MAC: Mines and Communities

Anti-Mining Demonstrators Blockade Peruvian Roads

Published by MAC on 2007-05-07

Anti-Mining Demonstrators Blockade Peruvian Roads

By Craig C. Downer

PIURA, Peru, (ENS)

7th May 2007

At midnight on May 2, farmers from cities and towns across the northern Peruvian state of Piura began blocking major roads to mining concessions to demand the immediate suspension of all mining projects in some parts of the state and the declaration of a no-mining "red zone" in the Piuran Cordillera. On Friday, the main road between Sullana and Tumbes remained closed and there was a fierce battle between police and demonstrators in which hundreds were hurt.

A public prosecutor was taken as a hostage by protestors to exchange for other community protesters in prison. The exchange now has been completed and both the prosecutor and the prisoners have been released, according to eye-witness conservationist Alejandro Zegarra-Pezo.

The latest round of protests was triggered by a recent increase in pressure from mining companies, seeking gold, silver, copper, and molybdenum, particularly Monterrico Metals of London and its Peruvian branch Majaz, as well as the Peruvian government and President Alan Garcia-Perez. The demonstrators are demanding the immediate suspension of all mining projects in Piura's cloud forests and the treeless Andean alpine plateaus known as paramos.

They are also demanding the declaration of a no-mining zone in the Piuran Cordillera, with special protective status given to the habitat of the mountain tapir, a mammal listed as endangered by the IUCN-World Conservation Union. The roads to the Piuran towns of Tambogrande, Valle de San Lorenzo, High, Medium, and Low Piura, and Valle de Chira de Sullana, among others, remain blocked indefinately.

A legal team is inspecting the area to see how extensive the work done by Majaz has been. The communities remain adamant that they are not letting anyone enter their territories, especially miners. This people's movement is requesting the immediate presence and attention of the President of the Peruvian National Congress Mercedes Cabanillas Bustamante, Piuran state ministers, and other high government authorities to accommodate its demands.

Until these demands are met, all commerce in the agriculturally productive Piuran state will come to a halt, according to Zegarra-Pezo.

On May 2, Piuran farmers stopped all work for 24 hours. Apart from demands for higher cotton prices, this strike was a demand to stop proposed open pit mining projects in the cloud forest and paramo headwaters of major river systems serving Piuran farmers, including Monterrico/Majaz's Rio Blanco project. Six people were injured in the protest.

As of Friday, protesters were still stopping the entrance of mining vehicles into their concessions. In Ayabaca province, vehicle routes into the mountains are being guarded by locals to prevent mining ingression. The provincial capital of Ayabaca and Huancabamba have already declared their territories to be nature reserves, and many local communities such as Yanta and Segunda y Cajas located in the midst of the mining concession have done likewise.

Some of these communities, including Andurco, have forbade mining entrance into their territories for years, blocking roads and maintaining a constant vigilance to prevent strangers from entering. This firm citizen resolve has prompted Peru's recently elected President Alan Garcia-Perez to direct his attention to the Huancabamba region. In April, a military contingent entered Ayabaca and marched into the border area with Ecuador, most believe as a way of intimidating the deep rooted resistance to the mining industry's takeover in the area.

The president himself came to Piura where he gave talks promoting the mining projects. As expected, both the president and the mining companies proffer the carrot of money and modern progress by means of open pit and cyanide heap leach mining, while maintaining that such projects are environmentally and socially benign. Monterrico Metals is about to complete the environmental and social impact assessment for its Rio Blanco copper molybdenum open pit cyanide heap leach operation mining project. Early site preparation works are scheduled to start in 2008 and the target date for plant start up and commissioning is 2011, according to Monterrico.

This mine may be allowed to proceed in the heart of the Piuran Cordillera's last cloud forests and paramos, an area proposed for nature sanctuary designation.

If the Rio Blanco mine is permitted, conservationists predict a host of similar mining operations will also be allowed, including an adjacent concession of Newmont-USA, aimed at extracting millions of tons of copper, molybdenum, gold and other mineral ores at what they say would be a devastating ecological and social expense. To Monterrico Metals, Rio Blanco is a golden opportunity for profit. The company says Rio Blanco is "one of the largest undeveloped copper resources in the world today."

A February 2007 feasibility study done for the company shows a $1.44 billion total project cost, and a project payback period in the first four years of the mine's 20 year operating period.

A processing plant is planned next to the open pit mine, and the company plans to deposit tailings from the process plant in an adjacent valley. The copper concentrate would be transported to the port of Bayovar on the Pacific coast, some 800 kilometers (500 miles) north of Lima by truck or possibly by a pipeline yet to be built.

A 175 kilometer (108 mile) power line would be constructed to link the project to Peru's national grid. The project would require the construction of 25 kilometers (15 miles) of new road connecting the project to the Pan American Highway. There is much opposition to the Rio Blanco project. For instance, the community of Yanta is suing Monterrico's Peruvian subsidiary Majaz for illegal invasion of its territority.

Peru's Defensoria del Pueblo, or Ombudsman, Dra Eugenia Fernia Zegarra, has just issued an official complaint to the Minister of Energy and Mines against the national government's allowing mining activities by Majaz in the Yanta community. Among other points, she cited the failure by Majaz to obtain a two-thirds approval of the citizens of Yanta for the Rio Blanco mining project.

International opposition is mobilizing, too. On April 3, some 100 protesters gathered in front of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, in Monterrico Metals hometown, to protest against Rio Blanco. Peruvian community leader Nicanor Alvarado Carrasco predicted major protests and social disruption if Rio Blanco is allowed to proceed. "The Peruvian High Amazon region is not suited for mining," he said. "With its fragile ecosystem of cloud forests and paramos, and its organic agriculture in the valleys, copper mining at the source of important rivers could leave disastrous, long-lasting effects. The development of the Rio Blanco project risks a severe escalation of the mining conflict."

This action was organized by the Belgian environmental group CATAPA and supported by several other Belgian, Peruvian and U.S. groups. Here the more southern and ancient Central Andes meets the younger, more volcanically active Northern Andes, creating diverse climatic regimes and supporting a great variety of species, including many found nowhere else on Earth.

In this area, there are 196 species of mammals, 25 of them considered threatened with extinction. They include such ecologically important species as the endangered mountain tapir, of which only a few hundred still survive in Peru and only a few thousand globally - all within the northern Andes.

One of the world's great centers of bird origin and conservation, this region is inhabited by 439 species of birds, of which 35 are endemic. Nearly one-quarter of them are considered to be threatened with extinction. Some 150,000 hectares (580 square miles) of the most ecologically intact Andean forest and paramo in the Huancabamba region is proposed by the Andean Tapir Fund as the Cerro Negro Nature Sanctuary.

This mid-elevation to high-elevation Huancabamba ecosystem is the headwaters for the Piura and the Chira rivers running to the west and for the Mara?on and the Amazon rivers running to the east. Thousands of farming families depend upon this river water to cultivate orchards of carob bean, mango, guava, chirimoyo, lemons and avocados, as well as rice, organic coffee and cotton, and many other fruits and vegetables.

These waters replenish major dams such as the Poechos, filled by the Rio Quiroz, and the San Lorenzo, vital for agriculture and hydroelectric power. In another threat to this ecosystem, the Andean glaciers are disappearing at an alarming rate and most of Peru's mountain slopes and valleys used for agricultural production depend upon their steady influx of melted waters.

The disappearance of these glaciers due to global warming is now predicted within decades. This will make the native forests and paramos of the Huancabamba region, as elsewhere, all the more important as water sources for future generations in this most fertile and agriculturally productive region of Peru.

The Rio Blanco mining project planned by Monterrico Metals and Majaz in the Huancabamba's remnant ecosystem could prove to be the tipping point leading to a large-scale ecological unraveling and desertification in northwestern Peru, as many other mining projects will likely follow.

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