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Water more valuable than gold
Milagros Salazar
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Mining companies and campesino communities face off for increasingly scarce resource.

“Before our struggle was for land, now it’s for water,” shouted campesino leader Félix Llanos during a road blockade in the northern Cajamarca department in Peru, home to Latin America’s largest gold mine: Yanacocha.

This was in late August 2006. Residents of Combayo, a small farming village nearby, began protesting a new gold mining project at the heads of their rivers.

It was a symbolic case. A classic David-and-Goliath battle, in which a poor mass of campesinos took on the powerful transnational company, with all of the conditions for a water conflict: the scarcity of the resource, poor water management, the lack of an effective environmental authority, the weakness of social organizations and the violation of the population’s human rights.

“Before there had been water in this basin,” said the vice president of one of the grassroots development committees in the area, referring to the Maqui Maqui basin. This basin feeds the Chonta River basin, a key water source for Combayo. “Now, there’s nothing.”

“Early in the morning, the waters look cloudy,” said campesina Reina Llanos, a sign of contamination for her.

The conflict in Combayo continues. Some sectors of the community complain that the government has not fulfilled the 11-point agreement it signed with the population and the company in negotiations in September 2006. One of those promises was a study on the safety of the local water sources.

According to the Ombudsman’s Office, there were 89 cases of water contamination reported in the country in the first six months of this year, and of the 35 cases of social conflicts registered in June, 16 were linked to water and mining.

In Cajamarca, the most seriously conflicts in recent years have occurred over the protection of water sources in mining areas, which is what happened in Cerro Quilish, Combayo and La Zanja.

Five years ago, in the northern coastal department of Piura, the population of Tambogrande kicked off Manhattan Sechura mining company from the land, where it wanted to drill for gold, so that their rivers, which feed their famed mango and lemon crops, would not be contaminated.

Similar conflicts have sprung up in the area’s highlands, where campesinos denounce the Rio Blanco project by the Majaz company will damage local rivers, medicinal lakes, flora and fauna.

Both conflicts in Piura and Cajamarca have had fatalities, and according to governmental and nongovernmental organizations’ reports, the population’s fears are well founded.

Documenting the damage
In 2005, Eugenio Bellido, director of the Basic Sanitation department of the governmental Environmental Health Office, known by its Spanish initials DIGESA, revealed that 30.2 percent of the coastal rivers are contaminated by mines and garbage dumps of nearby populations.

All these rivers rise in the Andes, where there are extractives industries.

In Yanacocha, joint property of the US company Newmont and the Peruvian company Buenaventura, the 2004-2005 report by the International Financial Corporation (IFC), a branch of the World Bank, said that the Chaquicocha basin is one of the four critical points of the Chonta River basin, a vital water source for Combayo.

In this basin, concentrations of aluminum, arsenic and lead are above international limits for drinking water for animals were found, according to the report.

In 2003, the Colombian company INGETEC conducted a study that found that “the geographical location of the mine, in particular, above various river basins … constitutes a high risk potential” for the population.

That study, as well as another by the independent Stratus Consulting, states that Yanacocha has significantly decreased the quantity of water in these rivers.

Although the mining companies insist that the water volume they use to process minerals are insignificant if compared with the water required for agriculture, those quantities are not imperceptible either.

Between 1993 and 2004, Yanacocha processed 624.8 million metric tons of minerals with approximately 125 million cubic meters of water, according to company figures.

This volume of water could supply a city of 6.5 million people for one year, at 50 liters per person, according to a study by the Group of Formation and Intervention for Sustainable Development, or Grufides, a Cajamarca-based NGO.

Like the mining companies, the government says that big mining does not contaminate water sources if it employs modern technology to protect the environment.

Peruvian nongovernmental organization Red Muqui, of which Grufides and other national and local institutions that defend populations affected by mining are members, says that all open-air mining that uses chemical processes such as lixiviation by cyanide as Yanacocha does is “highly contaminating.”

“Mining affects water sources either because the water can be transferred from place to place to get the mineral out, which often can be found at the bottom of a lake, or because the water is diverted or used in the processing of the metal,” warns Patricia Rojas, a Grufides member, who led an elaborate study on mining and water.

But not all studies can demonstrate the damages.

Invisible state
“There’s no timely state intervention to establish the cause of the contamination.

This creates a scenario of defenselessness for the population who feel threatened by the mine,” said Alicia Abanto, a member of the Public Services and Environment commission of the Ombudsman’s Office.

Since January of this year, mining regulation has been overseen by the state-run Supervisory Body of Energy and Mines Investment.

But Abanto says this agency does not efficiently enforce its role as independent environmental authority, as it’s been recommended in order that the state regain the communities’ confidence.

The environmental studies commissioned by the government continue to be financed by the mining companies themselves as they were when environmental enforcement was in charge of the Ministry of Energy and Mines, which both promoted and supervised mining investment.

José de Echave, who heads the mining program at the nongovernmental organization CooperAcción, says that the lack of water is one of the greatest factors in these conflicts. “Mining has become a great competitor of a resource that is running out,” he said.

Majaz is a prime example. The campesino leaders who opposed the mine feel that the project will turn their community into a mining district, because another subsidiary of the company has an additional, 15,000- hectare concession near the Blanco River.

Everything in that area is closely tied with Andean ecosystems, such as the moors, that allow for the collection, retention and distribution of water, as well as containing medicinal lakes and cloud forests that house animal species on the path to extinction.

Weak citizens’ participation
The situation worsens, according to Red Muqui, because of the uneven coverage of water management institutions and the weak participation of the population during DIGESA’s water monitoring.

Peru’s Environment law states that local populations can only present reports of contamination or other kind of damage if they have been technically documented by an expert registered to the Ministry of Energy and Mines.

The obsolete Water law of 1969 also fails to offer any legal protection to users. Farmers’ water commissions rarely know their rights that are outlined in the law such as the ability to deny mines use of their waters.

For anthropologist Armando Guevara Gil, coordinator in Peru of the Water Law and Indigenous Rights project, farmers’ water organizations in the Andes are weak mainly due to geography: the area is many of a web of tiny basins and lots that impedes the centralized administration of water, unlike the coast.

For instance, a water committee of farmers in Santa Rosa de Ocopa, in the central highland Mantaro valley, has 250 members to irrigate just 120 hectares, and during the three- to four-month rainy season, the water committee declares the free use of water and takes a break. “The laws have to address the country’s diversity,” said Guevara.

“The cultural factor is another important element at the time a mining concession is granted. Some communities believe that the paqarina, the place where the people originated, is located in the water sources.

“And in that case the state has the obligation to respect the communities’ beliefs. You can’t negotiate. It would be as if the Catholics accepted that the Vatican be up for negotiation,” added Guevara.

To prevent conflicts about water sources, the Ombudsman’s Office proposes reforming environmental regulations to include the participation of the local populations and regional governments.

De Echave says that that there should be a territorial ordering plan to establish zones that are off limits to mining in order to preserve water, which at a time of scarcity has become more valuable than gold.

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