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Peruvian Activists Predict a Right-Wing President Will Bring More Conflicts Over Mines

Activists are warning that Peru's sharp lurch to the right in the country's general elections earlier this month could bring an escalation of the often violent conflicts between local communities and mining companies.
Imagen por Rolly Reyna/AP Images

Activists are warning that Peru's sharp lurch to the right in the country's general elections earlier this month could bring an escalation of the already frequent conflicts — many of them violent — between local communities and mining companies.

One of the campaigners is Máxima Acuña, a grandmother whose battle against the planned 5 billion dollar Conga gold mine, owned by the Colorado-based company Newmont Mining, has made her a figurehead for Peru's green movement. It also turned her into one of the 2016 winners of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize on Monday.


"They are both going to bring us more problems, more conflicts, not solutions," Acuña said of Keiko Fujimori and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, the two candidates in the June 5 runoff presidential vote called after no candidate got more than half the votes in the first round election. "They are both candidates of the right. They both support the transnationals."

Keiko, as she is usually called, is the daughter of jailed hard-right former president Alberto Fujimori. Her party, Popular Force, also won a majority in the congressional poll held alongside the presidential vote. Kuczynski is a former prime minister and corporate lobbyist.

Peru's economy has always been heavily dependent on exports of gold, copper and other metals. Mining and other mega projects tend to be pushed through by governments without assuaging local concerns over environmental contamination.

In May last year Peru's ombudsman office said that 63 people had been killed and over 1,900 more injured in social conflicts in Peru since President Ollanta Humala took office in 2011. Most of those conflicts have been focused on mines and other extractive industries.

Related: Police in Peru Shoot Dead at Least Two Activists as Anti-Mining Protests Turn Violent

Both Keiko and Kuczynski have promised that they will not force heavily-polluting mining projects on impoverished rural communities. At the same time, however, they both appear keen to lift the block on investment represented by some protests.


Acuña's battle to stop Conga, in the northern region of Cajamarca, has become emblematic in Peru. The project has been the most high profile mining confrontation during Humala's presidency, prompting numerous violent clashes. Three anti-Conga protesters were killed by police in 2012 during street battles that paralyzed the region.

She and her family have refused to abandon their 61-acre high-altitude homestead to make way for the mine, despite the company even fencing off her farm. Acuña, 47, who has no formal schooling, says she has the title to her farm, while Newmont insists its 3,000-hectare mining concession includes her parcel of land.

The Goldman Prize regularly recognizes Latin American environmentalists with similar determination. One of last year's winners was Honduran Berta Cáceres, who was the highest profile member of a remarkably successful community effort to block the construction of a massive hydroelectric project called Agua Zarca. Cáceres was murdered last month inside her house in Honduras.

Acuña has been particularly opposed to Conga's plan to drain four mountain lakes and convert them into storage areas for, often-toxic, mining byproducts. She rejects the company's promise to build reservoirs to replace the lakes that many people downriver rely on for water to irrigate their crops.

"We campesinos live from the earth, from the water. All we want is to be left in peace," Acuña told VICE News before receiving her Goldman Prize in San Francisco on Monday. "The police beat us and the company mistreats us but the politicians always take the company's side. Newmont should just leave Peru."


Máxima Acuña won the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize. (Photo by Goldman Environmental Prize.)

As a presidential candidate five years ago, Humala famously assured local people that he was on their side, saying: "Water yes, gold no." But he changed his tune once in office, attempting to force Conga through, only to see the project paralyzed after months of violent confrontations with locals.

On the 2016 campaign trail, Keiko has accused Humala of betraying the Cajamarca region and insisted that Conga cannot move forward without local consent.

"The confidence of the population has to be won back," she said in March. "There has to be an aggressive program of construction of reservoirs, irrigation channels and highways that allow farmers to transport their products."

Related: Award-Winning Honduran Environmentalist Berta Cáceres Has Been Shot Dead

Yet that position ignores the fact that many people in Cajamarca are opposed to Conga regardless of any attempts by the company to ameliorate its impacts.

Kuczynski, meanwhile, said this week that he would only support "environmentally responsible projects" and there needed to be "dialogue" with affected communities who "compete" for water with mining companies.

But the track record of his vice presidential candidate Mercedes Aráoz has many wondering.

Aráoz was trade minister at the time of the 2009 Bagua massacre, when 32 police and indigenous Amazonian protesters killed each other. The conflict arose in the context of Aráoz attempting to push through a series of decrees aimed at opening up the rainforest to commercial exploitation.


"It is very worrying that when she has been asked about Bagua on the campaign trail she has denied any responsibility," says José de Echave, a former environment deputy minister who now works at Lima-based green group CooperAcción.

But he believes the biggest risk comes from Popular Force, given its authoritarian roots. Alberto Fujimori's 1990-2000 government remains notorious for using the army to shutter congress and attempting to silence critical journalists.

"There is a real risk of more and deeper conflicts with both candidates," De Echave warns, pointing out that they both talk up their intentions to attract big investors and bemoan the amount of red tape. "They share this same discourse… that we need to deregulate, including getting rid of environmental and social protections. Imposing a project by force will not work. It will only lead to conflict."

Related: Video Shows Frenzied Clash at Protest Over Plan to Build Massive Copper Mine in Peru

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