Business, Economics and Jobs

After toxic toll, Peru plans to vet mines better

An Andean woman rides a horse after a protest against Newmont's planned open-pit gold mine in Cajamarca, in the high Andes of Peru.
Credit: Ernesto Benavides

LIMA, Peru — Green groups have cautiously welcomed a planned shake-up of Peru’s troubled mining sector.

Mining dominates the country’s economy, accounting for 62 percent of the South American country’s exports and 32 percent of its tax revenues. But its impacts on local communities are controversial, with many accusing companies of polluting their water and lands and even poisoning their families.

Violent clashes between stone-throwing villagers and police have become common here and 12 people have died since President Ollanta Humala took office in July 2011. He had campaigned on a pledge to put citizens’ rights ahead of foreign corporations.

The issue has so convulsed Peru that Humala has been forced to sack two prime ministers in the last 12 months and freeze the proposed $4.8 billion Conga copper and gold mine, which would have been the country’s largest-ever foreign direct investment.

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Now, Environment Minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal has unveiled plans to shake up government oversight of environmental impact assessments — key studies used to determine whether mining (or other major projects such as roads, dams and oil drilling) should be allowed in the first place.

In Peru all major projects require them, yet those for mining are approved — they are almost never rejected — by the energy and mining industry here. Critics say that’s a clear conflict of interest.

In almost every other Latin American country, the environment minister oversees environmental impact assessments and decides whether a project would trigger too much ecological damage.

Now, according to Pulgar-Vidal, that decision will be made by a panel involving five ministries but chaired by the Environment Ministry, marking a major shift in the fledgling department’s battle for power with the influential mining sector.

“[This] will improve the relationship between the government, which evaluates, supervises and emits laws [allowing new mines] and the population, which wants to be able to trust in the authorities,” he told a press conference.

Environmentalists and human rights campaigners declared the move a significant advance but warned that the proposal contained big loopholes.

“It is a positive step forward but we still have many concerns,” Emma Gomez, of human rights and development group Cooperaccion, told GlobalPost. “But ultimately, approving an environmental impact study will still be a political rather than a technical decision. In other words, it will not be an objective judgment.”

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Meanwhile, Pedro Solano, director of Peru’s largest green nonprofit, the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law, said in a statement that it had been “absurd” that the environmental ministry had not previously been involved in evaluating environmental impact assessments.

“The government is building a new role for itself regarding investments, where it should act not just as a promoter of investments but principally as a guarantor that they will be environmentally and socially compatible.”

Nevertheless, both activists were quick to pinpoint shortcomings they noticed in the new format. These include the fact that municipal governments will not be consulted, and a clause that would allow the government to bypass the committee and simply approve some environmental impact assessments by decree.

Gomez described that last provision as a “Pandora’s box” just waiting to be abused by an autocratic or arrogant president. Solano added that it was a “dangerous open door.”

Meanwhile, Pedro Martinez, president of the Peruvian Association of Mining, an industry group, told GlobalPost that his team was still analyzing the bill and could not therefore comment on it publicly.

More from Peru: Proposed mine riles the locals

The new law would also mark a major beefing-up of the powers of the Environment Ministry, which was only reluctantly created in 2009 by the administration of then President Alan Garcia, to comply with Washington’s conditions for signing a US-Peru trade treaty.

Since then the ministry has been starved of funds and overshadowed by the Mining and Energy Ministry, among others.

The result, green groups say, is that mining and oil companies’ frequently abuse local communities.

According to Peru’s official human rights watchdog, the country had 168 “social conflicts” in July, in which communities refuse to accept, sometimes violently, mining and other extractive activities on local land.

In one recent case, Antamina, the world’s third-largest zinc and eighth-largest copper mine, allegedly poisoned hundreds of local people in the village of Cajacay, high in the Andes, after spilling an estimated 45 tons of copper concentrate.

Environmentalists describe cases such as this as all too typical.

At least 69 were children, and 42 were hospitalized. Yet, two weeks after the spill Antamina has still failed to give local people — or doctors — precise details of the chemicals contained in the toxic stew.

The company did not respond to requests for comment.

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