Humala, elected last year on a nationalist, pro-poor platform, declared a state of emergency and sent the army in to quell the protests.

It has also challenged the anti-Conga law in the constitutional court. It has personally attacked Cajamarca’s “radical” left-wing regional president Gregorio Santos, launching separate legal action against him.

Conservative interests representing the Lima-based domestic elite and multinational foreign investors have long dominated the Peruvian state apparatus, using it to enrich themselves at the expense of the impoverished majority.

When Humala, once considered a dangerous radical himself, was elected president last year, there were many in Peru who hoped that this might change. From the outset, however, Humala’s ministerial appointments reflected a mixed and somewhat disappointing agenda.

Some positions in the cabinet were taken up by social progressives, key economic posts were given to Wall Street-approved neoliberal appointees.

This was done in an attempt to placate the viciousness of the markets, whose operatives were openly threatening to take down Peru’s economy if the new government enacted anti-corporate, pro-poor measures.

This marriage of convenience was never going to be a happy arrangement. Events in Cajamarca have exposed the internal divisions that plague the troubled administration.

No less than 10 ministers have resigned in protest over the fraudulent nature of the environmental impact studies that sanctioned the Conga mine and the way Humala’s response to the protests recalls the actions of his right-wing predecessor, Alan Garcia.

During the election campaign, Humala spoke out against the Conga mine and promised that he would respect the decision-making powers of Peru’s regional governments.

The hypocrisy is jarring, and illustrative of the moral pitfalls and hazards faced by reforming governments in developing nations whose resources are coveted by the international capitalist elite.

Millions of ordinary Peruvians who voted for a reform candidate are now faced with the prospect of a nominally left-of-centre government lurching rapidly to the right in accordance with the designs of US “dollar diplomacy”.

With the constitutional court’s decision still pending, the future of Cajamarca — one of Peru’s most fertile and productive agricultural areas — hangs in the balance.

The Spaniards murdered thousands there, will the modern day residents succeed in resisting their modern day equivalents?

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