Police fighting local inhabitants in Cocachacra protesting the proposed Tia Maria mine. Photo: Miguel Mejía Castro/La República
- José de Echave, from Lima-based NGO CooperAccion, talks about the proposed Tia Maria copper mine.
By David Hill
9 June, 2015.- US company Newmont’s proposed Conga gold mine, perhaps, or the 40-odd year old oil concession that has devastated parts of Peru’s Amazon and is now up for renewal? The Chadin 2 dam on the River Maranon, scheduled to be built by Brazilian firm Odebrecht, or the expansion of the Camisea gas project? New legislation? Gold-mining in the Madre de Dios department? A trans-continental railway possibly financed by China?
None of the above. The answer, no about about it, is a proposed copper mine called Tia Maria in the Arequipa department in Peru’s south. Tia Maria has been one of the country’s main news stories over the last couple of months, with local people protesting, a “State of Emergency” declared, 1000s of police and soldiers sent to the region, constitutional rights suspended, open fighting, more than 200 people injured, arbitrary arrests, journalists intimidated, accusations of “terrorism” flying around, reported sabotage, and to date, following previous protests in 2011, a total of seven deaths.
The struggle has galvanised many in Peru, with solidarity protests being held around the country and more than 1,000 people marching in Lima, which led to further fighting, injuries and arrests.
The company behind Tia Maria is Southern Copper, part of the Grupo Mexico, whose president, German Larrea Mota-Velasco, is ranked by Forbes as the world’s 77th richest person. How can things at Tia Maria - which president Ollanta Humala has said can’t be suspended, although Southern subsequently announced a “pause” - have turned out so badly? Here I interview José de Echave, from Lima-based NGO CooperAccion, about what has been going on.
DH: What do you think of the decision to send in the army?
JDE: It’s the clearest sign the government doesn’t know how to deal with social conflict. Tia Maria is telling the country and the people running it that there are things which aren’t working: policies, institutions, laws etc. Militarising a conflict involving a civilian population doesn’t resolve anything.
DH: Why do you think the government chose to militarise it? Where does that decision come from - Humala or others in his administration, or the army, or even the company?
JDE: I think the first key fact to bear in mind is that this is a weak government - a government that bends easily to pressure from the powers-that-be such as the main economic groups, like the mining companies, and a concentrated press, which have been demanding a firm hand in response to the conflict. At the same time, the government hasn’t been able to handle it via peaceful means, precisely because it’s weak and because of such pressure.
DH: Another response has been to call some of the people opposed to the mine “terrorists.” The Minister of Justice has referred to “terrorist violence.” One Southern spokesperson has used similar language.
JDE: Several years ago the sectors who questioned or opposed a mining project were called “anti-mining.” Now the term “anti-mining terrorist” has began to be used. The sensation created by Tia Maria is that, as a country, we continue failing to learn, not only from the hard years of violence [during the civil war in the 1980s and 1990s] but after a long list of similar conflicts over the last two decades. The aim is to caricature the conflict and delegitimise it.
DH: But why are people called “terrorists”? Is it a PR strategy or, more concretely, in order to criminalise protest?
JDE: It’s part of a strategy to delegitimise anyone who thinks differently. And, of course, it’s about repression and exercising a firm hand. Accusing someone of being a terrorist is no small thing - especially in a country that has lived through terrorism [in the 1980s and 1990s].
DH: Have you, or one of your colleagues at CooperAccion, been called a “terrorist”?
JDE: I don’t know if they have called us that specifically, but, yes, we see an intent to present all this as a kind of plot against investment, against development, against the country.
Peru’s government has responded to the Tia Maria protests by sending in the army. Photo: Miguel Mejía Castro/La República
DH: As you know, Peruvian law permits companies to sign contracts with the police and army to protect their operations, and some companies have done that. According to NGO Grufides, a company in which Southern was the major stakeholder, Coimolache, signed one such contract in 2010, although Southern has just told me, regarding Tia Maria specifically, “we have no type of agreement with the police or army.”
I’m also thinking about how armed police appear at the meetings that companies - oil and gas firms, as well as miners - and subcontractors hold while writing their Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs). Do you see an increase in the militarisation of the extractive industries sector in Peru in general?
JDE: The majority of the big mining companies in Peru, like Yanacocha, Xstrata and Antamina, have an agreement with the police. These type of agreements pervert its role as a state entity protecting citizens, and make it appear more like private police at the service of big companies. More than 2,000 police were at the public meeting for the EIA for Tia Maria. There were more police than participants, and they impeded leaders opposed to the mine from freely entering.
DH: What’s the most concerning thing about the government’s response?
JDE: It has been lamentable. Tia Maria has been one of the most foreseeable conflicts on a long list of mining conflicts in Peru in recent years. The government has attempted to establish roundtables for dialogue, but one of the main problems is that such attempts have been made on the basis of fait accomplis.
The fact that the EIA has already been approved  and almost all the permits obtained is a clear message that, for the government, the project will go ahead and there’s no turning back. Under these conditions it will be difficult for any attempts at dialogue to prosper. Leaders and local authorities have also adopted an implacable position: the project won’t go ahead and they want the government to reverse.
DH: How would you describe local people’s feelings towards the mine?
JDE: The [Tambo] valley is fertile and productive and the local population work in agriculture. They see that the arrival of a mining firm threatens their valley and the main economic activity, and that it could set in motion a process converting what is an agricultural region into a mining region. It’s clear the majority of the population is against it. Some years ago there was a public consultation, and in October last year mayors opposed to the project were elected in the province [Islay] and three districts [Cocachacra, Dean Valdivia and Punta de Bombon].
DH: Can you be a bit more specific about local people’s concerns? In what way is the mine a threat?
JDE: Like all the valleys along Peru’s coast, water is not abundant. People fear the mine will impact the amount of available water. While the new EIA states desalinised sea-water will be used, the concern is the impact on underground water reserves, which constitute 50% of the flow of the main river in the region.
DH: What does the government now need to do to resolve the issue?
JDE: It must put the project on ice indefinitely. There’s no other alternative. That is, lamentably, a decision that it must take together with the company in order not to expose itself to an international lawsuit. What’s undeniable is the company as well as the government know perfectly well the project is not socially viable.
DH: And to avoid something similar in the future?
JDE: It should evaluate more closely the level of acceptance or opposition to a project, and it shouldn’t be rushed or think that the logic of fait accompli should prevail. Tia Maria was rushed through. They approved the studies and issued the permits, and social factors were neglected. In addition, mining policies must change, but I don’t think this government - which is now on its way out - will do anything about it.
DH: Many people reading this will be from other countries. Is there something specific you think readers should know about Tia Maria or other mining conflicts in Peru? How are we all involved? What can we do?
JDE: According to the United Nations, 40% of countries’ internal conflicts are related to natural resource exploitation. This is a global problem we’re facing. We’re all involved: some countries provide the companies and investments, others receive the investments. The United Kingdom and companies registered there are one of the biggest investors in Peruvian mining, and European countries are one of the main destinations for our minerals.
We must understand that the exploitation of minerals in countries like Peru has serious human rights impacts, mainly among rural populations, campesinos and indigenous peoples. That’s why there are these conflicts. Although investors’ rights are protected via various legally-binding or mandatory mechanisms - e.g. free trade agreements and bilateral investment treaties - human rights are overlooked or supposedly “protected” by voluntary commitments. The asymmetry is clear.