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Residents reject copper mining
Ramiro Escobar*
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Three northern Peruvian districts turn down copper project.

Despite threats from high-ranking government officials and negative press coverage, three mayors of the northern Piura department held a popular vote on whether residents there were in favor of mining activity in their area.

A month earlier, the vote was declared illegal by Peru’s National Electoral Court. But the day of the vote, thousands of people from the rural districts of Ayabaca, Carmen de la Frontera and Pacaipampa lined up early to cast their vote.

Voters were asked the question “Do you agree with that there be mining in the district,” and the votes for “No” won easily.

In Ayabaca, 93 percent of the votes were against mining activities, with only 176 votes of more than 8,800 in favor.

In Carmen de la Frontera, of 3,053 voters 2,825 voted against mining and only 73 in favor. The results were not much different in Pacaipampa, where out of 6,091 votes, 5,914 voted against mining and 36 voted in favor. The electoral turnover averaged 60 percent.

A valuable piece of land
Residents in these districts were responding to a copper mining project by Minera Majaz, a subsidiary of London-based Monterrico Metals, which is mostly Chinese capital. The company has rights to the Rio Blanco deposit, which holds 1.2 billion metric tons of copper and molybdenum, making it the world’s largest untouched copper deposit in the world.

“Everything was orderly and we didn’t see any irregularity,” said Clara Ruiz, a spokeswoman for the more than 20 national and international observers, and a representative of the Spanish organization Entre Pueblos.

Luis Faura, town councilor of the northern Chilean city Alto del Carmen, said that voters were eager to participate. “The people’s enthusiasm to vote is notable,” he said from Ayabaca’s stadium, the village’s only voting center. The government had earlier prohibited public schools from being used as voting centers.

But the government had other attempts to block the vote, which was announced in June. It was not until August, however, that the government launched its attacks on the towns’ mayors.

In the days leading up to the vote, President Alan García called the nongovermental organizations that supported the vote “communists” and “enemies of investment.” Cabinet chief Jorge del Castillo said the mayors were ‘spending the people’s money for political action.”

But in an interview with Lima’s important El Comercio newspaper on Sept. 9, ombudswoman Beatriz Merino said the vote was “constitutional,” shifting the scale.

“Despite the attacks, we’ve shown that we’re not ignorant and that we’re peaceful people,” said Magdiel Carrión, president of the Ayabaca’s campesina federation.

It was not the first time a sector of Peru’s population has spoken out against mining.

In 2002, residents in Tambogrande, a rich agricultural valley also in the Piura department, known for its mangoes, held the world’s first communal referendum on mining. More than 98 percent of Tambogrande residents said “no” to Canadian company Manhattan Minerals” plans to drill for gold in the important valley, which would have destroyed their livelihood: mango and lemon crops.

The conflict between the population and Minera Majaz began in 2003 when the company began exploring for minerals in the area.

The people’s permission
According to Peruvian law, in order to extract the metal from the subsoil with the authorization of the landholders, the company had to have obtained the approval of two thirds of community assemblies of the Cajas, Yanta y Segunda communities, where the mine was headquartered, for authorization to use the communal lands. That never happened.

Between 2004 and 2005, there were numerous clashes between police and community members as a result of the irregular presence of the company in the area and two campesinos were killed.

In 2006, the Front for Sustainable Development of the Northern Border, a grouping of local officials and organizations near the Rio Blanco mining project, government officials and Mineria Majaz started negotiations.

But talks stalled in January of this year, because President García’s new administration was absent, and then the idea surfaced to hold the vote as a peaceful alternative to central government officials reluctance to hear the population’s voice.

Even though local officials have demonstrated their willingness for dialogue with all of those directly involved in the future project, which will last 32 years, it is still unclear what is going to happen. Mining here will involve the expropriation of land, and the deposit is located in an area home to fragile ecosystems, called cloud forests, which could affect important water resources in the area.


Northern rural communities reject mining project. (Photo: Ramiro Escobar)
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