Dr. César Aliaga Díaz is the regional vice president of Cajamarca, Peru. His government has taken a central role in the fight to stop the proposed Conga Gold Mine, a $4.8 billion project owned by Denver-based Newmont Mining Corp.
The mine will be located in Cajamarca’s Andean highlands, where five major headwaters originate and supply the region’s drinking water. If passed, Conga is set to become the biggest investment in Peru’s history and second-largest gold mine in the world. The following interview was conducted March 19, 2012.
It’s been almost twenty years since Newmont opened its Yanacocha gold mine just outside Cajamarca and started the region’s mining boom. You studied the industry’s impacts on local communities in your book, A Tajo Abierto. What types of changes has gold mining brought to Cajamarca?
Well, the region’s transformation has created many problems. Before the mines, we were an agriculture-based, pre-capitalist society. You could say we were still living in the medieval era. People traded livestock and milk. Our economy was simple.
Then Newmont came and we changed directly into a modern capitalist production center. We grew very quickly. We got new social classes. Land prices went up ridiculously. Some properties here cost more than properties in Lima.
The mines attracted people from all over Peru. Thousands came looking for jobs, but not all of them got one. This ended up bringing more crime to our city along with drugs and prostitution. We didn’t have homeless people before the mines. This was new for us. They’re mostly farmers that sold their land to the mine, spent all the money and then realized they had nothing left.
How did Cajamarca react to the growth?
The city wasn’t prepared for such a rapid change. Public services collapsed. Hospitals, schools. We simply didn’t have enough resources to handle all the new residents. To this day, the demand is so high we still have neighborhoods that get water for only two hours a day.
As a result, there was an increase in private services and the gap between the rich and the poor widened. We now have the pre-capitalist farmers that have always been here, living side by side with rich mining families from other parts of Peru and the world. The contrast is striking.
Of course, the mines brought a lot of money to the region. We now have a nice central plaza and a new shopping mall, but the majority of Cajamarcans did not see any improvements in their lives.
The Conga project will be an expansion of the Yanacocha gold mine. We noticed the phrase “Conga No Va” (“Conga won’t go’) spray-painted on almost every street in this city. Can you explain why locals are against the project?
People are against Conga because it’s more of the same. Over the last twenty years, they’ve watched foreigners come in and get rich off their land without getting a share of the profits. They’ve watched their mountains get turned inside out. They’ve watched the trout disappear from their rivers and, in some cases, they’ve watched their rivers simply disappear.
Many Cajamarcans are tired of the mines. They see Newmont as a bad neighbor that lies and steals their resources.They’re set on stopping Conga. It’s a very exciting time for them. This is the first time these people have been politically active in their lives. We’ve never had a movement like this in the history of the region and it’s been interesting to watch them get organized and go out on the streets.
When did Cajamarca’s regional government take its position against the Conga gold mine project?
The regional government started directly participating in the debate in the fall of 2011 when our regional president Gregorio Santos backed the general strike on October 9th, but we’ve been critical of the development of the project long before that.
In June of 2011, we visited the lagoons on the Conga site to do a general overview of the land and found its ecosystems to be too fragile for mining activities. Shortly after, we reviewed the environmental impact study (EIS) that approved the project in 2010 and found serious deficiencies. As the protests became more and more frequent, we felt obligated to respond to our resident’s concerns and represent their voice so we put together the 036 regional ordinance.
Can you explain the purpose of the 036 regional ordinance?
Basically, it’s an ordinance which declares the Conga project unviable and protects the land and water sources on the proposed mining site. The ordinance has yet to go into effect because its constitutionality is currently being challenged in the judicial court. The national government has accused us of going too far with 036, but as a lawyer, I’m confident we are not abusing our functions and I hope this ordinance will help put an end to Conga.
At the moment, the Conga project has been suspended while three foreign consultants review the EIS. They have 40 days to conduct their research. In a few weeks, their findings will be announced and will determine the future of the project. What is your opinion on the matter?
Originally, the idea was brought in to quell regional demonstrations. Here in Cajamarca, few people take this review seriously. The results are predictable, the government is paying these foreign consultants $250,000 each. They’re simply going to say whatever pleases their bosses.
In reality, the EIS 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. What we need is a new EIS, not a rushed review of the old one.
Can you explain what was wrong with the original EIS?
It’s all a big joke! Newmont submitted the studies and they were approved within months. Usually, an EIS takes at least two years to process. You normally need nine hydrogeology studies before starting an operation like this. Newmont said they didn’t have enough time to fill that obligation.
On top of it all, the EIS was approved by Felipe Ramirez del Pino, a former manager for Newmont that now works in the Ministry of Energy and Mines. The revolving door concept is very popular in our government and, as a result, we’re left with an EIS that gives us absolutely zero knowledge of the mine’s future impacts on the quantity and quality of the water in the region.
Yet none of this seems to matter. The national government has made its decision. They say Conga goes and that’s it. They don’t want to listen to our complaints.
Is it possible to reach a compromise between Newmont, the regional government and the national government that would allow mining on the Conga site under different conditions?
No. For us, Conga should not happen at all. The land they want to exploit is extremely fragile. It’s full of lakes, marshes, and high altitude wetlands where all our rivers and water sources originate. If they open a mine in the area, they will have to remove a large amount of subterranean water and the mining process will inevitably contaminate the bodies of water that remain – meaning, our fresh water supply.
I see three scenarios for the future. The first is the national government will keep showing little interest in our protests and concerns and will allow Conga to move forward. If this happens, I see a big resistance building up and the military will be brought into the area to stabilize the movement and protect Newmont’s interests. This is what we call “Conga con Fusiles” [Conga with rifles].
The second scenario is that Conga doesn’t go through, the consultants say its a bad idea, Newmont drops the project, and we have a big party here in Cajamarca. The third would be what you’re talking about, a compromise of some kind, but for us it would just be a ploy to gain time before we can push them out completely.
The mining industry plays a major role in Peru’s economy. More than sixty percent of the nation’s exports come from mining. Conga would represent the largest single investment in Peru’s history. If the project is stopped, the national government believes Peru will suffer an economic disaster. What’s your opinion?
The question we have to ask ourselves is “what kind of a country do we want to live in?” What kind of a system do we want to adopt to develop our resources? In the early 1990s, under Fujimori’s dictatorship, Peru’s economy was extremely weak so the country opened its doors to foreign investment without setting many boundaries or implementing regular tax codes. In that period we didn’t have much of a choice. Neoliberalism became our new guideline.
Then, when the Yanacocha gold mine opened, capital flew into the government’s corrupted hands as the majority of Cajamarcans suffered the impacts. Today, Peru’s economy has more or less stabilized. We can afford to decide whether an investment is good or not for our resources and our people – not just for the economy.
The national government thinks the Conga protests are just about money. They tried to calm down demonstrators by raising taxes on the Conga project, but that’s not enough. The fight against Conga is a wide cultural resistance. It’s important to remember that most of Cajamarcans share strong beliefs regarding their land. Their religion revolves around these rivers and lakes. Taking this away from them is more harmful then what most people would imagine. Newmont does not have the social license to do such a thing.
So, in your opinion, what’s the best way to improve Peru’s development strategy?
We must revise Fujimori’s constitution of 1993. It gives too much power to the national government and foreign investors. Regions are left with limited, sometimes minimal influence over the policies that most affect them.
We must listen to the voice of our regions. The people that live on the land are the one’s most familiar with its potential. Here in Cajamarca, we are very rich in resources, our mountains are full of gold, but we are home to some of the poorest people in Peru. How does that make sense? All we need is the right infrastructure to develop our resources. Right now, we have one paved highway and it leads to the mines.