Protestors have continued to block the South Pan American Highway today, despite Southern Copper’s announcement that it will be postponing its $1.4 billion Tia Maria copper project in Arequipa, and despite Premier Pedro Cateriano’s visit to Islay and his call for dialogue.
Yesterday, police arrested Jesus Cornejo, president of the Tambo Valley farmers, and another protestor as they led some 200 people to block the highway. Farmers from Cocachacra were also protesting on the road into their valley. In March, Carlos Rondon, a protester, died while in police custody.
Protestors believe the open pit copper mine, in the Andes above these farming valleys, will contaminate the aquifer and the Tambo River, as well as the air. Negotiations tables have been unsuccessful, although the non-farming population sees the benefits of the mining project.
The protests are now in their fourth week. The highway blockades have affected the flow of trade, and are also hurting tourism, according to the national chamber of tourism, Canatur. Anti-mining protests in southern Peru’s Arequipa region could cause losses worth some 600,000 soles (US$200,000) in domestic tourism over the next two months, the national tourism chamber Canatur said, according to daily Gestion.
Canatur President Jorge Jochamowitz said that about 90% of domestic tourism to Arequipa is by road. The region’s most popular attractions include the Colca Canyon and the region’s capital city, known for its architecture and gastronomy.
“If the [highways] are blocked, then the transportation can’t flow,” said Jochamowitz.
During his visit this week, Premier Cateriano sait it was time to bring in some order and urged district attorneys and judges to not release any detainees who have committed violent acts during the strike. He also blamed non-government organizations for instigating the protests.
“The debate was about a technical report that had been resolved and that is when we tread the terrain of political manipulation by NGOs who are financed for charitable purposes and then they use that money to block investments,” Cateriano said.
Southern Copper has reworked its original environmental impact study, EIA, and now calls for using desalinated water pumped in from the Pacific Ocean rather than using the local sources used by farmers. The new environmental permit was approved in October last year by the government, but residents aren’t convinced by the changes.
According to the minister of the Environment, Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, the concerns of farmers in the Tambo Valley have been fully addressed on the issue of the quality of underground water, air quality, and the installation of proper leak-proof sealing for mineral waste dams.
“There is no possibility that the mineral residue can reach the aquifer and it will not affect the Tambo River,” Pulgar-Vidal said.
Jose de Echave, deputy minister of Environmental Management in the first months of the Humala administration, says the government and Southern Copper could send an excellent message if the new EIA study were to be reviewed by an independent organization and thus gain strong credibility among those concerned with the mining project’s impact.
Years of mistrust have been building up, “and when a project isn’t accepted” by the people in the area, “it is very difficult to make it viable,” De Echave said.
Although there is a growing number of the population that see the benefits of the project, protests date back to before 2009. In 2011, three activists died in a protest strike, leading Southern Copper to put the project on the back burner — the mining company said at the time that it planned to use underground water because to desalinate water from the ocean would render the project unprofitable.
Dialogue is key if the Tia Maria project is to go ahead, but De Echave says “it’s impossible to have an open dialogue when there are thousands of police around the table.”
Gino Costa, deputy minister of the Interior during the Toledo administration, recalls that Newmont-Yanacocha’s Conga gold project in Cajamarca got bogged down, and still is, because dialogue was aborted in the expectation that they could push it through against all odds.
“In Tia Maria, dialogue hasn’t even been attempted; it has to be given opportunity, a structure and time to bear fruit,” Costa said. He suggests, in a column written for El Comercio, that the facilitator should be the People’s Ombudsman or the United Nations.
“Tia Maria was a conflict waiting to happen because they didn’t correct the observations to the EIA,” De Echave said on Ideele Radio last week. The town hall meetings in Cocachacra also did not include the local population and leaders of the Defense Front.
In 2009, during the Garcia administration, “We heard the attacks we hear today about Tia Maria, that the [protesters] were irresponsible, anti-investment, they were called subversives, not anti-mining terrorists as they are today. And suddenly for different circumstances, the Garcia government, which had just come out badly from the Bagua conflict, decided to hand the Environmental Impact Study over to UNOPS, the UN project services office, which destroyed it by making 138 observations.”
The Tambo Basin covers a farming area of some 14,500 hectares, on which over 3,500 farmers work in small plots, growing rice, sugar cane, garlic and potatoes. The Tia Maria project is only a few kilometers up in the mountains from the farmland.