We are delighted to welcome this guest post from Lynda Sullivan, a human rights activist from Northern Ireland currently based in Peru, where she is working with a local community concerned at the health and environmental implications of a huge mining project in the area.
On World Water Day 2013 hundreds of thousands of people across the world are fighting for their right to water. I’d like to highlight one such case.
In the northern highlands of Peru, in the province of Cajamarca, the local population are fighting off a mega mining project known as Minas Conga. This 6 billion dollar project – majority owned by US-based Newmont mining company, and partly owned by Peruvian Buenaventura and the World Bank, is fiercely opposed by the vast majority of the people who live there. One reason why they oppose it is because they can see what the same company has done in one area of the province – the region with the same name, Cajamarca.
For the past 20 years this mine has dumped toxic waste into rivers used by the local population. The local water processing plant admits they don’t have the capacity to clean the level of heavy metals that flows into the plant – and so they remain in the water as it flows right back out and into the houses of the people in the 240,000 strong city of Cajamarca. The campesinos who live in the countryside and survive mainly through agriculture and cattle rearing have reported high levels of animal deformities, huge amounts of fish washing up dead, a severe water shortage leaving them unable to irrigate their crops, skin deformities on themselves and their children, and unusually high rates of cancer and birth deformities.
In one small town called Choropampa in 2000, due to a mercury spill at the fault of Yanacocha, 10,000 inhabitants suffered the effects of mercury poisoning. Some people even thought, as the mercury ran down the streets, that this highly toxic substance was gold, and began picking it up with their hands – to disastrous effect. Tests have also shown that many Yanacocha workers themselves have dangerously high levels of mercury in their blood. However, once they are unable to work they are abandoned by the company.
Yanacocha itself admits its appalling record “We are not proud of the current state of our relationship with the people of Cajamarca”. However it’s a bit late, they’re nearly finished their extraction in their current mine, and now hope to move on to Minas Conga as its next project. Yet it will not be the same again – it will be three times the size.
The project plans to consume 3069 hectares of land to extract the gold and copper that lies beneath. They plan to drain and exploit two of the most important lagoons and the material they will extract will be dumped on top of two others – effectively cutting off the head of the entire water system; a water system which serves over 30,000 people in 200 communities. The water remaining will most likely be polluted with heavy metals – they plan to produce an average of ninety thousand tons of toxic tailing a day – every day for the 17 year life-span of the project.
This is what the people of Cajamarca are trying to stop. However their resistance has been heavily oppressed by the national police and the army – on orders from the central government. In July of last year during protests in the cities of Celendin and Bambamarcafive protesters were shot dead as police fired live ammunition into the crowds – including a 17 year old boy who was shot in the head by an army helicopter from above. Over 140 have been injured, one man is now paralysed. Human rights defenders have been beaten, while held without charge, in police custody – including a former priest Marco Arana and a young human rights reporter Jorge Chavez. Community leaders have to travel across country to answer to scores of legal allegations – a example of which being “psychological damage to the mining company” for being involved in the organisation of a protest.
But the resistance continues. The communities are organised and strong – helped partly by the already existing social structures of the Rondas Campesinas (Peasant Self-Defence Patrols where groups of men and women from each community keep watch for robbers or any trouble on their lands). They want to organise a consultation, or referendum, on the mining project – since no consultation took place before the mining company was given the green light. The regional government is supportive but the central government and the mining company say it is illegal and are threatening High Court legal action.
Some human rights organisations (such as Grufides) are helping the mainly rural communities to bring their case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (CIDDHH). Just a few days ago on 18th March the Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos (National Coordinator of Human Rights) – a civil society body aimed at protecting human rights in Peru, gave evidence to the CIDDHH in Washington. The complaint raises the violations of rights of indigenous and tribal people as enshrined in Convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Not to mention the stack of human rights protections which have been violated during the repression of the people by the state and the police. This complaint is in process, however general opinion is that while every avenue must be tried, they don’t have much confidence in outcome. Certain countries in Latin America, such as Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil see the CIDDHH as an agent of the United States and want to leave the court; therefore the CIDDHH is reluctant to criticise any government too heavily.
So what hope is there for the people of Cajamarca in stopping Minas Conga? There are some success stories where communities have successfully managed to fight off the might of the mines – such as the people of the small town of Tambogrande, however these are few. The government of Peru seems to have placed all its economic eggs in one basket – mining accounts for 61% of the country’s exports, and it hopes to expand the sector – see below for a map of mining concessions of Peru (as of 2009). Cajamarca itself is over 80% concessioned – a region where 80% make a living through agriculture. So the question for the people who are fighting to protect their right to water is not, “can we win? – it’s “how can we not try?”.
If you’d like to find out more about the situation in Cajamarca, Peru and a similar story in Cajamarca, Colombia check out LASC‘s Latin America Week (Facebook) which includes an event in Belfast at the Culturlann at 4.30pm on Saturday 13th April.