Mirtha Vasquez, an attorney based in Cajamarca, Peru, has two young kids and a full caseload protecting communities from irresponsible mining activity in the mineral-rich Andean region. Yet she made the long trip to Wilmington, DE to join Earthrights International and Earthworks to attend Newmont’s Mining Company’s annual shareholders’ meeting. Together, we called on CEO Gary Goldberg to address the armed repression of protesters, untreated pollution, threats to water availability and other issues of concern to communities in the area.
Mirtha came to the US because she no longer feels that she and her community are being heard by Newmont on the ground. She represents Máxima Acuña de Chaupe, an indigenous Peruvian farmer whose refusal to give up her land to Newmont Mining have been met with violence and lawsuits. Máxima’s resistance in the face of harassment and arrest has turned her into a hero in Peru. Over 160,000 people around the world have shown their support for Máxima and her community.
On behalf of Máxima, Mirtha travelled to the US to make sure that Newmont listens to these concerns. She represents not only Máxima, but also thousands of Peruvians who oppose both Newmont’s currently operating Yanacocha mine and the proposed nearby Conga mine. These opponents are not a small handful of anti-mining activists. When the first gold mine in the area was proposed over 20 years ago, many residents, including Mirtha’s family, initially greeted its arrival with hope that it would generate jobs and revenue for the community.
But since the Yanacocha mine’s launch in 1993, the mine, which is located on a mountain, has contaminated water and soil downstream with toxic chemicals, resulting in loss of fish, traditional plants and livestock. In the past few years, residents have organized several protests to prevent the proposed Conga mine from opening, fearing similar impacts. They have faced arrests and even shootings for doing so. So far, they have successfully resisted the project, as the mine project has been suspended since 2012.
In the past months, we’ve called attention to the struggles Máxima and her family have faced – along with other protesters of Conga. With the high tensions between Newmont and the surrounding communities, it’s a good time to reflect on why opposition to the proposed mine is so strong and widely felt.
To start Conga operations, Newmont proposes to drain four mountain lakes and replace them with reservoirs. Newmont claims that the reservoirs are an improvement because they would supply water year-round. But it should be obvious that manmade reservoirs cannot replace natural lakes. According to an analysis by mining expert Dr. Robert Moran, in addition to the loss of wetlands and aquatic life, destroying these lakes would also cause some streams currently used by residents to dry up. This loss would force residents to purchase water. The reservoir system could also result in contamination of ground and surface waters. Moreover, residents are simply weary of giving up natural water sources that they and their ancestors have relied on for a company and state-controlled system of water rights allocation.
Residents are also worried about living with water polluted with cyanide and heavy metals long after Newmont leaves. Despite company promises, residents contend with contaminated water at the Yanacocha mine. Mirtha’s organization, Grufides, posted this video that highlights contamination of streams at the now-closed San Jose pit in Yanacocha – the first of many to be closed in the coming years.
This pollution will last for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Unless Newmont is able to guarantee funding for water treatment for centuries after closure of the mine, its assurances will leave the community to foot the bill – or live with the perpetual pollution.
The ongoing and seemingly never-ending contamination of their most basic need – water – has led to protests in which some residents quite literally put their lives on the line. Newmont must better address community concerns, or face continued resistance from Mirtha, Maxima and the thousands of Peruvians they represent.