MAC: Mines and Communities


Published by MAC on 2007-06-07


Mining conflicts in the Andes: Contradictions between the national and the local

By Luis Vittor, ALAI, América Latina en Movimiento

Lima, Peru

7th June 2007

When mining is central to state policy, challenges and alternatives arising from the local level are treated as "outmoded", because they touch the heart of state structures and the economic model. This situation underscores not only the contradictions between the national and local level, but also that the core issues are fundamentally non-negotiable, since the national policies defined by the political and economic power centres are not up for discussion. Yet the protection of citizen's rights may be sacrificed in the interest of ensuring income from the mining sector. This incompatibility is more than evident in various facts and case studies.

Up until a few years ago, the benefits and negative impacts from mining activities were not as apparent as they are today, and, to a centralized citizenry, the conflicts between communities and corporations appeared to be isolated cases. A process of transformation took place during this period which shifted the conflicts from the local to the national level and brought us back again to long-standing and complex contradictions between national and local-regional visions of development that not even the decentralization of the state has been able to resolve.

This previous scenario was also reinforced by Peru 's centralist tendencies, that up until now have favoured development along the coast leaving the highlands in the hands of mining companies. Economic liberalization has not changed this situation either, rather it strengthened the status quo, after the mining industry was declared a national necessity and legislation was passed to make the industry more viable. New areas were opened up for mining to the extent that the Andes have become a renewed source sustaining national exports.

The mining industry has become important from a macroeconomic perspective in Peru, principally due to the massive growth in exports revenue as a result of high mineral prices. In practice, this importance should not be confused with passive acceptance at the local level, and even less so as a democratic country in which everyone should have the right to freely express their hopes and preferences concerning local and regional development. Nevertheless, we are facing a situation in which national policies are overriding local citizen's rights, "coercing" them to "blindly" accept mining as the only means to achieve the desired development.

Generally, from a national perspective mining is seen as the only route to develop the highlands, making reference to the percentage of exports that mining represents in Peru (61,7% in 2006), the taxes and royalties from mining, as well as employment. This policy is repeated so often that a liberal commentator has tendentiously proposed to change the way the government promotes the highlands, as an "agricultural export area", to that of a "mineral export area," and in congress a proposal as made to earmark 15% of mining royalties for military and police armaments.

From the local perspective, mining has not managed to become integrated nor to transform itself into an effective means for local nor regional development. On the contrary, it has accentuated human rights violations, environmental contamination, and poverty in local communities. In fact, according to the most recent assessment of poverty across the country, the "mining regions" of Huancavelica, Pasco and Cajamarca are amongst the six poorest departments (political division) within the highlands. The "mining opposition" has also been criticized for its lack of proposals without even being given minimal recognition for the dependence of these communities and local populations on national resources within their environment to stave off hunger. In fact, they would not be able to demonstrate the validity of their proposal for "living well" in the same terms that the free market demands.

Majaz: The local is not binding at the national level

The cases of Ayabaca and Huancabamba stand out in particular, within which the central and the local can be seen for the way that they disregard and challenge each other.1 A recent report from the Peru Support Group (PSG)2 indicates that "a real tension exists between citizen rights and investment promotion." This type of statement could be applied in various mining conflicts, especially in the phases of exploration and expansion.

The report adds that "the tension between central government guidelines and decentralized rights is also evident between the various levels of government." The development plans of local governments don't include mining, but neither are they considered binding by the central government. However, they could represent the position of the local population with regard to mining, given the participation that is assumed to take place during their creation.

This brings us back to the idea that the local is not binding at the national level. Local development plans, in this case as well as in others, are not considered binding within national development policies and, in the same way, neither are the neighbourhood referenda called by local municipalities to decide whether or not to consent to mining in their territory. Even the Ombudsman has taken a position against such referenda calling them "a right of veto." As the report indicates, "the Majaz mining project continues on for its importance to the nation, not so much for the local interest."

La Oroya: Business before health

La Oroya is a city in the central highlands of Junín, where a metallurgical plant owned by the North American Doe Run Company is located. This factory represents an open threat to the health of locals due to the high concentrations of heavy metals in the air as verified by various scientific studies which have identified Oroya as the fifth most contaminated city in the world.

In 1997 the Peruvian government approved a ten-year program of investment in environmental mitigation for the smelter, which should have been completed at the beginning of this year. However, the company has not come through with the implementation of the investments and has applied "five times for modifications"3 to its environmental program. The latest appeal from the Doe Run Company was the most scandalous for the central government because it involved an extension on the program until October 2009. The Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) supported the request which would first allow for a change in the deadlines outlined within the environmental regulations pertaining to such programs and then would further approve an extension on the time period.

Subsequently, the Constitutional Court arranged for the Ministry of Health (MINSA) to implement an emergency system in order to take care of people exposed to the contamination, which up until now has not been carried through. Those affected have appealed for support from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) which has accepted the case in consideration of the lack of timely action by the Peruvian government.4

However, MEM's behaviour constitutes a flagrant violation not only of national environmental policies but also of the way in which health is sacrificed in the supposed "national interest." In the same way, it becomes clear to us that defending the right to health at the central institutional level is almost impossible because the observations made by the affected organisations are not valid from the viewpoint of those that set the regulations, promote, license, and supervise mining activity.

Mount Quilish: the by-law that created a symbol

In October 2000, the Provincial Municipality of Cajamarca established a municipal by-law declaring Mount Quilish untouchable, recognizing its importance as a natural spring that supplies water to farmers in the region and to a large part of the urban population in Cajamarca. The mining company, Yanacocha, which had and still maintains plans to explore and expand its operation toward Mount Quilish in order to ensure continued growth in its gold production, presented a lawsuit to demand protection from the municipal by-law alleging that it affects the development of its mining activities and creates instability in the legal climate.

In an unprecedented act, the local judiciary ratified the municipal decree signalling that "the common good prevails over private property." Yanacocha appealed to the Constitutional Court which arrived at a contradictory judgement. While it doesn't negate the by-law, it authorizes the exploration and exploitation of Mount Quilish (April, 2003). Additionally, in early 2004, Yanacocha presented its environmental impact study to MEM in order to begin exploration which received approval in July of the same year. Going against what the local judiciary had ruled, we found ourselves facing a situation where "the private interest was prevailing over the common good."

Only the mobilization of the people of Cajamarca could reaffirm the municipal by-law and ensure that MEM would not enforce the authorization and that Yanacocha would voluntarily withdraw its intentions to explore Mount Quilish . As indicated by Father Arana Frame, "after a multitude of citizen mobilizations around Mount Quilish for more than two years, and as a result of the historic demonstration by the people of Cajamarca on September 14th, 2004, we now consider Mount Quilish to be much more than a source of water. It is symbolic beyond its hydrological importance (...) carrying social and political significance as a symbol of defending water that is threatened by mining activities."5

Only dialogue with centralized power

A report from the Ombudsman identifies the key negative political impact of the conflicts as the "weakening of regional and local authorities in their capacity to influence the prevention, management and transformation of these conflicts."6 This statement is further verified when in various emblematic conflicts "high commissions" must be formed as part of the solution, which continue to detract from processes of decentralization and foster further centralism.

In 2002, CONACAMI itself made a commitment with the central government for the creation of a "Tripartite National High Commission" with the aim of resolving the mining conflicts. This was never realized precisely because the proposed agenda included themes that were sensitive at the national level, particularly with regard to the current economic model.

In reality, the social demands for "high commissions" to resolve these conflicts are based on the clarity with which affected communities characterize mining as state policy thereby identifying that their main conflict is with the central government. Their conflict is precisely with the central government, with which they have to negotiate what is apparently non-negotiable, rather than with local and regional governments who have no "real power" to decide or influence national politics. In other cases, they opt to negotiate without the presence of either the central or the local government, as was the case with Tintaya ( Cusco ).

The challenge in the democratic arena

In conclusion, how do we ensure that the common good prevails? We believe that as long as local development processes are not considered binding, and human rights violations against populations affected by the mining sector are not addressed in an impartial way, and reforms do not take place in the central government and within the economic model, national politics will continue to create conflicts that create disjunctures and polarize local areas.

As long as local power and autonomy are not strengthened through decentralisation, and communities and social organizations fail to gain space within local, regional and national governments, the centralized state will continue to be as a source of contradictions. In order to address the challenges surrounding mining conflicts, solutions must be found in the democratic arena.


(1) See: Conflictos mineros en los andes: comunidades de Ayabaca y Huancabamba contra proyecto de Minera Majaz;
(2) "Minería y Desarrollo en Perú, con especial referencia al Proyecto Río Blanco en Piura"; May, 2007.
(3) Informe de Conflictos Mineros: Los Casos de Majaz, Las Bambas, Tintaya y La Oroya ; COOPERACCION; Octuber, 2006.
(4) See:
(5) La defensa del cerro Quilish: ¿una cuestión romántica?; GRUFIDES, marzo 2007.
(6) Special report "Los Conflictos Socioambientales por Actividades Extractivas en el Perú", Defensoría del Pueblo, abril 2007.

Home | About Us | Companies | Countries | Minerals | Contact Us
© Mines and Communities 2013. Web site by Zippy Info