The sheer scale of the Yanacocha gold mine in Cajamarca, Peru, is staggering. It is the largest gold mine in Latin America, and the second largest in the world, covering 535 square miles.
The Minera Yanacocha company runs the mine, which is owned by Newmont Mining Corporation from Colorado, a Peruvian mining company, and the World Bank's International Finance Corporation (IFC).
Majority-owner Newmont refers to Yanacocha as its “crown jewel” and the mine generates a large portion of Newmont's profits. But ever since its launch in 1993, the mine has also generated controversy and damaging social and environmental impacts.
Critics of the mine say the government granted the concession to Minera Yanacocha after accepting bribes from Newmont, and without properly consulting with, and obtaining consent from local communities. Yanacocha also began operations using massive open pits and leach pads in an environmentally sensitive area full of farms that rely on water coming from the mountains in the mine area.
The Yanacocha Mine.
Pollution fears, realized
Local organizations critical of the mine claim that the local water sources have become contaminated, their traditional medicinal plants have declined and that the influx of job seekers to the area has increased crime. Farmers have felt pressure to sell their lands to the mine.
The mine and failure to properly recognize the community's right to consent to the mine have infringed on peoples' rights to a sustainable livelihood and ability to determine their economic development.
In addition, the mine has become known for toxic contamination that it has caused. In June 2000, one of Minera Yanacocha's contractors spilled 150 kilograms (335 pounds) of mercury from the mine along a 43-kilometer stretch of road through the towns of Choropampa, Magdalena and San Juan. More than 1,000 people maintain they were affected by the spill and many continue to report health effects.
A group of 1,100 villagers filed a lawsuit against Newmont in the U.S. seeking compensation for damages caused by the spill. In 2005, after failed attempts to reach a settlement, the plaintiffs announced they would go ahead with their suit before a Denver District judge.
Expanding the Mine
When Newmont proposed expanding Yanacocha to Cerro Quilish, a mountain four miles from the mine that holds an estimated 3.7 million ounces of gold, community members were concerned because Cerro Quilish sits atop the watershed supplying an entire valley of farmers and the city of Cajamarca.
Cerro Quilish has been spiritually important to the area's citizens since the time of the Incas, and in 2000, the city of Cajamarca declared Cerro Quilish a protected area.
In September 2004, residents of Cajamarca stepped up protests against the expansion. Thousands of people staged demonstrations and blocked access to the mine for 2 weeks. Protestors faced tear gas, police violence, and long nights, for asserting their right to free, prior, and informed consent and they refused to back down.
Finally Newmont announced in November 2004 that it would halt its exploration activities on Cerro Quilish. In a statement printed in Peruvian newspapers, Newmont admitted that it had not always listened to the valid claims and concerns expressed by the Cajamarca community in the past.
The next year however, Newmont was considering establishing a mining site near San Cerillo, an area that also acts as an important water supply for the community below. Many people around San Cerillo worry about the impacts of a new mine on community.
Generating further concern, Newmont hired Peruvian police units to protect its workers and staff.
Local activists, harassed
Other nearby communities have also had reason to protest the Yanacocha mine.
In August 2006, about 100 residents in the town of Combayo, concerned about the mine's pollution of their water sources, took over land near Newmont's Carachugo pit, blocking Yanacocha vehicles from highway access. Newmont temporarily shut down operations at Carachugo due to the conflict, during which one protester was killed in unknown circumstances.
The mine ultimately hired a private security company to break up the protests and resume activity. The company negotiated with the government to monitor air quality and conduct a study on ensuring a steady water supply to the area in exchange for permission to resume and expand the operation.
In November 2006, Rev. Marco Arana, an activist with the anti-mining group GRUFIDES reported to a U.N. mission that he was under video surveillance by an individual connected to Newmont's security company. Arana and a colleague also reported receiving anonymous death threats.
That same month, another anti-mining activist, environmentalist Edmundo Becerra Corina, was shot and killed after receiving death threats just several days before being scheduled to meet with representatives from Peru's Ministry of Energy and Mines.
The U.N. mission announced it would conduct an investigation into whether Newmont's private security firm met the international standards established for private companies that provide services in conflict zones.
In May 2007, protests erupted again, along with continued harassment from the security company and more death threats. When Yanacocha failed to pay workers for their labor on a potable water project, villagers from the community of Totorcocha entered the Yanacocha property in protest.
The private security agents evicted the villagers, injuring several people and bringing 13 of them to the local police station.
Local groups and churches called on the company to take an active stance against these abuses attributed to mine contractors.
Lawsuit and Harassment of Defendant
In 2011, Newmont sued local farmer Maxima Acuña, claiming ownership of her land. Located next to a lake, the company considered this property critical for their mining operation. Acuña fought the lawsuit over a period of three years, during which she was harassed by police and even sentenced to prison. An appeals court finally ruled in her favor in December 2014, ruling that Newmont does not hold rights over the land.
Despite this victory, Maxima continues to get harassed. In early 2015, Newmont sent police officers invaded her home on three ocassions — and most recently, even destroyed parts of her home.