PSG News Summary: November 2011

30 November 2011

Minas Conga Conflict Tests Humala

Protests resumed in Cajamarca this month as government-brokered talks between local communities and officials from mining firm Mineria Yanacocha collapsed. Demonstrators object to the firm’s US$ 4.8 billion Minas Conga project as they believe it will threaten local water supplies.

US firm Newmont Mining, which co-owns Yanacocha with Peru’s Buenaventura, has sought to dismiss such fears by highlighting company plans to build new reservoirs. It also claims the copper and gold mine would create 6,000 jobs in the region.

Last month, around 200 locals blocked major transport arteries in Cajamarca as part of the dispute. The blockade was suspended after protestors, the government and Yanacocha officials agreed to three-way talks, but the negotiations broke down shortly after.

Cajamarca’s Regional President Gregorio Santos announced on 3rd November that demonstrations would resume. Disturbances later in the month saw some of the firm’s equipment damaged and a number of businesses and local public services close. Clashes between demonstrators and police have continued. Thirty people were left injured following an incident earlier this week.

In an effort to resolve the conflict Environmental Minister Ricardo Giesecke pledged to review the firm’s controversial environmental impact assessment (approved by the previous administration). Yet this announcement did not placate the local communities. Some of the protestors subsequently added the resignation of Mines and Energy Minister Carlos Herrera Descalzi, also involved in the negotiations, to their list of demands.

Yesterday, Newmont agreed to a temporary cessation of construction work at the site. However, the decision had little effect on demonstrations as locals declared they would not accept anything less than the project’s permanent cancellation.

Minas Conga represents a test-case for President Ollanta Humala, whose electoral campaign focused on the need to balance the interests of local communities with those of investors. The conflict over Minas Conga, the largest investment project in the country, is the first major incident in where these commitments will be tested.

To date, Humala has made relatively little substantive comment on the conflict beyond declaring that Peruvians should be allowed both “water and gold”. As protests continue however, many of the protagonists feel the president will shortly need to decide which of these two will be his priority.


Investigation of Forced Sterilisations Reopened

Peruvian authorities have resumed investigations into claims that hundreds of thousands of women were forcibly sterilised under the government of imprisoned former president Alberto Fujimori (1990 -2000).

The decision followed a ruling by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that forced sterilisations constituted a crime against humanity and thus were not bound by a statute of limitations.

The sterilisations were carried out under the Fujimori government in the late 1990s as a means of population control. Health clinics were set targets on the number of operations they had to perform. Many victims report they were tricked or forced into signing consent forms.

As many as 300,000 women were sterilised, with a disproportionate number of victims found among rural, poor and Quechua-speaking populations.

The reopening of investigations was widely welcomed by victims, human rights and women’s groups in Peru. However, Keiko Fujimori, erstwhile presidential candidate and the former president’s daughter, claimed the decision was merely an attempt to divert attention away from the Chehade corruption scandal (see below).


Congress to Debate Chehade Suspension

Congress will shortly vote on whether second Vice President Omar Chehade should face suspension after allegations emerged of his involvement in corruption.

Peruvian lawmakers will vote on the recommendations of the Congressional Ethics Committee which concluded its investigation into Chehade’s conduct on 14th November. The committee declared the vice president had “breached his duty to transparency and truthfulness" and recommended that he be suspended, without pay, for 120 days.

Chehade, whose election pledges included a commitment to tackle graft in the country, has since faced accusations that he attempted to unduly influence the outcome of a long-running dispute over the ownership of the Andahuasi sugar refinery in Lima.

He is also alleged to have tried to persuade former Transport Minister Enrique Cornejo to grant a public contract to a Brazilian construction company. Chehade continues to deny both allegations, claiming they are the product of a vendetta against him.

Humala publicly urged Chehade to resign earlier this month, saying his time would be best spent on defending the accusations. The vice president subsequently agreed to temporarily “step-aside”, but declared he would not resign as he claims the allegations are untrue.

Under Peru’s constitution only Congress, not the president, is permitted to dismiss or sanction vice presidents. A congressional vote on Chehade’s suspension is expected within the next few days.


Mining Protests Hit Andahuaylas

On 3rd November communities in Andahuaylas and Chincheros in southern Peru began a general strike in protest over legal and illegal mining operations in the region.

The demonstrators - largely local farmers who fear their livelihoods are threatened by mining activity - called for the government to declare the region a ‘mining-free’ zone. This would entail both a clamp down on illegal mining activity in the area and the cancellation of a number of official projects, such as those run by Peruvian firms Ares SAC and Apurimac Ferrum.

Following the unrest, Agriculture Minister Miguel Caillaux, Energy and Mines Minister Carlos Herrera Descalzi and Deputy Environmental Management Minister José de Echave all travelled to the region to try and negotiate a settlement.

However, the ministers and demonstrators eventually proved unable to reach agreement and talks broke down on 10th November. In clashes between locals and police shortly after, up to 80 people were reported injured. Several days later community leaders again agreed to a temporary cessation of protest activity and further talks with the government.

However, there were few signs of an imminent agreement by month end. On 27th November Herrera Descalzi publicly claimed the government did not have the authority to meet many of the protestors’ demands. Local groups such as the Junta de Usuarios del Distrito de Riego responded by warning that protest activity would resume shortly. The same day, José de Echave resigned from his government post, declaring that the government had not developed an “adequate strategy to deal with social conflicts” in the country.


Government Moves against Illegal Miners

On 5th November 1,500 police and military officials launched a new operation against illegal gold mining activity in the Madre de Dios region of south-eastern Peru.

During the first few days of the initiative, known as Aurum 1, troops were reported to have destroyed 140 dredges used by miners to separate gold from other riverbed material.

This is not the first operation against the estimated 40,000 illegal miners active in Madre de Dios. A series of similar initiatives under the administration of Alan García led to violent protests and were ultimately unsuccessful in reducing mining activity in the region.

The government argues that Aurum 1 is different from previous operations as it will be carried out over a much longer period. Police and military officials will stay in Madre de Dios for six months in an effort to eradicate illegal mining activity.

They will also attempt to arrest members of criminal networks involved in illicit activities including human trafficking, child prostitution and illegal logging. Officials will be accompanied throughout by state prosecutors tasked with reporting any human rights violations they witness.

Illegal mining operations have caused significant environmental degradation in Madre de Dios over recent years. Miners frequently place explosive devices along river banks and clear large sections of forest to access alluvial gold deposits. This has led to the destruction of an estimated 37,000 hectares of forest in the region. Pollution of water supplies is also widespread as miners frequently dump mercury used to extract gold from the ore into local river systems.

The regional government had hoped to persuade miners to voluntarily withdraw from the area. Such efforts enjoyed little success however, principally as illegal mining is a highly lucrative activity.

According to Giesecke, individual gold miners earn around £120 (US$ 190) per day in a country where the monthly minimum wage is around £180 (US$ 280). Consequently, tempting miners into alternative, legal employment has proved very difficult.

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  • PSG Aims

    The Peru Support Group exists to promote social inclusion, sustainable development and the observance of human rights in Peru. To that end the PSG highlights shortcomings in observance of established norms, whether international or local in nature, in its research, advocacy and publications. In so doing, it underscores the relationships that exist within the political system, how institutions work, and the effectiveness of policies that aim to reduce poverty and inequality within the context of sustainable development.

  • Historical Overview

    Over the past century Peru has suffered a series of autocratic governments and a civil war in which nearly 70,000 people died. Many of the country's ongoing political and social problems are a legacy of its somewhat turbulent past. 

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    Human rights violations were widespread during the twenty years after the initiation of armed conflict in 1980. Efforts to convict perpetrators since the war's end have made only limited progress. Today, concerns remain over the treatment of those engaged in social protest, particularly against strategically important investment projects.

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