MAC: Mines and Communities

Peru: Mining aggravates water worries

Published by MAC on 2009-09-22
Source: Latin America Press

By Magali Zevallos Ríos

Peru, home to 70 percent of the world´s tropical glaciers, is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, but the mining industry´s chaotic growth is posing a further threat to water resources.

The government is aggressively pursuing new mining investments throughout the country, and some mining concessions are already in zones that had been declared natural reserves.

The country has active mining concessions near Peru´s snow-capped Andes,where glacier-fed rivers are the key source of water, and their runoff provides water in the Andean dry season to area farmers. Some 80 percent of Peru´s electricity comes from hydroelectric plants.

According to the Mountain Institute, a US-based non-governmental organization that promotes sustainable development and respect for native cultures, nearly one-third of the area of Peru´s glaciers has melted in over the last 23 years, a retreat of 20 meters a year.

By 2015, the organization estimates that all glaciers below 5,500 meters above sea level will disappear, prompting water shortages.

But mining, which requires enormous amounts of water to process minerals, is also impacting the country´s already-fragile ecosystems.

In the picturesque Cordillera Huayhuash range, in the highlands between the Ancash, Huanuco and Lima regions, there are more than 100 mining concessions, some of which coincide with protected areas.

The area is one of the top 10 trekking circuits in the world, and is home to the Yerupaja glacier, the second-highest in Peru.

Empresa Minera Santa Luisa-Proyecto Pallca, a subsidiary of Japanese miner Mitsui Mining & Smelting, operates just 3 kilometers from this glacier.

Another company, Empresa Minera Solitario Perú-Genial Uno y Dos, is located at the head of an irrigation canal, the source of water for the villages of Mangas, Nanis, Chamas and Gorgorillo.

For the east and south of the Cordillera Huayhuash is the Raura range, where base metals miner Compañía Minera Raura operates.

La Viuda range is completely under the concession of the Compañía Minera Maran.

Water sources in danger

Jorge Ávila, member of the nongovernmental organization Alternativa, says that mining in the Andes would accelerate the loss of glaciers and contaminate the water sources which supply several towns downstream in the Lima region, including impoverished districts of the capital such as Puente Piedra, Carabayllo, Santa Rosa, Comas, Los Olivos, San Martín de Porres and Ventanilla, home to 2 million people.

"When a concession is granted, the impacts that [the project] will have must be evaluated," he said. "There can be mining, but without threatening the rights of others. We're talking about water quality, contamination risks, loss of the source of agriculture."

According to Pedro Arrojo, an environmental scientist and first Spaniard to win the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, in European countries it is "unthinkable to destroy a glacier."

"There are areas where there shouldn´t be any mining, period," said Axel Dourojeanni, a Peruvian environmental scientist and consultant.

"Without a doubt, there should be studies by river valley that are sufficiently detailed to see where the sensitive areas are," Dourojeanni said. "And even if there´s gold underneath, or all the minerals in the world, they shouldn´t be exploited. We have to see where there can be drilling without putting our ability to capture water from the rivers in danger."

Dourojeanni says mining in glacier areas is a sensitive subject.

"Glaciers are a natural water reserve that saves us in the times of serious drought," he said. "Mining, unfortunately, even though they´re trying to do it better, even when they don´t want to, destroys the environment. We´ve seen that in the mere fact that trucks go by the road - they kick up dust, which falls on the glacier. The glacier then begins to warm because the dark color attracts heat."

"Concessions near glaciers are extremely serious because they are the only source of water in low-lying areas," Dourojeanni continued.

"Leaving an entire valley without water means the state will have to desalinate water from the sea to provide drinking water to the area.

This is an extremely expensive process and the miners aren´t going to pay for it. It´s something the government will have to do."

Arrojo says mining near glaciers will speed up the disappearance of these natural water regulators.

"When the glacier becomes small ... only a little bit of snow will melt," he said. "Then our steady water reserves will have been exhausted."

This could threaten area communities, he added.

Urgent action needed

Peru´s government has not yet formed a policy on land ordering, which many scientists say are necessary to protect important water resources, especially those areas that feed rivers.

The debate should not [be] only economic, but also include how to protect the basic rights of the most vulnerable communities that live in the country´s highlands.

"Open-pit mining is very aggressive, not only physically and for its social impact, but because of the short- and long-term contamination that stems from it," said Arrojo.

Ana Leyva, executive secretary of the Red Muqui - a network of environmental and development organizations in mining areas - says that Peru needs regulation on where mining can and cannot be developed.

"It´s unfortunate that neither the state nor the companies are open to a profound and serious discussion on the issue," she said.

Álvaro Quijandría, corporate affairs manager for Compañía Minera Antamina, one of Peru´s largest zinc and copper producers, said that mining concessions shouldn´t be an alarm call. He says there should be a consultation on whether and where to develop mining activities.

"The granting of a concession does not necessarily imply that it will break the law, exploiting in areas where there shouldn´t be any mining activity," he said.

What is true is that in Peru there is a disorderly growth of extractive industry without any planning.

"There is an absence of vision on how we want to develop, of what we want as a country," Leyva said. "The occupation of land [for mining] is completely unbalanced, guided by economic criteria, and it generates poverty.

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