Peru: Gov't resumes mining offensive over popular opposition

Peruvians protests against the government-backed Conga mega mine.

The Peruvian government has renewed its commitment to several controversial mining mega-projects. The projects have provoked huge regional protests against the environmentally destructive expansion plans of foreign mining corporations.

Speaking at a mining industry conference held in the southern city of Arequipa on September 16, Minister of Energy and Mines Jorge Merino indicated that Conga (in Cajamarca), Tia Maria (in Arequipa) and Corani (in Puno) will be developed with the backing of President Ollanta Humala's administration.

All of these projects have produced large protests resulting in the death, injury, jailing and torture of protesters at the hands of Peruvian security forces.

In an impressive display of courage and solidarity in these life-and-death struggles for communities whose land and water resources are under threat, grassroots groups have been able to repel the repeated assaults of multinationals.

Construction of the Tia Maria copper mine backed by Southern Copper was suspended by the then-Alan Garcia administration on the eve of the 2011 elections, after three protesters had been shot and killed in the town of Islay.

In Cajamarca, the revolt of the province against Newmont’s plans to hugely expand the existing Yanacocha copper and gold mine led to the death of five protesters at the village of Celendin.

At the end last year, Humala announced the Conga project would not be suspended.

Popular mobilisation also led to a general strike in Puno, shutting down all major transport networks and leaving the government with no choice but to withdraw its approval for mining projects.

These were significant victories, won at great cost against the full weight of the global extractive industry mafia. Yet with every temporary halt to a mining project, the government is careful to leave the door open so that pressure can be subsequently renewed.

In this remorseless campaign of attrition, the international mining lobby (backed by the Peruvian government) hopes to wear down the resolve of communities slated for destruction. It employs the stick of state-sponsored violence with the carrot of outlandish promises of employment and prosperity for all.

Merino’s latest statements were laden with the usual lies and distortions. For instance, Merino promised the mining projects in question would generate a “million [new] jobs by 2016”.

Every Peruvian would be “10% richer” when national copper production doubled, Merino said. He claimed that 10 million Peruvians already owed their livelihoods to the mining industry.

Merino also promised to do more to ensure that mining revenues were distributed more equally across the provinces, for “the benefit of all the country’s regions, especially the most needy ones”.

The government hopes to win over the general population with such arguments, which, if unexamined, may sound appealling.

However, the evidence suggests these claims are very far from the truth. The government's aggressive promotion of mining projects is not on behalf of ordinary Peruvians. Foreign corporations are the real beneficiaries and it is with their profit margins the government is chiefly concerned.

To illustrate this point, we need only focus on the murky dealings that allowed a company such as Newmont to gain majority control of its holdings in Yanacocha.

In the 1990s, then-president Alberto Fujimori’s shadowy police chief Vladimiro Montesinos intervened in a legal dispute in Peru’s supreme court between Newmont and an estranged French corporate partner.

The evidence trail proves that he did so at the behest of lobbying Newmont executives as well as the US State Department and the CIA.

In one of the many thousands of damning secret recordings of Montesinos, he met with the judge who would cast the deciding vote in the case, and explains that Peru needed Washington's support in a border dispute with Ecuador.

A week later, the judge cast his vote in favour of Newmont, and it won a controlling interest in the Yanacocha Mine.

Other tapes reveal that Montesinos met with Newmont executives, promising: “Now you have a friend for life.”

Furthermore, in a secret videotape, Montesinos was seen meeting with the CIA station chief in Lima. On one tape, Montesinos vowed to block French pressure on Peru's courts in the dispute.

This story provides a clear view of the dark alliance between US corporate interests, agencies of the US government and the Peruvian ruling elite.

Although the Fujimori years are over, the neoliberal system remains in place, along with the corruption it spawned.

Once it is clear that mining in Peru is essentially an exercise in imperialism, it is little surprise that the outcome of all this extractive activity, which is devastating vast swathes of the Andes and the Amazon, offers very little in the way of tangible benefits to the Peruvian people as a whole.

The privatised mining system, controlled by corporate interests, is simply not designed to lift large sections of the population out of poverty. Rather, it is intended to line a few pockets at the expense of the vast majority.

As Oxfam America concluded in a 2009 study of the Peruvian mining boom: “Local communities experience few benefits from mining revenues … Large-scale resource extraction generates relatively few jobs.

“Thus, most mining benefits must trickle down to communities through government programs that redistribute revenues. In Peru, this redistribution process has proven highly problematic.”

Anti-mining activists from all over Peru met in Arequipa at the same time as Merino announced the government’s resumed mining push. The Alternative Mining Forum, hosted by the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Arequipa at the National University of San Agustin (UNSA), responded to the minister’s comments with a renewed commitment to popular resistance.

The banner on the conference stage read: “Assembly of the Peoples of Peru and Tawantinsuyu Territory, Water, Life and Sovereignty”. Many placards expressing pro-environmental and pro-social justice viewpoints filled the hall.

Here was the real Peru the voice of the small farmers, the campesino lifeblood of the nation.

Addressing the gathering, Wilfredo Saavedra, a community leader from Cajamarca, condemned the contamination of highland lakes that would accompany the Conga project.

Pepe Julio Gutierrez, one of the leaders of the struggle against the Tia Maria mine, told the meeting: “The minister says the project has to be carried out even though Southern has not presented any new environmental impact study. This makes it illogical to say that the project is now viable, if we don’t know what the new proposals are.”

The speakers promised fresh anti-mining protests in Cajamarca and Arequipa in the near future.