Peru: Workers' solidarity aids anti-mine fight

June 21, 2015

Unionists, rural workers and environmentalists are coming together in Arequipa, in southern Peru, to halt the proposed Tia Maria copper mine. The mine project belongs to Southern Copper Corporation, a subsidiary of Grupo Mexico.

Mine opponents are demanding respect for workers' rights, community democracy and involvement in development decisions, and protection for the ecosystem and rural farmers.

Tia Maria is planned as a large pit mine projected to have a 20-year life span. Protesters are concerned about likely contamination of the region’s water supply.

The federal government has declared martial law and sent soldiers into the region. It also called for a 60-day pause in mine development.

Police forces have been contracted by Southern Copper to protect the mine, placing in question their commitment to public safety. So far, three protesters have been killed in demonstrations against the mine and more than 200 wounded.

Grupo Mexico is the world’s third largest copper producer. It has a history of anti-union activities. This includes the violent suppression of a strike in Cananea, Mexico, where it used scab labour and helped form a fake company union.

Common practices include mass firings of workers, replacement with “temporary” and contract workers, violent suppression of protests and unsafe working conditions. In the United States, its subsidiary ASARCO is refusing to negotiate in good faith with the union at its copper mine near Tucson, Arizona.

Grupo Mexico’s environmental record is truly abysmal. ASARCO has been found responsible by the US Environmental Protection Agency for 20 “super-fund” sites in the United States. These are sites recognised by the US government for dangerous levels of contamination that are cleaned with public money.

In Mexico last year, Southern Copper Corporation’s Cananea mine spilled 10.5 million gallons of sulphuric acid and heavy metals into the watershed of the Rio Sonora. It was the largest environmental disaster in modern Mexican history.

The company did not alert the local community for two days, only doing so after the river’s water turned orange and residents developed rashes. Juan Rebolledo, Grupo Mexico’s vice-president of international relations, denied the toxicity of the acid and even declared “there’s no problem, nor any serious consequence for the population”.

A report by the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law cited “six reasons why the mining company Southern has generated distrust in Arequipa”. This included repeated instances of contamination of waterways and its constant release of sulphuric dioxide into the air at rates up to four-and-a-half times those permitted.

The Peruvian government’s Agency for Environmental Evaluation and Assessment (OEFA) has sanctioned Southern Copper 12 times since 2008.

International solidarity among working people can mount powerful challenges against those, like Grupo Mexico, who put profits before people and planet.
An example is the May 18 statement of solidarity with Peru’s mining union by the United Steelworkers (USW), representing US and Canadian workers, and the National Union of Mine, Metal, Steel and Related Workers of the Mexican Republic.

The statement calls for workers' safety, a rise in wages for contract workers, an end to mass firings and other measures to improve work conditions.

It concluded: “The mineral wealth of a country should be used to benefit the people, including the workers, and not to destroy the environment for the benefit of corporations and politicians.

“You can count on our solidarity in this strike and in all of your struggles.”

Equally important is the intersection of labour movements with environmentalists, community democracy advocates and farmers. Historically, this kind of coalition has achieved tremendous successes and mounted a challenge capable of shaking big corporations.

Just as workers and popular movements have now temporarily halted development of the Tia Maria mine in Peru, a coalition of farmers, community activists, environmentalists and striking union members were able to halt production in April at Southern Copper’s Cananea mine.

Cross movement and international worker solidarity is especially important now, given the possible passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP includes the US, Mexico and Peru and nine other Pacific rim countries — including Australia.

The agreement would seriously hurt workers' rights and the ability for nations to pass and enforce environmental protection laws.

Arthur Stamoulis of the Citizen’s Trade Campaign said: “The TPP seeks to further cut the legs out from under labour, environmental and social movements against unfettered corporate greed and destruction. There are warning signs throughout Latin America of just how dangerous these neoliberal trade agreements are to sustainability, to democracy and to life itself.

“Thankfully, there is a transnational movement-of-movements working hard to derail the TPP.”

Transnational corporations have many obstacles to throw in the way of workers and popular movements. What they cannot control is the power of an awakened movement of workers and their allies.

To this end, Peruvian unions and social movements are calling for a national strike to take place on July 9. That strike will not take place in isolation.

[Abridged from James Jordan is national coordinator of the Alliance for Global Justice.]

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