Just 24 kilometers from Yanacocha, the Conga mine is Newmont's latest effort to expand its gold mining operations in Peru.
Having seemingly failed to learn from the controversy it faced in Yanacocha, Newmont initially developed the mine without obtaining the free, prior and informed consent of the local community. Despite repeated, sometimes violent protests, the Conga mine has been approved.
Perhaps Newmont chose not to ask because they knew the majority of the community opposed the mine. Full development of Conga would destroy sources for five rivers, remove four mountain lakes, and ruin hundreds of hectares of wetlands. Local residents fear the mine would endanger the water supply of the region of Cajamarca, an analysis shared by international experts.
In 2012, Cajamarcans launched a protest that led the central government to declare a federal emergency. Five protesters died as a result of violent clashes with the police. Officers also detained Marco Arana, a former priest and community leader actively opposed to the mine. The police response led to protesters filing a complaint against the Peruvian government with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights this past March. As a result of these protests, the Peruvian government suspended the project, giving the company two years to come up with a plan that would ensure continued water supplies to the community.
The suspension was not the first for Conga. In 2011, thousands of people opposed to the mine declared a strike for six days.The Ministry of Environment also concluded that an environmental impact assessment of the mine conducted by Newmont was incomplete. The resulting social tensions and political pressure forced the company to suspend its operations — at a cost of $2 million a day.
In response, Newmont announced the launch of a “water first” plan, proposing to build reservoirs to ensure water supply in light of the massive quantities of freshwater the mine would consume. But community members are not appeased. “The mine needs water for its project and it's going to give us polluted water,” said Wilfredo Saavedra, a community leader told Reuters. “We want them to leave us alone with our lakes, which are enough for us.”
Tensions between the community resurfaced in 2014, when the company sued a woman named Máxima Acuña Chaupe for access to her land, which is located next to a lake crucial for proposed operations. What followed was a legal battle during which Máxima was repeatedly beaten and harassed. This harassment continued even after an appeals court sided in her favor in 2015. Community groups, Peruvian officials and civil society organizations around the world condemned the actions of the security forces responsible, who were backed by Newmont. More than 160,000 people around the world also signed a petition organized by Earthworks and SumofUs to show their support.
In April 2015, Grufides director Mirtha Vasquez, who also serves as Máxima's attorney, travelled to the US to make sure that Newmont listens to these concerns. Along with representatives from Earthworks and Earthrights International, she attended Newmont's annual shareholder's meeting to ask tough questions about not only Newmont's lawsuit against Máxima, but also the reasons behind her community's wide opposition to the Conga mine.
While threats against Maxima continue, she enjoyed significant victories in 2016.
In April 2016, Newmont quietly announced in its 2015 SEC filings:
“Given recent expiration of operating and construction permits and the related uncertainty around the renewal of those permits, as well as the deferral of the project, the Company has removed Conga from its Reserves statement…Under the current social and political environment, the Company does not anticipate being able to develop [the] Conga [mine] for the foreseeable future.”
Essentially, Newmont has indefinitely suspended the Conga project with no current plans to develop it. Máxima also won the the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, which honors environmental grassroots leaders around the world, for her commitment to protecting her home and community from the Conga mine.
Still, Newmont’s announcement does not mean that Cajamarcans will be free of the Conga mine forever. In addition, Newmont has yet to drop its lawsuits and security forces remain present near her home.