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One of the most controversial mining projects in South America has yet to break ground, and the people living near the proposed mine hope it never will.

In the department of Piura, in northern Peru near the border with Ecuador, the government granted three blocs of land to Manhattan Minerals of Canada. The most desirable is under the town of Tambogrande, in the middle of a productive fruit growing region in the San Lorenzo valley fed by a World Bank-funded irrigation system. Most of the limes and mangoes grown in Peru originate here. These and other crops create about $2 billion in revenue annually and permanently employ roughly 15,000 people, more during the harvest.

The proposed mine for Tambogrande would have comprised a kilometer-wide open pit, and required the relocation of roughly half the 16,000 residents in the town. In return, the mine company promised employment, better roads, sewage, and new houses for all the relocated families. What local people also anticipated was worse: pollution of precious water sources in a very arid region, damage to their fragile tropical dry forest, and loss of agricultural jobs leading to widespread poverty. Lessons from other mines in Peru tell them that mining profits will be enjoyed only by the company and government of Peru, which owns 25 percent of the mine.

Mine protest poster in Tambogrande.

A People's History

The people of Tambogrande opposed the mining proposal from the beginning, when the corrupt Fujimori government granted the concession in 1989 without consulting them. They formed organizations and raised money to explore economic development alternatives to mining. They researched likely effects of mining on their fragile water resources. The citizens organized a petition drive, and even held a referendum in 2001 to allow citizens the chance to exercise their right to guide economic development in their town. The referendum result was overwhelmingly against the proposed mine, and the town was held up as an example of citizens demanding their right to consultation. Since then, Esquel, Argentina held a similar referendum to show their opposition to a gold mine near their community. In 2002 the people of Tambogrande were awarded a prestigious prize from the National Coordinator of Human Rights for their courageous campaign to defend their right to decide if a mine should be established in their town.

Victory, for Now

In December 2003 the Peruvian ministry of mining informed Manhattan Minerals that it had not complied with financial requirements to allow the project to go forward, effectively killing the project. This decision was a great victory for the people of Tambogrande.

Concerns arose again, however, in 2008. The land is under the control of the state and no mining or exploration is occurring. But in June 2008 a Peruvian mining company, Arasi, began moves to re-activate the project and planned to present a proposal to the state. A public auction would be required before the land was privatized. Local communities will certainly continue their struggle to protect their agriculturally-based livelihoods from the impacts of mining.

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