Residents of the Cajamarca region of Peru proved the power of protest this week when they successfully blocked U.S. mining giant Newmont from exploring for gold at the Cerro Quilish deposit – a move, they say, that could have severely polluted the region’s water supply.
Last month, Newmont got the go-ahead from the Peruvian government to mine for gold at Quilish despite protests from the residents that the work would pollute local water supplies in a region that has suffered from drought for four straight years now. Indeed, the region’s main water treatment plant is located just four miles from the Quilish deposit, which itself sits atop the largest gold mine in Latin America, Yanacocha.
Work began at Quilish, which has probable gold reserves of 3.7 million ounces, this week and almost immediately nearly 10,000 infuriated residents and workers in Cajamarca blocked the main road leading to the mine. The Peruvian government – after many efforts to undermine the protests – finally suspended the mining permit Friday because of the scale of the protests.
The indefinite suspension of the permit is no small victory since the legal battles for access to Quilish have been ongoing. Earlier this year, a municipal government in Peru declared exploitation of Quilish off-limits, saying it should be declared a protected environmental zone. The nation’s highest court, in the pocket of market-friendly President Alejandro Toledo, overturned the ruling and gave Newmont, the majority owner of Yanacocha (which is minority owned by the World Bank and a Peruvian mining concern), the green-light for exploitation.
“We want to intervene so that they do hydrological studies that corroborate this acquired knowledge that rural people and those that live in the area have,” Father Marco Arana of the non-governmental organization Grufides told BusinessNews America. (Arana has emerged as the main spokesperson for the protestors). “Yanococha has said there would be no water problems but over the years dead fish with traces of arsenic, mercury, iron or pH variations have been found in nearly all the rivers around the mine,” he said.
Newmont’s exploits have a bloody history that spans the globe. Arana’s reference to mercury poisoning is surely, in itself, a reference to a 2000 accident involving the transport of mercury along a road to Yanacocha. About 355 pounds of the toxic substance spilled and local residents were poisoned when they walked over it and in some cases, unknowingly carried it into their homes.
Residents of the North Sulawesi region of Indonesia are all too familiar with Newmont – the world’s largest gold producer. The people there say Newmont is dumping mercury and arsenic-laced mine waste into the local Buyat fishing bay. In Turkey, a Newmont-operated mine was shut down in August by the government after residents protested that gold production was contaminating the soil.
Back in Peru, the struggle to keep Quilish protected will continue. Newmont has already spun the victory as temporary and they say the permit they were initially given by the Peruvian government is still legal. Newmont has operated in Peru for just over a decade now and it will find a way to stay as long as there is money to be made.