The lives of the inhabitants of this Peruvian region could be put in danger when they protest, but they know that if they do not say anything today, the diseases they suffer as a result of the mining operations will mean that tomorrow they die silenced.
Virginia Moreno Molina
For forty years, the community of the province of Espinar (one of the thirteen that make up the department of Cusco in the south of Peru) has lived under the presence of the mining companies.
Its inhabitants have been witnesses to the destruction of their territories and the contamination of their rivers which has caused them incurable diseases.
For that reason two human rights defenders from Cusco, Esmeralda Larota, a member of the K’ana indigenous group, and Karem Luque of the local NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers, began a tour from Espinar last June to promote the international campaign “Espinar no puede esperar”. The visit of the two activists to London was organised by the Catholic international development charity (Cafod) and Peru support group, and they spoke to The Prisma about the situation in Espinar.
Esmeralda is part of the Association of Female Defenders of the K’ana Territory and Culture in the province of Espinar and is also part of the community affected by the mining.
She herself suffers health problems caused by contaminated water that has led to the appearance of heavy metals in her blood.
“We are sick, it is more and more serious and many people are dying,” she says.
Traditionally, the communities in Espinar province consume water from the rivers, which is also used for cattle, essential to its economy and diet.
Esmeralda explains that “it is very painful for the women to have to give their children contaminated water to drink due to a lack of alternatives.”
And despite the different studies and analyses that have been carried out, which demonstrate the high levels of contamination, the Glencore mining company continues to deny the environmental disaster it is causing.
“Our ancestors used to say that before there were a lot of animals and clean water, the cattle and the communities didn’t die,” she recalls, adding that her “parents did not know what cancer was but nowadays it is a common disease.”
These diseases cannot be treated because the communities lack the financial resources to access treatment.
Larota tells of how, in the beginning, there was a Peruvian state mining company, but over the years privatisation has taken over the sector.
“Our constitution favours the companies and the current government doesn’t do anything,” she explains.
Sentence without actions
In December 2020, the general court in Canchis confirmed a sentence of first instance ordering the Ministry of Health to carry out a plan of action on health within a period of 90 days to attend to the Espinar communities affected by contamination from heavy metals.
However, nothing has happened. “They sent us general practitioners but not specialists to attend to our needs related to heavy metals,” she explains.
Almost two years later they are still complaining about the situation and each protest is received “with repression and violence by the police,” says Esmeralda. But people, she adds, do not file complaints or go to hospital for fear of being identified and arrested.
It is clear they are not opposed to mining operations. What they are opposed to is the contamination of water and the fact that nothing is done to stop it, leaving the populace to become ill and die. They are protesting about that and because the water pollution does not only affect their health but also part of their economic life as it makes it difficult for them to sell their products such as cheese and any type of meat.
Even so, Esmeralda believes that the indigenous communities and the mining operations can co-exist harmoniously.
In fact, in the last 40 years they have never opposed mining activities. But one of the biggest problems is the lack of prior consultation between the communities and the companies over the use of their territories.
This is why Larota thinks that a law should be made so that investors in the mining companies demand that the rights of the people living in the territories are guaranteed.
Moreover, she says that Glencore’s workers know very well what is happening because they always bring bottled water with them to avoid drinking the river water, the contaminated water that the communities have to consume because they have no other option. “We want them to guarantee our lives and not to affect our health or food production, that is why we have come here, to ask for support,” says Esmeralda, speaking about her long journey to Europe to make her voice is heard.
Supporting the community
Karem Luque is part of the organisation Derechos Humanos sin ronteras (Human rights without frontiers) which has been accompanying the Espinar communities since 2012, when the association was part of a branch of the church called Vicariate of Solidarity.
That same year, thanks to support from donors (non-banking associations which offer loans and other types of financing to the general public), a study was conducted by a German specialist backed by the then mayor, Óscar Mollohuanca.
“It proved that the contamination existed and that was when we started to support the communities getting themselves organised and more visible,” explains Karem.
In addition, the organisation has made several attempts at dialogue over the years. From reports exposing the serious problems faced by the population to social protests, in the midst of the pandemic in 2020, over the lack of resources.
“In that conflict people were wounded and some of the attacks were carried out by the public police contracted privately by the mining company,” she alleges.
She explains that there are videos of “tanks arriving in Espinar and firing teargas bombs.” They have also had to face defamation. Karem recounts that the company stigmatises the organisation, accusing it of dividing communities, while the media says that Human Rights Without Frontiers is negotiating directly with the mining company.
But what is certain is that as an organisation it can face up to such accusations and defend the community.
“For us it is much more feasible to get through to the authorities because our influence is based on the state fulfilling its role as a guarantor of rights,” she says.
Óscar Mollohuanca was the authority representing the Espinar communities and a firm defender of human rights and of the territories. As a result of his fight against the mining business, he was criminalised and jailed in 2012.
“His case lasted ten years and he was only absolved because he passed away last March,” explains Karem.
Óscar died without obtaining justice and “in conditions that continue to be unclear to the public.”
For this reason, the activist leaders fear for their lives. At present, the organisation has 19 cases in Espinar and in each case there are between three and five people accused. The accusations by the authorities are of vandalism, aggravated robbery and causing a disturbance.
Additionally, Karem explains that “when the state’s police infiltrators know that a protest is being organised, they declare a state of emergency to prevent mobilisations.”
This she describes as an anti-constitutional tactic which is being “backed by President Pedro Castillo.”
Change of government
Castillo’s government won the election last year. However, so far the left has not represented any change in Espinar’s situation.
“Change depends greatly on political and personal will,” explains Karem. But since Castillo took power he has found an opposition that does not let him govern and which has created instability and corruption within his own party. This has led to “disorganised government with the communities and round tables continuing to take second place,” she says.
Moreover, the pandemic’s consequences have been devastating economically for the country, which has in turn accentuated the food crisis. Taking into account that Peru is the principal exporter of mining products with 60% of exports, it is no surprise that it was the first sector to restart and have money injected into it.
It seems that the fact that “mining has caused almost 70% of the country’s social conflicts, according to the public ombudsman’s office” is not being taken into account, explains Luque.
I nternational campaign
The same worry has driven the international campaign “Espinar no puede esperar”, so that businesspeople, parliamentarians and society participate in actions to change the mechanisms currently used in mining activities in the territories.
Among them are the need to invest in remedying the damage that has been caused, guaranteeing technologies that pollute less, and prior consultation.
Esmeralda does not waste the water here because she herself has said it, “it is pure water.”
In Espinar they know they are drinking water with metals, arsenic, lead…That is the situation they live in and which they want to publicise in order to change it.”
In Brussels, a law has been adopted which could be crucial in moving the situation down a different path.
Although the United Kingdom is no longer part of that conversation it is important to note that it is the main investor in Peru’s mining sector.
“We believe there is a joint responsibility we have to take and for us reaching this point gives hope to Espinar,” Karem concludes.