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Peru: The Conga mine casts its shadow over local elections

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Santos is arrested and his hand-written message from prisonOne of the most striking victories in the recent election of regional presidents was that of Gregorio Santos in Cajamarca. He won over 50% of the vote from his prison cell, having effectively turned the regional election into a plebiscite on Conga, the giant mining project. But the elections also saw widespread victories for other candidates critical of mining projects in their areas.

The Conga project is a massive proposed investment of $5 billion in a gold and copper mine in the province of Celendín in Cajamarca. The company concerned, Yanacocha, is jointly owned by the US multinational Newmont and Buenaventura, a large Peruvian mining company. Opposition to the project has been ferocious since it was initially approved in 2010, but Yanacocha’s poor reputation in the region has a much longer history.

Protests have focused on the project’s likely impact in polluting and draining local water supplies. These protests have produced several deaths. For many, especially in Cajamarca, the project has come to symbolise the negative side of mining development and has proved to be a constant thorn in the side of the Humala government, provoking the exit of at least two prime ministers. The scale of opposition has forced Yanacocha to suspend the project in the hope of overcoming local opposition.

It has also produced several ‘local heroes’. Chief among them has been Santos. He has been held in jail since June on corruption charges. Bail has been refused, formally on grounds that he might flee the country. Whether or not guilty of the charges of corruption levelled against him, he is seen by many in Cajamarca as a political prisoner, in jail because of the trouble he has caused the government. 

Santos is not alone. Should he not be allowed to take the oath of office in December, Porfirio Medina, his vice-president and close colleague from early days in the ronda movement, is a likely candidate to take his place. The rondas campesinas were peasant based organisations set up to protect rural communities from cattle rustling. However, they have become powerful social movements in the region, defending communities from other perceived enemies as well.

Impact of mining issues on elections

The sensational circumstances of Santos’s re-election triumph risk diverting attention from the seriousness and breadth of the concerns over the impact of mining elsewhere. His was far from the only victory arising from hostility to large projects. José de Echave, an expert on the mining sector and ex-vice minister for the environment, points out in a recent article that there were similar victories outside Cajamarca, for examplein the districts of Canaris (Lambayeque), Picuyo (Puno), and Capacmarca and Livitaca (both in Cusco). In various zones too the newly elected authorities have formed part of networks of social organisations that question the manner in which mining companies are expanding in their territories (http://www.cooperaccion.org.pe/opina October 9th, 2014).

In the build-up towards the 2016 presidential elections, de Echave sees a major challenge facing Peru arising from political fragmentation, the lack of legitimate institutions, the absence of national political parties able to build consensus, the presence of elements of illegality – and “the need to find a way to avoid mining companies continuing to impose conditions and go beyond the capacity which society has of controlling and regulating investments in the common interest.” Having long argued this to be the case, the Peru Support Group would fully agree.