MAC: Mines and Communities

Farmers, Informal Gold Miners Clash Over Pollution

Published by MAC on 2007-05-04

Farmers, Informal Gold Miners Clash Over Pollution

By Milagros Salazar


4th May 2007

There is a cemetery at the foot of this hill full of gold and silver near the village of Algamarca in northwestern Peru -- an indication of the risks involved in informal mining, which uses highly toxic substances like cyanide and mercury.

Two hours away by car live the farmers of Chuquibamba, who are worried that toxic runoff from the small-scale mining operations is polluting the river that they depend on for water to grow their crops, such as paprika and avocado, which they have begun to export to Europe, the United States and Mexico.

The problem has led to hard feelings between the people of the two towns in the northwestern province of Cajamarca. "They say they don't pollute, but the cyanide that they use up on the hill ends up in the rivers, carried down by the rain," Victoria Verástico, a peasant farmer from Chuquibamba, told IPS.

Juan Uriol, a miner from Algamarca, responded that "we dig 50 metres down to dispose of the cyanide tailings, and it loses it poisonous effect down there. The water we use isn't dumped out; we use the same water over and over again."

The conflict between people from the two towns has even flared up into violence. On Feb. 16, members of the "rondas campesinas" -- vigilante "self-defence" committees from Chuquibamba -- and the Front for the Defence of the Environment climbed the hill and destroyed the ponds where the minerals are processed, seized seven miners and turned them over to the police.

There are some 3,000 miners working on Algamarca hill, and they have a clearly-defined hierarchy. According to their security chief, Juan Álvarez, there are 270 pits with a similar number of "owners" or foremen. Each pit is a kind of feudal enclave, worked by between two and 30 labourers. IPS found that most of the workers do not use masks to protect themselves from the dust or mercury vapours, and that virtually no one uses special protective clothing.

The "capachero" carries the large stones removed from the shafts, the "chancador" breaks the stones into small pieces, which the "cernidor" sifts onto a mixture of lime and cement. The sifted ore then goes into the pits where it is mixed with water, cyanide, borax and nitric acid.

The workers earn six to eight dollars for an eight-hour workday, except for the one who removes the mixture. Because this particular job involves the highest level of exposure to toxic chemicals, it pays 12 dollars a day.

Most of the pits are only covered with a plastic sheet, although some are built of adobe and cement. The labourers, especially the younger ones who have come from other towns, mainly work a double shift in order to earn at least 200 soles (63 dollars) a week. There are also minors working, although that is denied by the leaders of the miners.

According to the Cajamarca regional health office, 60 percent of students in Algamarca drop out of school to work in small-scale mining. Walter Yauri, 20 years old, is just passing through. He has been working as a "capachero" for a week, earning 75 dollars in six double-shift days. "It's a sacrifice, but it's only for a short time. I want to learn, to be able to do this near my own town," he says in a low voice, as if he were sharing a big secret.

Yauri was born in the mountain town of Santiago de Chuco, in the neighbouring region of La Libertad. He is anxious to return and become the owner of his own pit, because he has been told that there is gold in that area too.

"They say the foremen earn more than the members of Congress, like 15,000 soles (4,700 dollars) a month. Not bad, eh?" he comments as he heads off to Cajabamba to buy more blankets, to ward off the night-time cold of the highlands. Just 200 families live in the village of Algamarca, 15 minutes away from the hill by car. Over the last two years, many of the men have given up farming to mine for gold and silver. Most of the families now grow crops only for subsistence purposes.

"I used to earn five soles a day (1.50 dollars) as a farmer, but I earn around 20 soles per shift in the mine," says Agustín García. The hill falls within the territory covered by 26 mining concessions disputed in the courts since 2002 by a local subsidiary of the Canadian firm Sulliden Exploration and the Peruvian-Panamanian group Las Algamarcas.

Miners from other communities live in colourful tents and plastic-roofed shacks that line the hillside. It is noon on Saturday, and the work-week has just ended for most of the miners. They descend the hill and sit on rocks along the road, with their transistor radios and backpacks, next to the cemetery and in front of a little makeshift store that sells food and liquor. Many of the younger men head towards a truck loaded with crates of beer, and start spending their hard-earned money.

Meanwhile, four-wheel-drive vehicles drive up to the hill, and into the centre of Algamarca, to buy gold and silver. The buyers come from the cities of Cajamarca, Cajabamba and Trujillo, the capital of La Libertad, according to a report by the presidency of the Council of Ministers to which IPS had access.

It is likely that the mining companies themselves are buying the gold. But "there are no formal records of the buyers. Nor is it clear whether the National Superintendence of Tax Administration or the financial police have information on the buying and selling of gold in Algamarca," says the document.

The report does provide an estimate of how much gold is sold each month: 125 kgs on average. It also states that each foreman produces around 30 grams a week, and that three workers have died as a result of handling toxic chemicals. In addition, it says the companies involved in the dispute probably supply at least part of the chemical inputs.

With the new incomes, commerce has risen threefold in Algamarca. Although mobile phone signals don't reach the village, on Algamarca hill there isn't a single foreman or labourer without a cell-phone. "The informal miners' work here is only temporary. People know that, and it cannot be denied that there is pollution, even though we will pay for the consequences in the future," says Algamarca mayor Robinson Rodríguez, who also works driving a four-wheel-drive vehicle along the road to Cajamarca, which is in terrible condition. That is precisely the fear of farmers in Chuquibamba. Since 2002, the farming town, which is home to around 1,500 families, has exported between 120 and 200 tons a year of paprika to Spain and Mexico. According to Eloy Ulloa, a local farmer, he and his fellow farmers can earn up to 3,800 dollars per hectare of paprika.

This year, for the first time, they also sold 20 tons of avocados to Britain, through the Condebamba Valley Producers Association, which groups 40 farmers and will soon admit a similar number of new members.

To resolve the conflict between the farmers in Chuquibamba and the miners of Algamarca, the Cajamarca provincial government organised talks between representatives of the two towns and the central and local governments. At the first meeting, the participants agreed to have water samples analysed to determine pollution levels, and the initial results were released at the second meeting, in April. According to the study by the General Office on Environmental Health, arsenic levels are two times the limit set by Peruvian law for water to be used for irrigation and livestock, in the Chupalla River, which runs into the Condebamba River, the source of water used by Chuquibamba's farmers.

Chuquibamba mayor Walter Marquina told IPS that the farmers plan to march on the Algamarca hill again. "We have to fight to defend our crops, and destroy the cyanide pits," he said.

It's now 4:00 PM, and at the foot of the hill, the youngest miners are already drunk, and cheerfully drinking a toast with anyone and everyone. "What, do you think you're going to live forever?" one of them asks, before plunking down on a rock outside of the cemetery.

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