In the first half of 2015, violence linked to social conflict rose dramatically in Peru. Data aggregated from the Peruvian Human Rights Ombudsman shows hostilities across the nation culminated in May, when five people were killed and a further 200 sustained injuries.
The majority of these casualties relate to protests that have flared at the Tia Maria copper mine in the southern Arequipa region. The mine represents one of the largest reserves of copper in Peru, but local residents fear the project will have devastating consequences for agricultural land, local water supplies and the wider environment. The mine is owned by Southern Copper, a subsidiary of Mexican mining giant Grupo Mexico (GM). GM is one of the largest producers of copper in the world, but locals are worried about the company’s environmental record, which includes disastrous toxic spills in the United States and Mexico.
Local residents have actively fought the mine for the past six years. The project was temporarily halted in 2011 after protests left four people dead. Despite ongoing opposition, the project was finally given government approval in August 2014.
Opposition has ramped up again in 2015 and protesters and police have endured months of violent clashes. Residents from towns across the region also went on strike to express concern about the wider impact of the mine. In May 2015, the Peruvian government declared a state of emergency in the region, deploying 4,000 police and military officers. The Tia Maria mine was recently called Peru’s “biggest environmental conflict” by Peruvian NGO CooperAcción. Solidarity protests have been held across the country, while more than 1,000 people marched in Lima to call for a halt to the project.
Other conflicts have also broken out across the country in recent months. In March 2015, more than 50 people, including both civilians and police, were injured in protests over an increase in electricity prices in the south-central region of Apurímac. Local government officials have challenged the company to explain why January saw a 200 percent increase in the cost of electricity.
Protesters from different towns have targeted Electro Sur Este, the utilities company responsible for the price hike, in a series of actions including a highway blockade, a regional strike and an incident involving damage to company property. Local officials and company representatives have engaged in sporadic discussions, but have not yet found a solution.
Sadly, conflict is far too common in this land known for its rich traditions and astonishing biodiversity. Peru is classed as one of the world’s top ten ‘megadiverse’ countries, due to its extensive variety of ecosystems, flora and fauna. Over half of the country is comprised of the Peruvian Amazon, which is home to scores of distinct indigenous cultures.
Article 66 of the Peruvian constitution states that all natural resources belong to the state. However, the constitution also affirms that “the State is obliged to promote the conservation of biological diversity, and protected natural areas.”
In recent decades, however, illegal logging, mining and hydrocarbon extraction have come to threaten Peru’s environmental sustainability. These industries also have very real consequences for the people who live nearby - over the past five years, Peru’s Human Rights Ombudsman has registered 420 new cases of social conflict, the majority of which relate to environmental issues. The Ombudsman consistently ranks mining as a top cause of conflict.
Over the past eighteen months the Ombudsman has also recorded a marked increase in the number of protests across Peru. Between one and two hundred instances of protest occur each month. While conflict does not always equate to violence, over the past year more than 860 people have been injured and 20 killed as a result of social tensions.
In January 2014, the Peruvian government passed a controversial law which decrees that members of the armed forces and national police are “exempt from criminal responsibility” if they cause injury or death while on duty. This ‘license to kill’ has been condemned by local and international human rights organisations, Peru’s own Human Rights Ombudsman and the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights.
The fight for small-scale mining
While mining is a significant source of conflict in Peru, not all protesters are opposed to it. In fact, many thousands of artisanal miners have been fighting for the right to keep working on land they may not legally hold title to.
In the past few years, government efforts to formalise the small-scale and artisanal gold mining sector has become a source of great contention. This process, which began in 2002, affects an estimated 100,000 small-scale miners who work illegally. Periodic strikes, marches and protests have lead to an impasse with government officials, who for their part have been inconsistent in their application of the relevant laws.
In March 2014, tens of thousands of small-scale miners blocked roads across Peru while protesters clashed with police near congress in the capital. Protesters called on the government to extend an April deadline for registering informal mining operations. While illegal gold mining can have harmful environmental and health consequences, for example due to the large amounts of mercury commonly used, the sector is also an important source of employment for many poorer families.
In July 2014, the Peruvian government passed a law that has weakened environmental regulation of Peru’s mining industry. The new law, which aims to reinvigorate foreign investment in fossil fuels, makes it easier for new mining projects to get the green light, establishes tax breaks for multinational companies and halves the fines for many environmental violations. José de Echave, former deputy minister for the environment, said at the time, “As far as Latin America goes, we are the country back-pedalling the most.”
Protesters from human rights collectives and environmental organisations gathered in the nation’s capital to try to derail the legislation while it was before congress. On one occasion they were met with tear gas, batons and riot shields, as police tried to quell the protest. The crowd raised their voices in unison to deliver the simple message “water belongs to the people”, but ultimately the bill still passed.
The government of Peru is not meeting its statutory duties to safeguard the environment and ensure a basic standard of living that meets the varied needs of Peru’s people. As long as authorities continue to favour the development of large-scale economic projects over human rights and environmental concerns, it is likely that high levels of social conflict will continue for the foreseeable future.
Photo credit: Francisca Ulloa, used under cc license