MAC: Mines and Communities

Treasure Quest Endangers Peru's Bears

Published by MAC on 2006-11-04
Source: BBC News

Treasure quest endangers Peru's bears

By Hugh O'Shaughnessy, BBC News, Peru

4th November 2006

Economic development is putting some of Peru's oldest inhabitants in danger of extinction.

I learnt I was in Paddington territory the other day 13,000 feet up in the Peruvian Andes.

I was chatting to Captain Sutcliffe of the Peruvian air force whose Russian helicopter had brought me up to an isolated mine site east of the local capital Piura.

He and his crew are extremely skilful aviators.

They avoided vertical walls of rock and put us down on a spot rather smaller than you would find on a warship at sea, before buzzing off up and down the tropical valley with heavy loads of mining equipment slung underneath their aircraft.

There, beside the Rio Blanco, the border between Peru and Ecuador, a British company, Monterrico Metals, is planning to dig up millions of tonnes a year of valuable copper ore and send it down a massive pipeline to the Pacific Ocean.

"Much wild life about in this altitude?" I asked.

"Well, sometimes we see bears," Sutcliffe replied.

"They're not very big but they can be aggressive. When we see them we run."

Reclusive inhabitants

Helicopters, however useful to the mining company, must be a not particularly welcome novelty for the bears who have been inhabiting the cloud forest of these latitudes for some two million years past.

White marks around the eyes means they are sometimes called "spectacled bears".

The males sometimes grow to two metres or more and can weigh 200 kilos.

Females are smaller and lighter and look after their young for a year or more after birth.

They live a vegetarian life, eating fruits and seeds the forest provides, in solitude and certainly flee contact with humans.

During the day they keep to the platforms they build for themselves in the trees from where they can spy out any intruders.

For me, the exchange with Captain Sutcliffe high in the mountains perfectly encapsulated a situation which in one form or another is becoming ever more common in Peru.

This country is a genuine treasure trove of mineral riches.

It is the world's largest producer of silver and there is lead, copper, zinc, molybdenum - known as "Molly" in the trade - and much more.

As international prices of metals have risen steeply, investors have poured in, seeking their fortunes, much as the Spanish conquistadors did 500 years ago seeking the gold of the Inca empire.

Yet this has coincided with the Peruvians taking a hard new look at what the mining - and, indeed, the metal smelting - industries are doing in Peru.

They are certainly bringing more money into the country and pushing up output. The business-friendly, pro-US government of President Alan Garcia is naturally very pleased.

But the hard new look has only underlined the vast damage that is being done to Peru's rivers, plains and forests and to its flora and fauna.

New investment

It has also strengthened some of the worst features of Peruvian society, namely the concentration of wealth in few hands and the criticism is not confined to the "usual suspects", the political left and the green lobby.

In a hard-hitting document published last year the World Bank in Washington said, "expectations created by [mining] developments are damaged by the harm done to the environment, on the one hand, and the limits on the use and distribution of mining income, on the other."

While vast new investments have opened vast new mines, there have been a series of popular protests here in northern Peru by those whose immediate interests are harmed by the mining and who see little prospect of their families and their localities getting any benefit from the profits the mine owners expect to reap - and keep - for themselves.

One of the most famous and successful new mines is at Yanacocha which is producing fabulous amounts of gold.

Yet the locals have halted the company's efforts to extend the diggings to a nearby mountain, the Cerro Quilish, which is the source of much of the area's drinking water.

And there were confrontations between police and locals when Manhattan, a Canadian company, tried to establish a mine which would have eaten deep into the town of Tambogrande and destroyed orchards which produce fine lemons and avocados. One protester was killed in the confusion.

Monterrico itself has been at odds with local people. Two protesters have lost their lives in violence.

Protests centre on the possible danger to the waters which flow down from the watershed where the mine is to the Atlantic to the East and to the Pacific Ocean to the West.

Propaganda war

The pro- and anti-mining factions seem to be digging in their positions deeper every day. The opponents say that Monterrico lacks the community's permission to be at the mine site at all and their presence is therefore illegal.

What would Paddington Bear have thought about the whole affair?

The company has until recently been waging a propaganda war against its opponents, calling them terrorists and drug dealers.

Like President Garcia - who has just brought in new restrictions on them - it looks askance at non-governmental organisations.

It also is wary about the Catholic Church which it regards as all to partial to the local peasantry.

This whole development is casting a shadow over the life of the dogged Bishop of Chulucanas. Daniel Turley, born in Chicago 63 years ago, and in poor health, is critical of attitudes on both sides.

He is still committed to finding a compromise which would allow the mine to go ahead while the interests of the locals are preserved. But as I talked to him in a hospital in the city of Piura he said that reconciliation was becoming an ever more difficult task.

What would Paddington Bear have thought about the whole affair?

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