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The proposed Conga Mine project, located in the Cajamarca and Celendín provinces in Northern Peru, sits just to the Northeast of Latin America’s largest gold mine, Yanacocha.

As with most mines in this region, water is a major issue with the Conga project. [For more about the project, see this previous blog post.] The campesino communities and larger more developed centers rely heavily of the water sources of the region.

It is because of this reliance, and gold mining’s checkered history of contaminating clean water sources, that many communities near the Conga project are protesting the mega mining project.

The project sits at the headwaters of multiple river basins(ES): Jadibamba, Chirimayo, Chugurmayo, Rejo Punre, tributaries of Sendamal (Celendín); Chaullagón, a tributary of Chonta (Cajamarca); and Quengorío, a tributary of Llaucano (Bambamarca). It is impossible to qualify all of the services this ecosystem provides, and communities have long called for this area to be protected.

Seven years ago the municipality of Celendín passed a law that declared all watersheds, wetlands, and lakes within the Conga project area as protected places. The pro-mining federal government did not view this too favorably; in 2007 then president Alan Garcia signed a decree revoking all protection granted from municipalities. Thereafter only regional governments had the authority to do so. This seemed like a roadblock, but a temporary one. In 2010 the regional government of Cajamarca came to support the Celendín municipality’s protection law. In quick succession, the then Minister of the Environment turned around and ordered that protected areas can only be declared protected after the owner of the concession allows them to do so(ES). Essentially, Newmont mining would have to allow local communities to protect their land from Newmont’s own mega mine.

“Getting rid of the lakes would be like dynamiting the glaciers in the Andes, we'd be creating a problem that impacts the ecosystem,” Environment Minister Ricardo Giesecke

The Conga project is a joint venture between Newmont, Buenaventura, and the World Bank’s private lending arm, the International Finance Corporation. The project’s  environmental impact study concludes that the mine operators will have to relocate multiple lakes in the area mapped out to be mined. This is one of the hot button issues with the Conga plan. According to the EIS, three lakes are slated be totally removed. These lakes hold over 1.4 million cubic meters(ES), and are proposed to be replaced with by 4 new “reservoirs” for drinking water and possibly waste disposal, build by the miners. If moving entire lakes was not enough to raise major red flags, we need only remember that this is not about the destruction of just a few lakes but of the entire ecosystem on which local communities depend. The opposition to this mine is because these communities rely on the entire ecosystem; an ecosystem that no mining company can rebuild or replicate.

In a recent report “Porque Es Inviable El Proyecto Conga De Minera Yanacocha” or “Why the Yanacocha Conga Project in Unviable”, La Plataforma Interinstitucional Celendina (PIC), a Peruivan civil society group, lays out key arguments as to why the Conga project is so problematic. The report begins by detailing how the project will “irreversibly affect the numerous laguanas,high altitude aquifers,the water flow of rivers, canals and wetlands, and their respective ecosystems… This area is one of the main sources of water resources of the Cajamarca region. The area has over 20 lakes, and the project will impact many of them.”

Two major points in the report that need be addressed by Peru’s government and the mining companies are:

  1. Why does the EIA not include rules that protect watershed headwaters? PIC argues that the Water Resources Act, Law 29338, Article 75 states that “…the headwaters of the basin where waters originate are environmentally vulnerable areas. The national Authority may declare protected zones safe from use, disposal, or dumping”. In fact in neighboring Colombia it is illegal to mine paramos (wetlands) above 3000m due to their fragility and ecological importance.
  2. How could the Government allow a former employee of Yanacocha to be the authority in approving the mines Environmental Impact Study? No, this is not a joke. The person who approved the mining companies EIS was a former employee of that company. Mr. Felipe Ramirez del Pino was a senior official at Yanacocha from 2006 to 2009.

You can read the full report in Spanish HERE.

In an encouraging note, the government may be starting to listen to community, elected officals, and NGO groups calls to suspend the operation. They have recently agreed to review the environmental impact study and release their findings in less than two weeks(ES).

In the words of longtime human rights advocate and former director of GRUFIDES (an Earthworks partner) Fr. Marco Arana, in a recent interview with La Republica(ES):

“What happens is that the population of Celendín knows what has happened at Yanacocha and Cajamarca; they known several lakes have disappeared, several river channels no longer exist and that Yanacocha mine is the most contentious in Peru. What people know [from this] is that environmental impact studies do not guarantee protection of water and environmental security.”

Note: “ES” denotes Spanish language link

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