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PERU: Mining Companies Venture into the Amazon

Milagros Salazar* - Tierramérica

LIMA, Jul 3 2008 (IPS) - The conflicts surrounding extractive industries in Peru could shift from the mountains to the jungles due to the rising number of concessions granted for the Amazonian regions of San Martín, Madre de Dios and Amazonas, and which are being strongly opposed by the local indigenous communities.

“We will not allow any more oil or mining concessions in the indigenous territories,” Shawi leader Alberto Pisango, president of AIDESEP, a coalition of native groups in the Peruvian jungle, told Tierramérica.

From 2002 to June 2008, the portion of territory in Amazonas (north), San Martín (central) and Madre de Dios (east) granted to mining companies quadrupled, from 4.65 percent to 17.35 percent, according to the government’s Mining and Metals Geological Institute.

The region of Amazonas is in the lead, with concessions expanding from 1.17 percent of its territory six years ago to 7.6 percent today.

In Madre de Dios, the increase was from 2.44 to 6.56 percent, while in San Martín it went from one percent to more than three percent in that period.

The main operations are small Canadian companies that are conducting exploration to later negotiate their discoveries of precious metals with larger transnational corporations that focus on extraction, according to the non-governmental organisation CooperAcción.

“Without a doubt there will be conflicts arising from these concessions, because from the environmental perspective it is a more sensitive zone than the mountains,” José de Echave, head of CooperAcción’s extractive industries campaign, told Tierramérica.

Mining in Peru has long been centred in the Andes. Only in the 1990s did it expand to the Pacific coast, and in the last few years to the Amazon jungles.

“The mining industry is in a race for new ore deposits because from now on there are going to be more restrictions worldwide on this activity as a result of the effects of climate change, which is already on the global agenda,” said De Echave.

Environmental protection is playing an increasing role in government policy decisions about mining, although it competes with the interest of guaranteeing private investment.

The mining companies want to make the most of the global hike in mineral prices. According to the economic news agency Bloomberg, between 2005 and 2006, the price of copper increased 111 percent, gold 42.5 percent, silver 65.5 percent, zinc 150 percent, lead 36.5 percent, and tin 15 percent.

Mining represents 60 percent of Peru’s exports. This country is the world’s second leading producer of silver, fifth in gold, and third in copper and zinc.

Keeping pace with this price boom is the growth of conflicts.

According to the Office of the People’s Defender (Ombudsman), in 2007 there were environmental conflicts in 40 percent of the mining zones. In May of this year it had reached 48 percent.

“It is likely that in the next 10 years the scenario of the conflict will be the Amazon, because the government does not provide guarantees that mining activity will respect the rights of the peasant and indigenous communities,” said De Echave.

Pisango, of AIDESEP, believes that one of the main reasons behind the tensions is that the companies explore the areas without first consulting the communities. “If (the government) continues launching aggressions, we are going to respond in an organised way,” he warned.

Since 2004, the number of complaints from indigenous peoples against the extractive industries has multiplied in Amazonas and Madre de Dios, he said.

In July AIDESEP will file a lawsuit against the government in the Constitutional Tribunal for violating indigenous rights in promoting extractive industries, and is considering taking the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Indigenous organisations have already turned to the Commission. In July 2007 they requested protective measures for the Kugapakori, Nahua and Nanti peoples, who live in isolation, with little outside contact, and were affected by the Camisea natural gas project in the Cuzco and Ucayali regions, in the south and east of the country.

Another petition was filed in defence of the indigenous groups who live in voluntary isolation – the Waorani, Pananunjuri and Aushiri or Aijira, in the northeastern region of Loreto – allegedly threatened by activities of the Barrett Oil and Repsol YPF petroleum corporations.

In both cases they are seeking the protection of the community, its territory and culture, and the Indians’ right to live in a healthy environment.

The harshest conflicts in the Amazon have emerged as a result of natural gas and oil drilling.

The government gives incentives for private investment in the mountains and in the jungles “because it has to start with something” to promote development in those areas, the president of the Council of Ministers, Jorge del Castillo, told La República newspaper.

The indigenous groups invoke Convention 169, adopted by the International Labour Organisation, which establishes a system of special protection for native peoples and consultation mechanisms about laws, projects and policies that affect their development and habitat. Peru ratified the convention in 1993.

What is needed is a land registry in order to prevent oil or mineral exploitation in forest or agricultural areas: “The law is very ambiguous, or prioritises mining over other productive activities. That is why a registry of what is really on that land is important before taking decisions that are only going to generate conflicts,” said Santos Kawai Komori, regional president of Madre de Dios.

(*Milagros Salazar is an IPS contributor. Originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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