MAC/20: Mines and Communities

PERU

Published by MAC on 2002-06-15

PERU

PERU: Referendum on Mine Unlikely to Determine Its Fate

By Milagros Salazar

LIMA, Jul 19 (IPS)

The Minera Majaz mining project has been a bone of contention in the mountains of Piura, in northern Peru, for four years. A local referendum will be held to settle the issue among the small farming communities, where most of the residents are against the mine, according to a recent poll.

Two campesinos (peasant farmers) have been killed in clashes with the police, and disputes between miners and farmers have reached boiling point. Reports of an alleged terror network opposed to mining activities, and constant diatribes over local radio, are part of the hostility aroused by the Río Blanco project.

The exploratory phase at the Piura mine ended in late 2006, and now licences to extract copper and molybdenum are being negotiated. The mine concession belongs to Minera Majaz, a subsidiary of the British company Monterrico Metals, recently taken over by the Chinese Zijin Consortium.

Majaz has a rocky relationship with the nearby communities of Segunda y Cajas and Yanta, whose residents are afraid the mine will contaminate their water supplies, and complain that the company is operating illegally on their lands.

The area's social leaders say that the company has no permission from the general assembly or from two-thirds of the community to operate in the area, as decreed by the law on Private Investment for activities in campesino communities.

To avoid further conflict, the mayors of Ayabaca, Carmen de la Frontera and Pacaipampa in the area of influence of the mining project have convened a "popular consultation" to take place Sept. 16 or 30, in which residents are to vote either for a future based on mining development, or agriculture. Campesinos supported by non-governmental organisations and local authorities are preparing the publicity campaign for the referendum.

In this context, they are asking for the participation of state agencies like the Defensoría del Pueblo (Ombudsman's Office), the National Office of Electoral Processes, the National Electoral Jury, and even international entities, to ensure the legitimacy of the voting process.

Local authorities and community representatives went to the national Congress in Lima on July 3 to explain the reasons why they want this popular consultation. "We are tired of all the attacks. The best thing is to respect democracy and people's participation in decision-making," the mayor of Carmen de la Frontera, Ismael Huayama, one of those who convened the local referendum, told IPS.

The mayor of Ayabaca, Humberto Marchena, said it was local people themselves who had asked the authorities to hold the consultation. He therefore urged the Executive branch and Minera Majaz to respect the results, although in Peru popular consultations about mining activities are not binding.

This will be the second such referendum since mining was privatised in Peru, in the 1990s.

The town of Tambogrande, also in the Piura region, held a vote in June 2002 which indicated that 98 percent of local people preferred to make their living by farming, and rejected the operations of the Manhattan Sechura mining company, a subsidiary of the Canadian transnational corporation Manhattan Minerals.

Although there is no law which states that the results of a popular consultation of this kind must be respected, in the case of Tambogrande it was decisive in building awareness that the communities had a right to decide what kind of economic activity they wished to pursue, and the Canadian company eventually withdrew from the area.

The communities around the Río Blanco mining project are hoping for the same outcome.

According to an opinion poll commissioned by the Front for Sustainable Development of the North Frontier of Peru, to which IPS was given access, 86 percent of interviewees in Carmen de la Frontera are against the mine, 10.1 percent are in favour, and the rest did not answer.

In Ayabaca, 89.6 percent of interviewees are opposed to the mine, and 7.9 percent are in favour.

The Front for Sustainable Development is made up of mayors who advocate the popular consultation, and several environmental organisations. "The consultation will not be a decisive factor for us. Some people will be pressured to oppose mining activities, but it's the national government that grants concessions for extracting subsoil mineral resources," Minera Majaz's operations manager, Andrew Bristow, told IPS.

In Bristow's view, the Río Blanco project will bring development to the entire Piura region. "The gains will outweigh the losses," he said. Similar arguments were used by the minister of Energy and Mines, Juan Valdivia, who told IPS that "the popular consultation has no validity because it is not binding. We must look to the mining firm to continue holding workshops to inform the population and improve its relations with the communities."

But residents in the area surrounding the Majaz mining operations are against this view.

"The people should decide. The mine company says it will bring in money, but what will we do if it contaminates the water, even if it paves the roads with gold?" Modesto Rivera, a member of a community located close to the Río Blanco project, asked IPS.

María Ruiz, a retail trader in Carmen de la Frontera, disagrees with Rivera. "Let them have their popular consultation if it will bring about a solution; all I know is that the coming of the mine has benefited me, there is more trade now," she says.

Campesino leaders point out that the mine divides the people by creating parallel organisations, and showering gifts on those who are in favour of the mining project. "Now neighbours and even members of the same family are at each others' throats," the vice president of the Segunda y Cajas community, Eusebio Guerrero, told IPS.

Community leaders also allege that Majaz, in alliance with the state, uses heavy-handed methods to put down protesters.

Since 2003, 200 campesinos have faced criminal prosecution for participating in protests against mining activities, according to the Ecumenical Foundation for Development and Peace (FEDEPAZ). Most of them are charged with causing disturbance of the peace.

In the midst of this hostile climate, local leaders, non-governmental organisations and a sector of the Catholic Church that support the communities opposed to Majaz say they are the victims of a defamation campaign.

Two years ago, a nationwide television channel reported that there was an alleged terror network, led by priests opposed to the Río Blanco project and local leaders linked to drug trafficking and guerrilla insurgents.

Those responsible for broadcasting this false accusation defended themselves by saying they had based the news item on information from police sources provided by the Interior Ministry itself, but the ministry denied any involvement. The campesinos suspect that the news report was orchestrated by Majaz.

In the view of researcher Anthony Bebbington of Manchester University, a member of the Peru Support Group, a British organisation, Minera Majaz resorts to methods aimed at dividing social groups in the area and spreading mistrust. "It tears the social fabric apart, when that is precisely what is needed to create the consensus required for development plans. Without it, even if mining produces lots of cash, nothing positive will come of it," Bebbington said.

Experts on the subject like lawyer Javier Jahncke of FEDEPAZ regard the popular consultation as "the opportunity to find a peaceful solution" to the conflict between the mining company and the communities.

The Ombudsman's Office, in a report on the Río Blanco project, also recommends implementing mechanisms of citizen participation.

Piura Congresswoman Marisol Espinoza is promoting a draft law to declare this type of referendum binding for deciding the future of mining concessions, when there is as much violence as has been observed around the Minera Majaz operations. "The idea that mining has become the main source of Peru's economic growth does not justify the state in continuing to favour private investment to the detriment of human rights in the communities," Espinoza told IPS. (END/2007)

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