When the presidential candidate Ollanta Humala visited the city of Celendín, in Cajamarca in the Northern Andean region of Peru, just over a year ago, he asked people there if they wanted water or gold. This was not a rhetorical question. Celendín is one of the cities affected by a huge gold and copper mining project, known as the Conga project, which is a joint venture between the US company Newmont and the Peruvian company Yanacocha. The project involves the draining of several lakes that provide water for agricultural activities. Much of the water goes to the dairy industry, as the region is the country’s biggest supplier of dairy produce. When during his visit Humala was told in no uncertain terms “water”, he promised he would listen. One year later, Celendin has become a symbol of unfulfilled promises.
After massive demonstrations against the mining project in May and June, four people were killed by the police and many were beaten up and arrested. This was Humala’s natural constituency, where many of the votes that elected president came from. “Conga No Va” (Conga won’t happen) has become a battle cry not only for those affected by the project but also by those who feel that Ollanta Humala has betrayed every single promise made during the election campaign.
Ollanta Humala, a former army officer who became famous for his opposition to the authoritarian government of Alberto Fujimori, won the elections as a result of an informal alliance of left- and right-wing politicians. Both sides had something in common: their opposition to the other candidate, Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori, who languishes in a high security prison for human rights abuses and corruption. Among others, his support came from former president Alejandro Toledo, a former conservative presidential candidate; Nobel Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa; and Javier Diez Canseco, one of Peru’s most charismatic and well known left-wing politicians.
One year after his election, most of Humala’s supporters feel that he has let them down. He is besieged by social unrest and international investors have expressed concern about the financial stability of the country, despite its economic growth.
In the first instance, Conga has become a thorn in Humala’s side and the acid test of his presidency. The project, which is an open cast mine of 3,069 hectares, will involve great environmental damage, including the destruction of four lakes. According to those who oppose the project, around 600 streams, which benefit 40,000 people, will be completely obliterated. The state’s reaction to protests has been brutal. People feel betrayed and cheated. Antonio Sáenz, one of the protestors, told the Spanish daily El País that “most of those who died voted for Humala”. Although the project had been approved by Humala’s predecessor, Alan García, who made no secret of his contempt for environmental concerns, people expected Humala to at least reconsider the damage caused by the destruction of the lakes. Instead, his government produced a document on the environmental impact of the project, which justified the scheme.
Members of the government have travelled to the region to talk to the protestors, but negotiations have been fruitless. Local communities have accused the government of trying to gain time so that the project can become a fait accompli. The companies involved in the project insist that they have taken measures to ensure that local farmers and cattle farmers have access to water supplies but they are not convinced. The government has invited the church to mediate and Bishop Miguel Cabrejos has started negotiations with both sides.
Environment Minister, Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, has admitted that Conga has been badly managed. “One has the feeling that the company has been unable to establish ties with the community”, he said. Many would see this as something of an understatement.
The government´s response to the Cajamarca protests has created dissent inside Gana Perú (Peru Wins), the movement that took Humala to the presidential palace. In early June, 2 MPs, Javier Diez Canseco and Rosa Mavila, decided to break with Humala. Around the same time, the Regional Democratic Power movement, based in the southern Andean department of Puno, also decided to sever links with Humala’s Nationalist Party.
Humala’s initial response to the protests was, to say the least, clumsy. In December he appointed Oscar Valdés as prime minister. A former officer and hardliner, Valdés alienated even members of the government with his repressive approach to the protests. Indeed, most of the police excesses have taken place under his watch. Finally, Humala saw sense and in early July, he reshuffled his cabinet for the third time since he took office, and appointed what many believe are more conciliatory ministers.
In his speech on Peru’s Independence Day on 28 July, a year after he took office, Humala made no mention of Conga. But this was not the only omission in the presidential speech. Augusto Alvarez Rodrich, a respected economist and columnist, said that Humala had not only forgotten to mention Conga but also to give the reasons why he has abandoned his left-wing credentials. Recently, a journalist asked him whether he was left or right. “Neither”, he answered, “I am from below.”
He insisted during the Independence Day celebrations that he is not a magician who can solve Peru’s old social and political problems in one year. But many people are starting to wonder whether he’ll ever start fulfilling his promises. During the campaign, he spoke about social inclusion but, so far, he has failed to explain how he intends to achieve this, never mind explaining exactly what he means by “social inclusion”. Furthermore, Conga is not the only place where people are unhappy about mining projects. In the southern Andean region, especially in Arequipa and Puno, people have also expressed their unease about them.
This opposition to an activity that contributes 21% of Peru’s GDP, and the fact that he has already carried out two cabinet reshuffles is worrying foreign investors. The credit rating agency Moody’s described Humala’s second ministerial reshuffle as “negative” because it showed that he had not managed to deal with the Conga conflict efficiently.
Ollanta Humala said after his Independence Day speech that in Peru “there is freedom but not equality” and admitted that “a child who is born in the Andes has fewer chances of becoming a professional than one born on the coast.” What many people hope is that that he starts doing something about that inequality instead of stating the obvious.
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