Peru: APEC, 'free trade' and Australia's mining agenda

Issue 

On November 22 this year, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders' meeting will convene in Lima, Peru.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and a suit team will be there, pushing for greater trade "liberalisation" on behalf of Australian industrial guilds like the Minerals Council of Australia.

After all, there's gold, copper, silver and uranium in them thare Andean hills (not to mention the tempting reserves of oil and gas lying beneath the Amazonian rainforest).

Peru's vast mineral deposits are more than matched by the ruling elite's accommodating attitude towards "foreign investment": favourable exchange rates, deferred taxation (minimal, in any case) and environmental policies that sound suitably reassuring in press releases but mean absolutely nothing on the ground.

An added bonus is the willingness of Peruvian security forces to crack down on local dissent, meaning that agricultural communities protesting the toxifying "development" of their ancestral lands can be overridden by rapacious multinationals.

During APEC 2007 in Sydney, then energy and resources minister Ian Macfarlane signed a mining and energy deal with Peruvian President Alan Garcia. Installed with assistance from US-supplied campaign money, Garcia knows his brief well — to serve the neoliberal globalisation project.

"Australian miners are a strong and growing presence in Peru, with South America identified as a primary target market for Australian mining technology products", boasted Macfarlane.

His ALP successor, Martin Ferguson, is equally keen to facilitate the plundering of Peru's natural resources by Australian companies.

Major miners, including BHP Billiton (operating an infamously contaminating copper mine, Tintaya), Newmont and Barrick (both operating gold mines) are active in Peru.

Late last year, Peru entered into a grotesquely one-sided "free trade agreement" with the US. Similar agreements with other wealthy nations are reportedly in the pipeline, and it is possible that an Australia-Peru FTA will be brokered at APEC this year.

Perth-based Contact Uranium, which has initiated two Peruvian projects, is one player that is set to benefit from the projected carve-up. Contact's largest uranium deposit is located at Corachapi, near Qosco in south-eastern Peru.

At present, the mine's inferred resource is 4173 tonnes of uranium, but "we actually think we can easily triple that resource", according to Contact's chief executive, Richard Napier.

If the peasants get too restive, they can always be booted off the company's fiefdom.

Given the disastrous environmental record of the uranium industry in Australia, it is tragically clear that the expansion of Corachapi will lead to immense suffering in Peru, where mining consortiums can do as they please without even a semblance of public scrutiny to impede their operations.

How long before the mountain rivers flow with even more radioactive pollution, spreading deformaties, cancer and the annihilation of ancient communities?

Over the past decade, the number of Australians visiting Peru has greatly increased. Almost all of them spend time in Qosco, the ancient Inca capital, a few hours train ride from the "lost" city perched on a mountain top, Macchu Picchu.

In their guide books, they might read of the Spanish conquest nearly five centuries ago, of the suffering and exploitation that ensued from the greed of Pizarro's cut-throat band.

Yet few of the tourists sojourning in the Qosco region are aware of the present wave of imperialist exploitation — symbolised by the existence of the Corachapi uranium mine and dozens of similar places located off the official sightseeing routes.

In the words of Peruvian campesino activist Hugo Blanco, "There were many deaths during the war of conquest ... but the major cause of death — one that continues today — was the rupture of social organisation and the substitution of an economy serving the needs of the people by a colonial economy ...

"That socio-economic reality continues today ... we are now a colony of multinational companies ... We have changed masters and products, but our people continue to work, not for their own benefit, but for the master of the day."

As yet, there have been no calls for Rudd to raise the "human rights" issue when he visits Peru, and it is unlikely (given the prevailing corporate media blackout) that any domestic momentum will develop in that regard.

In Australia, like Peru, the mining card continues to trump all.