Watching Cajamarca from Loreto

While barricades in Cajamarca were mostly torn down by Saturday, and the majority of protesters have gone home to rest, opposition to the $4.8 billion Conga gold mine project remains fierce.

The conflict continues to be the main stage on which Peruvians watch a national drama unfold, showing whether their new government will side with big business or protect local people’s rights and the environment from extractive industries there and in other regions of Peru, including the Amazon.

They say it’s the biggest test yet for President Ollanta Humala. It’s also a proving ground for the people of Peru.

The sudden stand down in the Andes this weekend came as national government officials called for talks with local officials after days of escalating clashes between protesters and police. The company agreed to temporarily halt work. Protest leaders are barred from the dialogue.

Among other complaints, opponents say the massive Conga project would damage the natural water system, destroying a string of alpine lakes that form the headwaters of rivers and streams and that replenish the natural aquifers relied on by locals.

“Water is life!” Cajamarca protesters have shouted. “We defend life!”

The company, U.S.-based Newmont Mining, says it plans to replace the lakes with man-made reservoirs. The plans don’t put monetary or any other value on the natural work or service being provided by nature and about to be destroyed or reversed. The government of Peru went along with the company’s plan, at least until the people took to the streets.

For their part, President Humala and other top officials have said the enormous tax and fee revenues from the project would help pay for “social inclusion” projects and poverty reduction programs throughout Peru.

So far, Humala has backed Newmont. But his position has been rejected by the very people about to loose their water, land and lakes.

“He campaigned as a leftist, so poor people voted for him,” said Alberto Pizango, Peru’s top indigenous leader and president of AIDESEP – the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Forest. “Now he’s revealing himself to be a derechista” — a right-winger, Pizango said in a recent interview with Alianza Arkana.

As we watch the events unfold in Cajamarca from afar in the Amazon, we see a broken or corrupt system for approving development projects in Peru, one in which environmental impacts are readily rationalized in the name of profits and local people, especially poor people and indigenous communities,  are not allowed a voice.

If this is what the development process looks like under a so-called socially minded administration, one can easily see the impunity with which companies have operated and continue to operate under the contracts made and enforced in the industry-friendly governments that came before.

For the region of the northern Peruvian Amazon, that chronic lack of accountability results in frequent spills of crude oil and draining of toxic production waters, often in indigenous communities, as companies are allowed to use decrepit and substandard infrastructure and techniques to save cash and maximize their take.

Frequent violators include Argentinean giant Pluspetrol, which operates throughout the Corrientes, Pastaza and Maranon. Others, who’ve purchased exploration or drilling rights under the see-nothing, do-nothing rules, include U.S.-based Conoco Phillips, and Canadians Petrolifera and Talisman Energy. Conoco is being sued by communities of the indigenous Achuar, who last week also told Talisman to cease-and-desist its exploratory wells, according to our friends at Amazon Watch.

“Water is life. We defend life!” people shouted through the streets of Iquitos, in Loreto, in a recent march that brought together leaders from a half-dozen indigenous groups taking a stand against the oil industry in their territories.

Those leaders watched closely as events in Cajamarca escalated, asking themselves and each other how lessons there could apply to conflicts in their territories or in the 270-some other social conflicts that the official human rights ministry says are active in Peru – at least half of those over natural resources.

As well as listening closely to official words and deeds, they also watch closely to see how the police, the army and the official spin machine are mobilized there as they formulate their own defensive strategies at home.

“A window for protest (in the Amazon) may be closing,” said indigenous rights attorney Jorge Tacuri of PDDI, the Program for the Defense of Indigenous Rights, the legal partners of Alianza Arkana.

“At the same time,” Tacuri said, “what we are witnessing in Peru is an awakening of people across the country who are demanding a model of development different from the current model of destruction.”

“This is a very important moment in Peru,” he said.

Deborah Rivett, Monday, 05 December 2011

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