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What is going on in Peru?

On July 4, riot police in Peru surrounded Father Marco Arana, a Catholic priest and human rights and environmental activist, as he sat peacefully on a bench Cajamarca’s town square.  The police officers proceeded to kick, punch and beat Father Marco,  forcing him to the ground and surrounding him – all of which was captured on cell phone video cameras and immediately posted online. He was then arrested and forcibly taken to the police station, where we learned through his Twitter feed, he continued to be beaten and brutalized.

And why was this calm and soft-spoken Catholic priest, held in high regard by thousands in northern Peru, arrested for sitting on a park bench? According to a local prosecutor, Arana was arrested for “organizing meetings,” an activity unlawful under a State of Emergency, which Peruvian President Ollanta Humala imposed — yet again — in an effort to silence community protests against Newmont’s proposed Conga gold mine in northern Peru. 

The previous day, before the Emergency was imposed, three protestors were shot dead and 21 were injured by tear gas and rubber bullets fired by riot police.

This is a fight over clean water.

Just a couple of weeks ago, US-based Newmont Mining announced that it would be proceeding with the Conga mine project in this high Andean region, despite the overwhelming opposition to the mine that has been expressed by local communities. In December 2011, Humala imposed a state of Emergency after thousands of campesinos protested Newmont’s plans to open the Conga mine, which, if built, would destroy mountain lakes and replace them with reservoirs and toxic mine waste. 

Cajamarqueños point out that the region is precisely where, nearly 500 years ago, the Inca emperor Atahualpa was captured by Francisco Pizarro and the conquistadors – in a quest for gold. (If you haven’t seen it already, take a look at Frontline/PBS’s documentary, “The Quest for Inca Gold,” which tells the story of the modern-day conflict between communities and Newmont’s Yanacocha mine.)

Newmont already operates a mine in the Cajamarca region. Yanacocha, which has already produced billions of dollars of gold for Newmont, is one of the world’s largest gold mines and is just a few towns over from where the Conga mine would be built. Nearly a decade ago, Newmont attempted to open another mine in the region, Cerro Quilish, but was prevented from doing so following months of sustained opposition by local communities in late 2004.

I first met Father Marco in Cajamarca in 2003 around the time that Newmont was floating the Cerro Quilish proposal. He drove me around the area, including to the village of Choropampa, where hundreds of villagers had been poisoned in 2001 by mercury spilled by a truck carrying it from Newmont’s mine.

We met again in 2005 in Denver, down the road from Newmont’s headquarters, where we were to attend the company’s annual meeting. Just days before our trip, Newmont’s CEO at the time, Wayne Murdy, agreed to meet with us.  I will never forget the conversation between Father Marco and Mr. Murdy, in which Arana’s gentle wit and intelligence was evident.  They both spoke frankly but without hostility. (The New York Times references this conversation in this front-page article.)

The meeting between Arana and Murdy gave me a glimmer of hope. Maybe Newmont would stop and listen to what the people of Cajamarca Province were saying.  But the lure of this rich seam of gold was apparently hard for the company to resist – they soon came back with the Conga mine proposal.

Although I follow the company closely, I could not tell you how, if at all, Newmont has substantively changed its business-as-usual practices in the decade since the Quilish fiasco. Has it found a way to meaningfully engage local communities in decision about their future – and that of their grandchildren and generations to come? Has it implemented policies that would prevent history from repeating itself?

Apparently not. Like Quilish did eight years ago, the Conga proposal is facing sustained opposition, protests, and mistrust.

Newmont must do better. It needs to send a clear message to the Peruvian government to stop the brutality against mining protesters. Newmont must publicly condemn the attack on Father Marco and urge Peru to ensure his immediate release.  

And before it makes any further moves in Peru, Newmont must take a long, hard look at how it interacts with the communities whose lives its projects permanently alter.  Newmont cannot continue to push forward against the will of those who will be affected by the gigantic footprint of their behemoth mines.

(Update: Father Marco was released on July 5 and taken to hospital to be evaluated and treated.)

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