Globe, Latin America

Peter Low: Mining projects affect entire communities

As one of Peru’s engines of growth, the extraction industry has become the focus of social protest in the country. Rural areas feel that the benefits of such activities are not reaching them.


Ramón Alabau


They have trekked more than 800 kilometres. They traipse Lima’s streets with chants and pickets, demonstrating their opposition to a mining project they believe will have devastating consequences for the environment and their lives.

The inhabitants of the region of Cajamarca in the north of Peru feel cheated and ignored by their government.

They claim to have proof that a major US company is carrying out extraction work covertly, and that the proceeds from this work are not finding their way to the most affected areas or those most in need of them.

They maintain that this project to extract gold will put the region’s water supply at risk and transform verdant scenery into a dump for toxic waste. It is yet another example of the protest movements springing up across the country in reaction to disputes over mine work.

The other side of the coin

Peru’s burgeoning mining industry has provoked various disputes and social conflicts.

The extraction companies’ considerable influence over the country’s economic growth has left the Government between ‘a rock and a hard place’ as it tries to find a balance between attracting foreign investment and protecting indigenous and rural communities.

The greatest impact is on areas of high environmental value. Many of these virgin forests are inhabited by small indigenous communities which have been overlooked by authorities, not only in political, economic and social matters, but also when it comes to approving mining projects which could mean the disappearance of their settlements and resources. This injustice has incited people to speak out.

The other side of these criticisms is that the mining industry brings in foreign currency, generates growth and creates jobs. According to the Ministry for Mining, over the next five years mining will bring in 10 billion US dollars.

The industry will also allow Peru to continue to lead Latin America in terms of economic growth, and create thousands of jobs.

Conflicts ‘made in the UK’

According to figures from Peru’s Human Rights Ombudsman, in 2012 there were more than 230 social conflicts. Such protests have tripled in recent years and are prompted primarily by “socio-environmental” concerns raised by the mining industry’s activities.

According to investigations conducted by The Peru Support Group, extraction work carried out at the behest of some British companies, listed on the London Stock Exchange, has resulted in various social conflicts.

Names like Xstrata and BHP Billiton appear on the list of companies which have sparked unrest among rural and indigenous populations. Some of them have even been linked to “cases of torture”.

Peter Low, coordinator of the UK based not-for-profit organisation, told The Prisma that there is a general ignorance among the British public of the level of investment made by many British multinationals in Peru, and the conflicts which this investment causes.

“Great Britain has never had strong connections with Latin America, it has been closer with other parts of the world like North Africa. More than 50% of mining investment made in Peru is channelled through British entities,” he added.

Low explained that in the last 20 years mining has experienced “impressive growth, not just in terms of the amount of investment, but also in the number of concessions granted, affecting 20% of the territory.”

It is an industry which is flourishing and remains linked both to Peru’s economic growth and various social conflicts in the country. Many of these protest movements have been violently repressed.

The problem with mining, as Peter Low indicates, comes primarily from the fact that its projects affect entire communities who are obliged to leave their land and whose natural resources are put at risk.

The people progress left behind

One of the main demands made by the various organisations involved, and one which President Ollanta Humala himself has publicly supported, is that a percentage of the profits made by companies be invested to help the local community.

Social projects financed in this way could solve endemic problems in areas inhabited by the indigenous and rural population.

It is estimated, according to figures from UNICEF, that 78% of indigenous children live in poverty, 32% of three to five-year-olds do not go to school and less than 50% have access to medical treatment.

But it is the broken promises which stir up the most discontent.

“I saw how the people felt let down by the president because during the election campaign he promised to help them and then that didn’t happen. What they did in Cajamarca declaring a state of emergency was like a betrayal.”

“The government says it cares about the environment, but a lot of the time it doesn’t. The state isn’t there at the start of the conflict, it appears when the thing blows up and it’s too late. The police and the army turn up and people are killed or wounded. We don’t want that.”

Yes, but no

The newspaper archives also attest to the tension and drama of the protests. Last July Ollanta Humala was facing harsh criticism over the outcome of an anti-mining protest which ended with five dead and many wounded.

According to Peter Low, the unease surrounding mining projects could be avoided by “improving dialogue with communities so that they can air their grievances.”

“The way environmental impact studies are endorsed must be changed as these are ratified by the Ministry for Mining which is also tasked with encouraging mining investment in the country. It’s a conflict of interests.”

He is also optimistic about the measures passed by the government and which have been realised with Senase, an independent body responsible for evaluating all proposed projects.

With regard to the stance the UK government should take to prevent British companies from becoming the source of disputes, he points out that “English law requires companies to publish detailed earnings. This improves transparency and prevents corruption. If this requirement were fully enforced it would help to solve some of the conflicts” which outrage the inhabitants of areas affected by mining.

To be heard, that is what all those nameless people, forced to watch their resources depleted for the benefit of big international companies, really want. Their voices are the real weapons, capable of reaching anywhere to demand recognition of their rights.

(Translated by Fiona Marshall – Email: fiona_mn@hotmail.co.uk)

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