REPORTING FROM LIMA, PERU, AND BOGOTA, COLOMBIA -- Digging in his heels against opponents of a huge gold and copper mining project, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala declared a 60-day state of emergency and called on residents to maintain “serenity and calm.”
Humala, a left-leaning former army officer who took office in July largely on the strength of support from poor voters, reacted to a continuing stalemate between the central government and impoverished groups in the Cajamarca region of northern Peru. Many residents fear the Conga project could ruin their water supply.
The Peruvian leader also ordered that army troops be mobilized to support police in the region, where some constitutional rights have been suspended under the emergency decree.
“Representatives of the [Roman] Catholic Church and public advocates have exhausted the means to establish a dialogue” with protesters, Humala said in a speech Sunday night. Blaming the “intransigence” of unnamed local and regional leaders, he said the government has been unable to reestablish public services suspended since widespread protests began late last month.
Humala was referring in part to Cajamarca regional leader Gregorio Santos, who has galvanized opposition to the $4.8-billion mine project.
Protests have become increasingly violent, with clashes between marchers and police leaving dozens of people injured. Several incidents of vandalism of mine property have been reported.
Cabinet chief Salmon Lerner spent most of Sunday in the region, under heavy police protection, trying unsuccessfully to reach an accord with local leaders.
In a news conference after the president’s speech, Santos urged the project's opponents to “not be provoked” and to hang flags from their houses to register their position.
Since Nov. 24, schools and businesses have been closed and roads blocked in much of the area because of protests against the project, which is to be operated by Newmont Mining. The Denver-based company also operates the giant Yanachocha open-pit gold mine 20 miles to the north of the Conga site.
Newmont, which suspended work on the project last week, insists that it presents no threat to the environment. Peru’s mining ministry green-lighted the project last year when President Alan Garcia was in office, after the company submitted an environmental impact report.
Humala's continuing support of the project in the face of opposition from many in his support base reflects his administration's need for the estimated $800 million in royalties and taxes that the project would generate. He has set forth an ambitious social agenda to be administered by the new Ministry of Social Inclusion.
The project has exposed divisions among his supporters, some of whom favor a more stringent environmental policy. Environment Vice Minister Jose de Echave resigned a week ago, saying the government did not have an adequate strategy to deal with the protests.
First Vice President Marisol Espinoza, co-leader of Humala's Gana Peru party, has criticized meetings of Humala’s advisor Luis Favre with mining company officials during the crisis, saying the discussions lacked transparency. Other government officials told The Times on Monday that they are concerned the incident could damage support for the party among its young followers.
-- Adriana Leon in Lima and Chris Kraul in Bogota
Photo: Protesters marching last month against Newmont Mining's Conga gold project in Peru's Cajamarca region. Credit: Enrique Castro-Mendivil / Reuters