Earlier this summer, an anti-mining Indigenous movement in Peru successfully ousted a Canadian mining company from their territory. “In spite of government repression, if the people decide to bring the fight to the bitter end, it is possible to resist the pressure of mining and oil companies,” Peruvian activist and journalist Yasser Gómez told The Dominion.
The David and Goliath scenario of this anti-mining uprising highlights the vast economic inequality that has beset Peru. The country’s economy has been booming for the past decade, with a seven per cent growth expected this year—one of the highest growth rates internationally. Sixty-five per cent of the country’s export income comes from the mining industry, and investors are expected to spend over $40 billion in the next 10 years on mining operations.
Yet this growth has not benefited a large percentage of the population. The poverty rate in Peru is just over 31 per cent; in the countryside, two in three people live under the poverty line. Today, there are over 200 communities organized against mining across Peru.
On June 5, left-leaning presidential candidate Ollanta Humala defeated right winger Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of ex-president and human rights violator Alberto Fujimori. Humala, who won resounding support in the poor countryside, promised to redistribute wealth by increasing taxes on the lucrative mining industry.
But another political force, from the grassroots, may end up being a powerful force of change under Humala.
In May and June of this year, hundreds of local residents in Puno organized road blockades, strikes and protests to demand that the government rescind a concession to the Vancouver-based Bear Creek Mining Corporation. Activists also called for an end to future mining concessions in their area, due to the industry’s impact on the environment.
According to Bear Creek, at the time of the protests the company had already invested some $25 million in the mine. Company Director Andrew Swarthout said the mining would not impact on Lake Titicaca (a massive fresh water lake shared by Bolivia and Peru) and would create approximately 1,000 jobs. But local residents were not convinced.
Walter Aduviri is the president of the Front for the Defense of Natural Resources in Southern Puno, and a leading organizer in protests against Bear Creek and mining in general in the area.
“It is as though we, the Aymaras, do not have any politicians or representatives in the congress,” Aduviri told a reporter from the Peruvian newspaper La Republica. He critiqued outgoing president Alan García, who he says governed only for those who have money. "We do not ask for money, we ask for respect for our rights, our property and territory,” said Aduviri.
“The president [Alan García] has sold off our territory without consulting us,” Paolo Castro, a farmer who joined the protests against Bear Creek told Al Jazeera. Farmer Alejandro Tucuuhami agreed, telling the news outlet, "We know that in European countries, for example, mining contaminates a lot, so that's why they want to send the mines to underdeveloped countries."
Indigenous campesinos on the Bolivian side of the border began road blockades in solidarity with the Peruvian activists. Overall, the blockades put a standstill to inter-country traffic, stopping hundreds of trucks, local passengers and tourists.
On June 24, following seven weeks of strikes, protests, road blockades and bloody police repression of activists, then President García broke with Peruvian political tradition and heeded the demands of the protesters by cancelling the Bear Creek contract, and putting a three-year hold on future mining deals for the region. In addition, recently inaugurated Ollanta Humala has pledged to move forward on legislation that will make community input necessary before mining operations anywhere in the country can proceed.
Just hours after García overturned Bear Creek's concession, a conflict erupted at the airport in Juliaca, north of Puno. There, activists protesting other mining operations and a hydroelectric plant occupied the airport only to be attacked by police who shot and killed five protesters. Major English media outlets inaccurately reported that García’s decision against Bear Creek was linked to the massacre at the airport, when in fact the airport protest was linked to separate proposed mining and hydroelectric projects.
Jennifer Moore, the Latin America Program Coordinator of MiningWatch Canada, told The Dominion that García’s decision to annul the concession “is an important indicator of the strength of local organizing that we have been seeing for awhile in Peru.” Moore said García has been “extraordinarily bent on handing out mining concessions without consulting with local communities first.”
In response to García’s decision, Bear Creek has applied for a constitutional injunction against the Peruvian government. Swarthout contends that the cancellation of the concession is unconstitutional and in violation of foreign investment laws. Moore noted that it is plausible that Bear Creek could use the Canada-Peru Free Trade Agreement, signed in 2009, to challenge the loss of their concession.
The wave of strikes and conflicts that have swept across Peru in recent months, along with the election of Humala, are likely to have a long-standing impact on the regulation and taxation of the multinational extractive industry in Peru. On August 23, at the time of this writing, the Peruvian congress signed into law a bill that requires mining and oil companies to consult with Indigenous communities before constructing extractive projects. Humala now has to sign the bill into law for it go into effect.
The people’s victory in Puno against Bear Creek may set the stage for a new struggle in the country that will test the political will of Humala, and challenge social movements to pressure from below.
Benjamin Dangl is the author of Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America and The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press). He edits TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events, and UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America. Email Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com.