Congress approves law to relocate highly polluted highland mining city of Cerro de Pasco

After months of heated debate and years of failed attempts, Congress finally approved a law to progressively relocate the highland mining town of Cerro de Pasco, heavily polluted by over 425 years of uninterrupted mining activity.

“The law is a victory for the residents,” said Félix Rivera Serrano, Pasco regional President.

“The problem of pollution around the city of Cerro de Pasco has a long history and is linked to mining, which affects not only the city’s territory and urban infrastructure, but also the environment, economy, social and cultural structures,” Rivera added. “The fact is, only 70 percent of Pasco residents still live here, as the rest have moved to Huánuco, Huancayo, Lima or other cities.”

The law, promulgated on Dec. 4, provides for Cerro de Pasco’s immediate relocation 35 kilometers, or 22 miles, down the road, and sets up an inter-institutional commission, charged with drawing up plans for contamination control, indemnification, and health care for the city’s 80,000 residents.

And, the commission is to determine who will foot the bill for the project, which is expected to cost 1,000 million soles, or $322 million, and to take from 10 to 15 years to complete.

“It won’t be immediate, we have to be honest,” government consultant Yomar Meléndez said. “It’s all up to the political authorities.”

One of the world’s highest cities, Cerro de Pasco sits next to a gaping open pit mine, where 85 percent of the homes along the edge are at high to medium risk of health problems, according to a 2006 report by the government’s Civil Defence Institute.

While mining in the region has brought employment and some infrastructure, the industry has also produced serious and irreversible environmental damage: waste from the mine seeped into the water supply and polluted the springs which run through the pastures, and fumes have polluted the air. The health of residents and livestock has been badly affected, animal numbers have declined and few farmers now make a living from herding alone.

Approximately 44 years ago, the new town of San Juan de Pampa was built nearby. But residents – intended to be relocated to this new city, with its modern and symmetrical features, broad streets and modern electrical service – were left behind in Cerro de Pasco. The Cerro de Pasco Corporation, who at the time owned and operated the mine, pressured the government, and the project was shelved.

If the city is being relocated today, some indigenous peasant farmers in disfavor of the relocation say, it’s because minerals have been found under the land where people live, and because of the expansion of the mining industry.

Over the past decade, the Peruvian government has granted mining companies an increasing number of concessions, as a result of soaring international demand for minerals and the subsequent boom in prices. In Cerro de Pasco, Volcan Compañia Minera – who bought the mine from Centromin when the state-owned company was privatized in the 1990s – stands to harvest enormous benefits from its Plan L mine, which is to spread over 11 hectares within Cerro de Pasco city limits.

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