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PERU: Disappointing Talks on Mining Miss the Point

Milagros Salazar

LIMA, Oct 31 2007 (IPS) - Peruvian Prime Minister Jorge del Castillo signed a memorandum of understanding with mayors and governors opposed to the Majaz mining company’s Río Blanco project, which the people of the Piura highlands in northern Peru have been opposing for five years.

However, community leaders who took part in the tense, five-hour meeting on Monday were unhappy with the stand taken by del Castillo, and some complained that the government is siding with the company.

“We know that this is just the start of a long process, and that there are still several questions to be settled. But we have to keep moving forward,” the head of the Ayabaca Provincial Federation of Campesino Communities, Magdiel Carrión, told IPS.

Since 2002, conflicts and clashes have left two campesinos (peasants) dead and several injured, while fierce disputes have broken out between miners and farmers, and over 200 demonstrators protesting against Majaz, which plans to mine copper and molybdenum in the area, have faced legal charges.

“We have taken a big stride towards open dialogue, and will continue to explore and find the solutions that the best interests of our people deserve,” del Castillo said.

The meeting discussed accusations that the company had illegally invaded local people’s land.

Community leaders also complained that the mining company lacks authorisation from general assemblies of the local communities, which must approve mining initiatives by a two-thirds majority in campesino and native community areas, according to the law promoting private investment.

Although the question of illegal action by the mining company was not mentioned in the memorandum of understanding, del Castillo promised to include it in the dialogue process.

Majaz, a subsidiary of the London-based Monterrico Metals, was taken over earlier this year by China’s Xiamen Zijin Tongguan Investment Development Co. when it acquired 89.9 percent of the mining company’s shares.

The Río Blanco project covers over 6,000 hectares. Between 2002 and December 2006 Majaz conducted exploration activities, and now the mining company wants to start extracting copper and molybdenum.

The memorandum of understanding consists of five points. One is the naming of a moderator for the talks, who could be elected from among representatives of the ombudsman’s office, the Catholic diocese of Chulucanas (which is in the department, or province, of Piura and has supported the communities throughout the conflict), or the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Local authorities proposed the creation of an Environment Ministry, although they made it clear, as did the members of the communities, that they are against participating in the environmental impact study, required by law before the exploration phase can be deemed complete, because they consider that the exploration was illegal.

For its part, the executive branch stated in the memorandum that it could not intervene in the legal action taken by the national electoral authority (JNE) against the mayors of Ayabaca, Pacaipampa and El Carmen de la Frontera, who held a non-binding referendum on Sept. 16, in which over 90 percent of voters rejected mining activity in Piura.

Finally, the parties to the dialogue promised to keep the debate civil and peaceful. This point was necessary because of the climate of aggression between mayors opposed to Majaz and those who support it, which was on the verge of breaking up the talks.

The authorities in the areas affected by the mining project had agreed with del Castillo that only they and the community leaders would take part in the meeting. However, in a surprise move, other mayors from towns far away from Majaz’s activities were allowed in.

The Front for the Sustainable Development of the Northern Border, made up of authorities and representatives of the communities affected by Majaz, was another source of controversy at the meeting.

The organisation had been recognised by del Castillo as a legitimate interlocutor in the negotiations, but at the last minute the head of the Front, Carlos Martínez, was relegated to an observer’s position in the talks.

Martínez is also governor of the province of San Ignacio in the region of Cajamarca, adjacent to Piura, which would be affected by the Río Blanco project because the rivers flowing through the mining zone are the source of irrigation for large coffee plantations in the area.

In spite of signing the memorandum, del Castillo shrugged off responsibility on a number of counts, among them the draft law presented by the executive to Congress, declaring 20 mining projects, including Río Blanco, “in the national interest,” after local communities had rejected Majaz’s mining activities in the local referendums.

Members of the local communities regard this draft law as a provocation, and an open indication of support for the mining company, but del Castillo said it was just “a necessary step.”

The prime minister had no answer as to why the JNE accused mayors of usurping functions in the communities where people voted against Majaz, but did nothing in the case of the mayor of Talara, of the governing Peruvian Aprista Party, who held a similar unofficial referendum on the same day, in which supporters of the mining company won the vote.

Del Castillo did not concentrate on problems such as potential water pollution by the mine, but instead spoke about drug trafficking in the Piura region. He proposed including in the memorandum a commitment by the mayors to cooperate with the police to eradicate the drug trade, but this was not accepted.

“When the police carry out their operations in this area, they need the cooperation of the local and regional authorities. What is more poisonous, after all, drugs or mining?” del Castillo asked when he spoke to the press, after the meeting.

“Several community leaders were not allowed to explain the potential harm to rivers and to the biodiversity of the area,” complained Carrión, who was not permitted to speak at the negotiating table in spite of being one of the Piura highlands’ most respected leaders.

There are endangered species in the mining project area, and typical Andean highland ecosystems and cloud forests, highly biodiverse small islands of vegetation which capture, retain and distribute water to the rivers, would be threatened by extractive activities.

“I have the feeling that the discussion lacked sufficient scope, and that the essential points have not been identified. In future the government must work harder to regain the confidence of local authorities and communities in order to reach a consensus,” José de Echave, head of the mining and communities programme for the non-governmental organisation CooperAcción, told IPS.

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