“¡Agua sí! ¡Oro no! ¡Agua sí! ¡Oro no!” (“Water yes! Gold no!”) The chant vibrated through the thin Andean air as a regional demonstration against the Conga Gold Mine Project took place March 22 to honor World Water Day.
Thousands of residents of this mountain town gathered at the Laguna Azul, one of many high-altitude lakes on the proposed Conga Mine site, in effort to protect their water resources from exploitation and contamination.
“We are not asking for something that is not ours. The water in this lagoon and below it has fed our people for many centuries and Conga is going to take that away from us,” said Avelardo Escobar Huaman, a resident of El Tambo, Cajamarca. “The gold mine is going to destroy our springs and water sources. Here, we are mainly farmers. How will we grow our crops and feed our animals without water?”
Once it begins, the $4.8 billion Conga Project, a joint venture between U.S.-based Newmont Mining Corporation and Peruvian company Mina Buenaventura, will become the largest investment in Peru’s history and the second largest gold mine in the world. The open pit mine would affect between 3,000-16,000 hectares of fragile mountaintop wetlands including numerous lakes, rivers and marshes that supply the region’s drinking water.
Currently, the gold mine is on hold while international consultants review the environmental impact study which approved the Conga project in 2010. As the nation awaits the results, Cajamarca residents have been continuously demonstrating against the mine, organizing rallies and marches, sometimes more than twice a week in cities like Cajamarca and Celendin.
During the World Water Day gathering, police in riot gear watched the peaceful demonstration from a distance. Local farmers chewed coca leaves as speakers from various organizations and faith-based and environmental groups took turns rallying up the crowd.
A demonstration last November turned tragic when armed forces tear-gassed and fired upon protesters, resulting in 17 injuries. Standing before graphic photographs of bruised limbs and bullet wounds from the incident, Ana Bueno Abanto, director of La Casa de las Lagunas, clenched a handful of soil and asked the audience to remember the violence.
“Rifles have been used against people that have tried to defend this land that I hold here in my hand,” she said. “This land, our land, was disrespected on that day of violence and no matter how many metals and precious minerals are beneath this land, we as a community will always protect it and make sure it is respected.”
Reanalyzing a controversial study
In response to the civil unrest, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala declared a 60-day state of emergency in Cajamarca and increased military presence in the region. Shortly after, Newmont halted work on the Conga site and proposed an external review of the environmental impact study that originally gave the project a green light.
Following Newmont’s suggestion, the Peruvian government appointed three consultants from Spain and Portugal last month to review the study and gave them 40 days to present their findings. Results will be publicized in April, but Cajamarca Regional Vice President César Aliaga Díaz said he has little confidence in the outcome.
“Here in Cajamarca, few people take this review seriously,” Díaz said. “The study did not have any methodology or serious scientific approach. It’s so bad that we simply need to throw it out and make a new one. Reviewing this ten-thousand page study in forty days cannot possibly work.”
Díaz also pointed out the environmental impact study was approved by Felipe Ramirez del Pino, general director of the Ministry of Energy and Mines, who previously held high-level positions in Newmont projects from 2006 to 2009.
Regardless of the perceived flaws with the study, Peru’s national government has been pushing the project forward without heeding the region’s complaints. In October 2011, Cajamarca’s Regional President Gregorio Santos joined the opposition against Conga by calling on a general strike.
Then in December Santos’ government passed an ordinance that protects land on the proposed mining site from development. The ordinance is being challenged in court for its constitutionality.
With its new anti-mining stance, Díaz said Cajamarca’s regional government has come under national scrutiny, both from the media and from politicians in Lima, but Díaz said his government is simply “listening to the voice of the people: Conga will not go.” He insists Cajamarca residents are fed up with foreign mining companies exploiting their resources, polluting their water and, all the while, exporting the majority of the profits.
Residents of La Oroya ― supported by Joining Hands Peru, a ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Hunger Program ― have been fighting a smelter in their community that has produced lethal mineral poisoning in the air and water there.
Digging in social discontent
Anti-mining sentiment has been growing in the region ever since Newmont opened its Yanacocha gold mine just outside Cajamarca in 1993. The mine promised to increase employment and improve living standards for Cajamarcan residents, but few locals were hired by Yanacocha and many became frustrated as they watched foreigners and Peruvians from different regions get high-paying positions.
“When Yanacocha opened, most Cajamarcan residents saw little change in their lives,” said Aldo Santos Aries, regional coordinator for Servicios Educativos Rurales. “The main change was that they had less access to clean water because of the mine’s intensive use of the region’s water resources.”
“The Conga project is technically an expansion of Yanacocha mine,” he continued. “And aside from Yanacocha employees and businesses related to the project, few people in Cajamarca have been happy to have the mine here. They want to see Newmont leave, not expand.”
For the past two decades, Yanacocha sparked both a mining boom and a population boom in the region. According to the regional health service’s study, “Cajamarca: Analysis of the Health Situation 2010,” Cajamarca’s urban population grew by 45.9 percent between 1993 and 2007.
Seemingly overnight, a region that was traditionally centered around agriculture changed into a major mining district. According to the same health study, 45.5 percent of the land in Cajamarca was owned by mining companies in 2010.
Cajamarcan activist, priest and politician Marco Arana Zegarra writes in his essay, “Water and Mining in Cajamarca: Defending the Right to Water” (”Agua y Mineria en Cajamarca - Defendiendo El Derecho al Agua”), that the mining industry has spurred impressive economic growth in Cajamarca, but due to lack of regulation, low taxes and low labor costs, the region remains one of the world’s cheapest areas to extract gold. The cost of gold production in Yanacocha costs an average $110 per oz. and is sold on the market for about $500 per oz.
From 1996 to 2000, some of the mine’s most productive years, Arana also writes that the amount of chronically malnourished children in the region increased from 38.7 percent to 42.8 percent with over 75 percent of the population living in poverty.
During the same period, the Cajamarca region experienced a loss of fresh water trout and half its native bird species. Cases of stomach cancer also increased among rural populations. Various environmental studies have suggested the new ailments may be caused by heavy metal waste from mining activities.
Fragile environment, limited water sources
According to Laura Lucio, engineer for the Group of Formation and Intervention for Sustainable Development (GRUFIDES) environmental organization in Cajamarca, Conga’s main threat revolves around the fragile ecosystems and access to potable water.
The Conga mine estimates it will use more than two million cubic meters of fresh water a year, drying five lakes in the process and drastically reducing the water sources in the region.
“The main problem is the terrain. We are talking about high altitude wetlands and marshes, with subterranean waters very close to the surface,” Lucio said. “The area is not made for mining activities. As they dig into the ground, they will have to continuously extract the subterranean waters which supply the whole region’s drinking water.”
In response to the concerns, the Conga project claims it will include four reservoirs, three of which will be constructed to supply potable water for the population’s consumption.
“Basically, our water is being foreign-owned and privatized right before our eyes. Without boundaries, the mine will have the full power over potable water,” Lucio said.
Another environmental dilemma is the risk of groundwater contamination. Water treatment plants will be built on the Conga site, but according to “Conga Mine, Peru: Comments on the Environmental Impact Assessment and Related Issues,” an independent study by Dr. Robert Moran, these plants will not be sufficient to handle the amount of contaminated water being produced by mining operations.
“If the Conga project must pump 379 liters per second, that implies treating roughly 1.4 Million liters per hour, which far exceeds the capacity of the treatment plant,” Moran wrote. “Clearly the proposed plant could not treat all of this water, nor would it be treated to chemical quality suitable for human consumption of aquatic life purposes.”
“In the United States it would not be legally allowable to approve the operating permits for a site requiring perpetual water treatment,” he continues.
A handful of water
At the conclusion of the World Water Day gathering, protesters walked to the shores of Laguna Azul, cupped the water in their hands, and drank it down. Speakers rallied up the crowd, vowing for a long fight to protect their land and water from another gold mining operations, and then, finally, the protest ended as it had begun, with the singing of the Tinkari band’s, “¡Agua sí! ¡Oro no!”
“El Oro en estas Lagunas, ya lo quieren explotar. Nosotros Cajamarquinos no lo vamos a dejar.”
(“The gold in these lakes, they want to exploit it. We the Cajamarcans, we aren’t going to leave it.”)