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Violence, power and mining in Peru: how has Las Bambas worsened repression?

Demonstrations by local communities against the MMG Las Bambas mine have been met by police repression, highlighting a state that prioritises commercial interests over human rights. Español

Hauling containers for Las Bambas mine. Image: David Gubler/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

This article is part of Right to Protest, a partnership project with human rights organisations CELS and INCLO, with support from the ACLU, examining the power of protest and its fundamental role in democratic society

Peru has become the country of greatest attraction for mining investment in Latin America, according to a recent study by Frase Institute, which assesses geological aspects, political environment and favorable regulation. However, this growth of investment has unleashed tensions in territories of indigenous communities, creating a powerful private force capable of influencing state decisions and exerting violence on lands, the environment and indigenous activists. Recently, the southern, Andean part of the country has experienced intense conflict at one of the largest copper mines in the world: Las Bambas.

Open-pit mining: Las Bambas

Las Bambas started commercial production of copper and molybdenum in 2016, 12 years after its international public bidding. The Swiss company Xstrata won the tender in 2004, in 2011 it obtained state approval of its Environmental Impact Study (EIA), in 2013 it was acquired by Glencore International and in 2014 it was sold to the MMG Limited consortium, led by Chinese capital.

It is estimated that the mine produced more than two million tons of concentrated copper in its first five years, with direct impact on communities in the provinces of Cotabambas and Grau (Apurímac) and in the mining circuit that extends to the high Andean provinces of Cusco. Although the project has three open pits, no consultation with the affected indigenous communities has been carried out, and no state permit has been granted. State indifference led the communities to direct negotiation attempts and tensions with the mining companies.

Successive modifications of the EIA have unleashed a confrontation that reveals how the power of the mining industry has paved the way for repression, criminalisation of communities, and other human rights abuses.

What are the reasons for communal protests?

Between 2013 and 2015, six modifications to the EIA were approved by state authorities in favour of Las Bambas – raising serious questions about the lack of participation and consultation of the affected communities. On 25 September 2015, various peasant organisations and affected communities held a strike in protest of these irregular EIA changes. Protests have been continuous since then, to demand environmental protections in indigenous territories.

The impacts of dust, noise and vibrations are affecting the communities, without effective measures of prevention, mitigation or remediation

One of the main changes in the EIA is the relocation of a molybdenum plant and a filter plant to Cotabambas, despite the fact that its construction was initially planned for the Cusco province of Espinar. The proposed construction of a 206-kilometre-long pipeline for the transfer of mineral production has also now been rejected. This means that trucks – around 250 a day – will continue to do the transfers along the unpaved road from Cotabambas to Chumbivilcas and Espinar. The impacts of dust, noise and vibrations are affecting the communities, without effective measures of prevention, mitigation or remediation. 

The government's response to the demonstrations has prioritised business interests. Police repression, the misuse of the state of emergency and the criminalisation of protesters all reflect a state approach that denies indigenous communities the right to make decisions in their own territories.

Virginia Pinares, president of the Committee for the Struggle of the communities of Cotabambas, has publicly denounced the state response: 

“[Authorities have] said the main changes are auxiliary. Main plants have been transferred to Las Bambas. We were not informed. The plants have been moved without prior consultation of the people. We have demanded that, from the first moment, we are informed about the impacts of the relocation of these plants, but the Peruvian State has not listened to us, nor have representatives from the Apurímac Region or Congress (...) Now they do not want to allow the majority of organisations to participate. They only want three representatives per district, when several organisations are concerned about the environment. We are proposing an environmental insurance and a framework agreement” (September 13, 2016, TV Peru Noticias). 

In effect, the technical modifications that increase environmental vulnerability have been made behind the backs of the affected peoples, applying a new simplified legal mechanism called Support Technical Report (ITS). The ITS is planned to modify auxiliary components or expand projects with little environmental impact in a period of 15 days, obviously without citizen participation or indigenous consultation.

Lethal repression

After the protests in 2015, the government of Ollanta Humala ordered police intervention that resulted in the death of three peasants from Cotabambas – Exaltación Huamaní, Alberto Chahuallo and Alberto Cárdenas – who were killed by gunshots fired by police during the eviction of comuneros blocking the mining camp. Quintino Cereceda was also killed in similar circumstances. In both cases, the arbitrary use of police force and violence caused numerous injuries of varying severity, both among demonstrators and police officers.

This repression has aggravated the already tense conflict, but fiscal investigations have still to identify the police officers responsible for the deaths, while the government of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski has defended the actions of the police, insisting that they faced criminal behaviour. The absence of reparation has led the families of the dead peasants to accept a ‘non-compensatory’ fund with money from the MMG and regional government that amounts to the equivalent of a minimum monthly wage (approximately US$265) for 24 months. This donation, presented as ‘humanitarian’, contrasts with the request for civil damages of US$177,000 that MMG intends to charge those community members denounced for protesting against its activities.

Public-private policing 

The Ministry of the Interior has admitted that the national police provides private security, protection, custody and other services to the Las Bambas mining sites in Apurímac and Cusco. These services began with an agreement signed in 2012 and is constantly renewed. The agreement provides an economic compensation of 100 or 110 soles per day (about US$30) to each police officer, as well as business logistic support for police work. The ministry has also agreed to the use of force in exceptional cases and has established a confidentiality clause covering company information to which the police have access. 

The double public-private police function in conflict zones not only seriously alters their role, but also creates an economic interest that distorts their work of protecting the public, even when they are not in private service hours. This reversal of roles has serious consequences. As verified by human rights organizations, 17 people arrested during the protests in September 2015 were deprived of their liberty beyond the legal limit of 24 hours in the mining camp itself. 

The testimony of Francisco Huanca, member of the Frente de Defensa de Defensa de los Intereses y Desarrollo de Cotabambas (Defense Front for the Interests and Development of Cotabambas), reveals that even when emergency helicopter transfers were arranged, those accused of criminal activity were often transferred instead of the wounded:

“During the 2015 conflict, people were injured and killed, but the police preferred to take by helicopter the people they had intercepted and incriminated before the injured. Two of my countrymen died on the way to the city of Cusco. Our question is: is the state on our side or on the side of the company?” (13 October 2017, Testimony in the VI Peruvian Congress of Human Rights.

State of permanent emergency

The standard state measure against communal mobilisation and protest is military intervention. After the 2015 peasant strike, the government ordered the intervention of the armed forces in support of the national police on two occasions, and declared a state of emergency for 30 days in five provinces of the Andean south, many of which had not experienced any clashes. Even so, the rights to personal liberty and security, the inviolability of property and freedom of assembly and transit were suspended in five provinces.

Following protests in February and August 2017, the government has issued new ‘state of emergency’ decrees with the same restrictions applied in Cotabambas. These protests demanded the fulfillment of promises made by the company in the Challhuahuacho community, and compensation for the use of the road in the district of Mara. In August 2017, without any protests or security threats, the declaration of a state of emergency was reactivated and renewed every 30 days. A ‘habeas corpus’ lawsuit filed by human rights organisations, community leaders, rural women and young people of Challhuahuacho seeks to reverse this preventive and continued state of emergency, stating it to be totally unjustified.

Criminalisation of indigenous activists

As a result of the conflict, the state and MMG have accused 50 community members – residents of Cotabambas and Grau who have defended their collective rights – of crimes, including of aggravated damage, usurpation, obstruction of transportation, riots, conspiracy to commit a crime, coercion, aggravated robbery and illegal possession of explosives.

The MMG company has been very active in pursuing criminal prosecution of community activists

The company has been very active in pursuing criminal prosecution of community activists: it has filed complaints against community members and argued that they are part of a criminal organisation because they have common lawyers. They also requested the payment of US$177,000 as reparation, money that the comuneros supposedly must pay the company.

The legal defense of the activists, by the associations FEDEPAZ, APRODEH and DHSF, has called attention to the violations of personal freedom and use of one's own language. In addition to the police arrests, the comuneros Edwar Brandon and Javier Mamani were put in preventive prison for more than six months; while Asunto Huamaní, a Quechua-speaker, was interrogated in Spanish, without an interpreter.

 Eliana Galindo, a lawyer at APRODEH, expressed her concerns about the case:

“It is difficult for villagers to attend the hearings to testify as witnesses. Given the undue criminalisation that exists, they are afraid that the prosecutors will put them under investigation for taking part in the protests. It is also an obstacle that the authorities in charge of the investigation have not guaranteed the presence of interpreters; this is a population whose original and predominant language is Quechua. Both problems damage the right of defense, while the company has a large team of lawyers dedicated to promoting complaints" (November 17, 2017, Personal interview)

The criminalisation of the resistance of local communities is an articulation of business and state interests, and undoubtedly also deepens the power disadvantage of the communities affected by the mine.

The right to decide

Tensions in the territories affected by the Las Bambas mine uncover a deep conflict. The local people and communities are denied the right to decide the viability of extractive megaprojects and even to decide the environmental and social conditions in which projects can operate.

According to information from the Munden project, 40% of Peru's territory has been concessioned to extractive industries. In the provinces under direct influence of Las Bambas, the trend is greater: 89% of the territory of Cotabambas and 72% of the Grau territory have been concessioned to mining, without information, participation or consultation with the people who live there.

Commercial interests have stamped on human rights and the sovereignty of local people. The struggle continues for the right to make decisions about our way of life in our own territories.

About the author

Walter Vargas Díaz works for the Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos (APRODEH) and is a member of the international DESC network. He has a Masters degree in Constitutional Law and Human Rights from the National University of San Marcos, Peru.

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