29 April 2004 Edition

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Poisoned Peruvians seek justice

Nilton Deza, an environmental activist for responsible mining

Nilton Deza, an environmental activist for responsible mining

On Monday 26 April, news bulletins announced a mercury spillage in the cargo of a plane that had landed at Belfast Airport. Six airport workers underwent check-ups in hospital and were given the all clear.

However, people in the Peruvian Andes 600 kilometres (375 miles) north of Lima, were not so lucky when on 2 June 2000 a truck loaded with the poisonous metal spilled 151 kilograms of liquid mercury over a 25-mile route, contaminating three mountain villages, including the village of Choropampa. More than 900 people were poisoned from the spill. Nearly two years afterwards, they continue to suffer the grave, debilitating effects of mercury poisoning. Proper medical care has not been provided and their health continues to deteriorate.

"The affected are mostly children," points out Nilton Deza, a university lecturer who works as an environmental activist with an organisation called Ecovida, which works for responsible mining. "50% of the children were under five years of age," he says.

Deza was in Ireland at the invitation of the Latin America Solidarity Centre to speak about the Choropampa people's struggle to get the owners of the Yanacocha goldmine, from where the mercury came, to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Mercury is a by-product of gold production and is collected in its elemental form in the mine refinery. This mercury from Minera Yanacocha is sold to a Lima-based firm for use in medical instrumentation and industrial applications.

The mine, jointly owned by a Peruvian company, the World Bank, and the Newmont Mining Corp of Colorado, insists the problem was quickly resolved, but villagers tell a starkly different story. For its 3,500 inhabitants, Choropampa is an Andean paradise lost. And it is even worse considering the ongoing health problems as a result of the poisoning.

"The health problems are various: the central nervous system is affected by mercury; kidneys were also damaged; there was blindness and nose bleeds. Some children's education has suffered because they cannot pay attention in classes due to their other health problems," explains Nilton Deza.

The Yanacocha mine, which started operating in 1993, is an enormous open pit goldmine of about 25,000 hectares, 18km from the Peruvian city of Cajamarca. This is one of the largest and most profitable gold mines in the world. In 1999 the mine produced 1.66 million ounces of gold at a cost of $103 per ounce. The production was expected to reach 1.75 million ounces in 2000.

However, this mine has only brought destruction and grief to the communities who live in the area. To the health impact of the mercury spillage it is important to add the impact of aggressive mining operations. The gold extraction technique used in the Yanacocha mine is known as 'cyanide heap leaching'. This entails stripping the mountain from top to bottom, crushing the rock through explosions, and then spraying a cyanide solution over the rock. The solution is subsequently processed to remove the gold.

Five mountains have disappeared but most worrying is the pollution of the soil and water resources, as these are only protected from the cyanide by a plastic layer. "As well as gold, the cyanide extracts other heavy metals which are very toxic, such as mercury, arsenic, lead and so on," points out Deza.

Considering that a number of rivers and tributaries flow through the mine site area, providing water for 70% of Cajamarca's citizens and surrounding rural areas, the gravity of the situation becomes clear.

Between 1993 and 1999, as a consequence of the mining activities, the area has suffered from water contamination, fish and frog kills, air pollution, loss of medicinal plants. Investigations into the water quality in the mine area's rivers and streams found that the mine consistently breaches World Health Organisation and Peruvian Ministry of Energy and Mines standards for a wide range of potential contaminants.

These pollutants have resulted in situations where villages have been without potable water for two months at a time.

Aside from the environmental impact, social problems include unjust and illegal land acquisitions, displacement, unemployment, alcoholism, prostitution, violence and repression of mining opponents. Families displaced by the mine are moving into the city of Cajamarca, where they have no way of making a living.

The migration into the city and the influx of workers from other regions are tearing apart the social fabric of communities. Men leave to find work, traditional practices of the indigenous people of the area are being forgotten, and families lose their community support structures.

Local prices have skyrocketed since the mine came. Hotels and landlords charge in US dollars and the one-hour flights from Lima to Cajamarca are the most expensive in the country. Yanacocha offers high prices for land and labour. All this affects some positively, but excludes others and divides communities.

Minera Yanacocha represents the first foreign investment in Peruvian mining in over 20 years. The Peruvian government is anxious to protect it, though local people say the Cajamarca region would be better served by investment in tourism, forestry and agriculture.

"The mining company is relying on the Peruvian judicial system, the corruption of the ruling classes as a whole. They will not want the case to be dealt with in the States because they may be forced to pay very many million dollars", accuses Deza. "On the other hand, the Peruvian authorities do not want to take care of their own people. The ministry of energy and mining and keep saying that nothing is wrong with the health of people in Choropampa. The same argument is used by the ministry of health," says Deza.

Villagers liken the mine owning foreigners to modern-day conquistadors, evoking the impoverished region's troubled historical relationship with gold. People in the area still remember the story of Atahualpa, the Inca ruler who was captured and murdered, not far from Choropampa, by Spanish explorers hungry for the precious metal. The treachery continues today. "They say 'foreigners have been coming and taking our gold and Peru remains as poor as ever'," says Deza. Benefits from the gold go to the two companies that own the mine and to the World Bank, which may share with the Peruvian government and even the provincial government. But when it comes to the communities on the ground, the benefits of the mine are not apparent.

"Cajamarca province ranks now as the second poorest out of the 24 provinces of PerĂº," says Deza. "Before mining, it was in the fourth place. Poverty is increasing in Cajamarca."

The World Bank, a financial institution that has tried to clean up its act in the last couple of years, owns a 5% share of the Yanacocha mine. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank Group has given loans totalling US$150 million for the development of the mine. According to the IFC, its involvement also ensures adherence to the highest social and environmental standards, which makes Yanacocha an example of best mining practice.

Two official complaints have been filed with the Consultative Advisory Ombudsman of the IFC against the Yanacocha mine, but this process has been shown to be mostly an exercise in public relations, with few concrete achievements.

"The World Bank was founded to support the less developed countries. But they are supporting industrial activities like mining, which are very polluting, the people are getting poorer, and the World Bank is involved in all this", says Deza.

Yanacocha plans to expand the mine to take and destroy a sixth mountain, Mount Quilish, a holy mountain for the indigenous people in the area.

"Mount Quilish is very close to Cajamarca", says Deza. "It is a sacred mountain. We want to protect it because it is the principle source of our drinking water. The mining company, with the complicity of the Peruvian government, is saying nothing. They trust the authorities will allow the mining works in Mount Quilish."

In October 2000, the municipality of Cajamarca declared that Quilish be protected to preserve the soil and the water sources for the city. Minera Yanacocha opposed this declaration at a local court. They lost but are now appealing. Even members of the US Congress have sent a letter to the IFC inquiring about its plans to expand the mine to Quilish.

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