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PERU: Mining Project Hurting Highland Ecosystem

Milagros Salazar

LIMA, Sep 12 2007 (IPS) - The preliminary results of a study by researchers at the University of Texas have shown that the exploration phase of the Río Blanco mining project in Peru’s northwestern Andes mountains caused damages to the area’s biological diversity.

“Damages were caused during the drilling in the process of exploring for minerals. The damage to biodiversity in the area is undeniable, and medicinal plants and endangered species of animals have been put in danger,” Peruvian biologist Martha Bustamante told IPS.

Bustamante took part in the study, along with researchers Kenneth Young, Blanca León and Julio Postigo from the University of Texas at Austin.

The biologist said the Río Blanco project of the Minera Majaz company, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the London-based mining company Monterrico Metals, endangered the breeding of rare animals like the spectacled bear and the mountain tapir, which live in Andean cloud forests in the area.

The mining project is modifying the habitat of local flora and fauna, says the study, whose preliminary results circulated early this month among local highland communities.

The researchers warn that if forests are cut down or left in isolated stands, there could be impacts with even greater consequences, in terms of interrelationships among ecosystems and species, and cross-border gene flows within species. And they say the threat will become alarming if the 1,000-hectare open-pit mining project goes ahead.

The Río Blanco mining project concession covers a total area of 6,000 hectares. The Minera Majaz carried out exploration for copper and molybdenum between 2002 and December 2006, and today is pushing to speed up the paperwork to begin mining, under the new owners of Monterrico Metals, China’s Xiamen Zijin Tongguan Investment Development Co., which acquired 89.9 percent of the mining company’s shares in a takeover bid this year.

Authorities in Peru must approve the company’s environmental impact study before mining can begin. Minera Majaz, which plans to start mining in 2011, hopes to extract 191,000 tons of copper and 2,180 tons of molybdenum a year.

Another Monterrico subsidiary, the Minera Mayari, also has a concession to 15,000 hectares near the Río Blanco project.

The two large-scale mining projects together will thus have an even greater impact, using enormous quantities of water in the area and polluting the Chinchipe and Quiroz rivers, said biologist Fidel Torres with the local environmental organisation Colectivo Piura Vida y Agro.

The Chinchipe river supplies water to the towns of Jaén and San Ignacio in the neighbouring region of Cajamarca, where large-scale plantations produce coffee for export.

And the Quiroz river and its tributaries are essential for the province of Ayabaca and much of the Piura region.

Three villages in the provinces of Ayabaca and Huancabamba, where opposition to the Río Blanco mining project runs high, have called a non-binding referendum for Sept. 16, to allow voters to express their views on mining activity in the area.

Although the national electoral authority has declared the referendum illegal, local residents argue that a democratic process is the best way for the affected communities to make their position clear to the mining company and to be heard by the central government.

Protests against Minera Majaz have already led to the death of two villagers and the arrest of over 200, who are facing charges of disturbing public order, reported the Ecumenical Foundation for Development and Peace (FEDEPAZ).

The study by the University of Texas researchers is based on field work carried out in August at the request of the Mesa Técnica de Apoyo, a non-governmental technical panel set up to support the local communities.

The area where Minera Majaz plans to mine for copper and molybdenum is in Peru’s northern Andes, where the high plateaus are small islands of plant cover between 3,500 and 4,200 metres above sea level.

These highland areas are characterised by “plant cover that absorbs, retains and distributes water to the rivers which will be threatened by the Río Blanco mine, as will the cloud forests,” said Torres.

IPS gave a copy of the preliminary results of the University of Texas researchers’ report to Minera Majaz’s head of operations, Andrew Bristow, who responded that the mine would use a closed-loop system in which all chemicals would be recycled and no leaks would occur.

Bristow also said the project would include reforestation efforts to safeguard a forest corridor running from the Tabaconas-Namballe National Sanctuary, a vast high plateau ecosystem in northern Cajamarca, to the Ecuadorian border.

The company official said the project is part of an important “environmental solution” for the area, and that the mining company’s sustainable development programmes and proposed funds will help reduce poverty, boost incomes and education, and bolster production in local communities.

He also asserted that the company’s environmental impact study will prevent any possible pollution.

Prime Minister Jorge del Castillo told IPS that Minera Majaz will have to guarantee the highest quality standards for environmental protection if it wants to expand its operations in the area.

He acknowledged, however, that the violent conflicts that have broken out between local residents and Minera Majaz would make it impossible for the company to work in the area today. “Majaz has to start from scratch,” he said.

Local authorities and community leaders have complained about threats received from groups that support the mining company.

Attacks have also been reported. One young man, Joel Rivero Chimbo, was shot twice and injured on Aug. 26 while handing out leaflets in favour of the Sept. 16 referendum on the mine. In his complaint, he said his attacker identified himself as a Minera Majaz supporter.

The prime minister, who noted that the company has also complained of violence on the part of local residents organising the non-binding referendum, said that on Sept. 5 he called on the new owners of Minera Majaz to engage in talks with the local authorities and community activists.

“We recognise that in that area, dialogue has not been given a chance,” and the mining company executives have managed the conflict in the last few years with “a severe lack of intelligence,” he added.

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