Minas Conga Opponents Hold Protest Awaiting Environmental Review

Opponents of the huge Minas Conga copper and gold project in Cajamarca region held a 24-hour protest on Wednesday, only days ahead of when the government is expected to make public a review by three independent consultants on the project’s environmental viability.  The review was handed in to the government at the end of last week.

Premier Oscar Valdes said the government would respect the right to protest, but that acts of violence would not be tolerated. “What we aren’t going to allow are acts of violence that threaten the freedom of transit for other Peruvians who are not participating in the demonstration,” Radio Programas reported Valdes as saying.

The Minas Conga project was suspended in November amid protests against the project. Opponents, who include the regional president of Cajamarca, Gregorio Santos, say the mine would harm local water supplies and have said they will not allow the project to go ahead.

The project includes the draining of three lakes and channelling the water further downstream to new reservoirs. The environmental impact study was approved by the Ministry of Energy and Mines at the end of the Garcia administration but observations were made to it last year by the Ministry of the Environment, observations that then-Minister Ricardo Giesecke said were perfectible — a key issue being that farms and villages above the reservoir line would continue to have access to quality and quantity of water as they have until now.

Negotiations by Giesecke and then-Premier Salomon Lerner Ghitis with the Cajamarca protesters came to a sudden halt, however, when President Humala chose to take a harder line, calling a state of emergency in Cajamarca and appointing then-Interior Minister Oscar Valdes as his new Premier in a major cabinet shuffle.  The harder line on the protesters, however, has not borne any successful outcome. 

“Conga is not going to go ahead, it is not viable,” Santos said in televised remarks on Wednesday.  Environmental activist and former priest Marco Arana has also said there can be no dialogue if the government insists on imposing the Conga project.

Giesecke, however, still believes that the Conga project can be developed, “but not just anyhow,”  particularly in technical social, economic, financial and cultural terms. The problem, he says, should not be viewed only from the perspective of water sources but from a broader environmental perspective that includes looking at what real long-term benefits can be gleaned by communities in the area. 

Minas Conga is being developed by gold producer Yanacocha, which is majority owned by Newmont Mining, with Peruvian miner Buenaventura holding a 43.65% stake and the International Finance Corporation 5%. The project , which would expand the Yanacocha gold site in the region, would require an investment of approximately $4.8 billion, the highest figure ever invested in Peru in a single project. 

In the first five years, annual average production would be between 580,000 and 680,000 ounces of gold, and between 155 million and 235 million pounds of copper.    Peru is the second largest gold producer in the world, and Yanacocha is the world’s second largest gold mine. 

Although the independent assessment of the project has not yet been made public, opponents of Minas Conga have already rejected the report, saying that it is an attempt by the government to “justify” the development.

“They aren’t revising [the environmental impact study] from an ecosystem viewpoint,” said Wilfredo Saavedra, the president of Cajamarca’s Environmental Defense Front, and one of the main opponents of Minas Conga.

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