LIMA, Peru -- The Peruvian government on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in a southeastern province after eight days of protests over a proposed expansion of a huge copper mine left at least two residents dead and 70 police injured.
The government's emergency declaration covers the province of Espinar and suspends constitutional liberties of speech and assembly for 30 days. The government also ordered the arrest of a protest leader, Herbert Huaman, who heads the Front for the Defense of Espinar Interests.
Violence in Espinar broke out over the weekend after President Ollanta Humala described demonstrators protesting a $1.5-billion expansion of the Tintaya mine as leftist radicals. Widespread property damage was reported, as was the brief kidnapping of a judge.
Humala used a similar state of emergency decree in December to squelch protests in northern Cajamarca over the proposed Conga mine, a project Humala was counting on to finance his ambitious social agenda. The government is now reviewing the $4.8-billion Conga copper and gold mine project, but Humala's strong defense of mining has distanced him from part of his impoverished support base.
The protests involve mainly peasant communities and resemble demonstrations held last year in Cajamarca, where residents waged a long-running and still unresolved campaign against the Conga project proposed by Colorado–based Newmont Mining.
Residents in Espinar complain that mining firm Swiss-based Xstrata doesn’t hire enough local workers, violates environmental laws and transfers too low a percentage of mining royalties to the local municipalities.
In a statement Tuesday, Xstrata said it lamented the violence and was ready to discuss residents’ complaints, but it insisted, as it has in the past, that it is fulfilling its social and economic obligations. The company said it would be willing to initiate new environmental monitoring procedures to assure compliance.
Social conflict expert Javier Torres of the Lima-based SER civil society group said the violence could have been avoided, and he blamed the government’s slow response to simmering tensions.
“The reluctance of the government to intervene before the conflict reached a level of violence, and of the [protest] leaders to dialogue, added to the silence of the Tintaya mine’s management, have been causes of these tragic events,” Torres said in an interview.
The global commodities boom has made mining Peru’s biggest industry, fueling the nation’s economic growth to an expected 6% this year. Mining attracted $21 billion in foreign investment from 1996 through 2010. Over the last half of 2011, Xstrata was the largest single mining investor in Peru, with $450 million plowed into its projects.
Analysts such as Torres say the perception of Peru as a mining mecca could be hurt unless community relations improve.
“As long as the government considers that [social] inclusion means the distribution of resources according to a certain formula, and that those who protest are sheep being led by a handful of radical extremists, there will be no solution to these conflicts,” Torres said.
-- Adriana Leon in Lima and Chris Kraul in Bogota, Colombia
Photo: Peruvian President Ollanta Humala. Credit: Jeon Heon-Kyun / European Pressphoto Agency