MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Water Behind Deadly Clash at Monterrico Peruvian Mine Site

Published by MAC on 2005-08-09

Water Behind Deadly Clash at Monterrico Peruvian Mine Site

August 9, 2005

Environmental News Service (ENS)

PIURA, Peru - At least one man is dead and 40 are injured after 3,000 farmers protesting a copper mine that threatens to contaminate the watershed on which they rely, stormed the exploration camp of a British company on July 28.

It is the latest outbreak of protest against mining companies that the rural communities have been trying for years to eject from the Piura District, located about 1,000 kilometers north of Lima.

In the early morning, under cover of dense fog, the farmers awakened the police guarding the camp of Minera Majaz Mining, a subsidiary of Monterrico Metals plc based in London. Some 300 officers of the Peruvian National Police used rifles and tear gas to repel them, and police pursued them for hours through forest paths.

A few farmers had shotguns, but most were armed only with farm implements, while the police were armed with automatic weapons, grenades and tear gas.

The farmers claim that seven people were killed in the clash, a number confirmed by local church and civic officials, including Mayor Carlos Martinez of San Ignacio in the nearby district of Cajamarca where about 500 of the protesters reside.

Police acknowledge only one death. An autopsy will be conducted to determine the cause of death.

In addition, 40 people were injured, six or eight remain missing, and 32 were arrested, including journalist July Vásquez, a Radio Cutivalú correspondent.

Many protesters are from the highland communities of Ayabaca and Huancabamba in Piura, and Paicapampa in Jaén. They fear that the mine will pollute a major aquifer, the source of the Quiroz and Blanco rivers which provide essential water for the villagers and their crops, and maintains the ecology of the district forests and the wildlife that inhabit them. No company personnel were injured or property damaged, says Monterrico's CEO Chris Eager, but, he says, some 400 people have maintained a presence close to the Majaz Rio Blanco Copper Project and are being monitored by the police. The Rio Blanco Copper Project is in an exploratory stage, and an environmental impact study has not yet been completed. The Vice Minister of Energy and Mines Romulo Mucho was surrounded by angry local residents as he came out of a meeting in San Ignacio Wednesday in which a commission was established to investigate the incidents at the mine.

The new Commission of Dialogue is supposed to include company representatives, the vice minister of mines, a bishop of the Catholic Church, representatives of neighboring communities and representatives of the protest group.

But the Minister of Energy and Mines Glodomiro Sánchez Mejía has not yet set an exact date on which the first meeting will take place.

Eager says this commission has been established "to help open up channels of communication to determine the reasons for the protest and diffuse the situation. It will continue to meet to attempt to avoid any future action of this kind." But Eager made it clear the protesters' concern for the environment will get scant consideration from him. "Last week I spent several days walking to a number of villages in the area with our social team," he said on August 4.

"In general, the neighboring people are pro development and wish to be involved in the project," he said. "I do not believe that the organizers of the march are representative of the people living in the area and have been influenced by other external agendas."

Monterrico says the company "is committed to community consultation and sustainable development," and the protesters could have come to community meetings to express their concerns.

But Peruvian conservationist and guide Alejandro Zegarra-Pezo, who founded the conservationist organization Pro Norte Peru, says people who express environmental concerns about mining take their lives in their hands.

The open pit mining planned by Monterrico, among others, would have a "devastating effect" on native plants and animals, especially the endangered mountain tapir, a native mammal, Zegarra-Pezo says.

"These native species give life to the region and create a healthy water-absorbing ecosystem that assures water for all downslope communities," he explains.

For these views, Zegarra-Pezo says he has been targeted for assassination, and his wife was attacked last year. She survived but still suffers health problems as a result. "There have been many other assassinations of similar people, assassinated for the simple democratic act of verbally opposing and demonstrating against open pit mining exploitation in northern Peru," says Zegarra-Pezo.

In the Rio Blanco region on Peru's northern border with Ecuador, Monterrico now holds eight concessions covering an area of 6,472 hectares in uninhabited, forested terrain at an altitude of between 2,000 to 3,000 meters. Exploratory drilling is underway and the company expects to extract copper and molybdenum from 20 million metric tons of ore per year. "The Peruvian government recognizes the importance of the Rio Blanco Copper Project," Eager said.

Gold and copper are Peru's largest exports, and mining represents over half of Peru's foreign earnings. The industry is dominated by large scale operations run by major international mining companies.

If developed, Rio Blanco would become the second largest copper mine in Peru and, once in full production, would increase Peru's copper output by over 20 percent, the company says.

The Rio Blanco project forms part of a large mineralized system that extends over 25 square kilometers in the mountains of northern Peru.

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