LIMA, Peru -- A prominent regional leader who has led protests against a $4.8-billion gold and copper mining project in northern Peru said he opposed a new offer made by President Ollanta Humala and Newmont Mining.
Under the new plan, reservoirs would be built to expand by 10 times the water storage capacity of existing lakes near the proposed site of the mine. With Humala’s backing, Newmont Mining said the reservoirs would address the concerns of residents that the Conga project could endanger water supplies.
But in a telephone interview, Gregorio Santos, president of the Cajamarca region, said Humala and Newmont had both lost credibility. Santos said he and other opposition leaders in northern Peru were sticking to their demand that an independent environmental impact study be carried out before the project goes ahead.
The Cajamarca region is where Newmont operates the Yanacocha open-pit gold mine, one of the largest in the world.
“Humala says he wants dialogue, but he has not listened to the people of Cajamarca,” Santos said. “Now we don’t believe him, and he is only repeating the words of economic power groups.”
In an address to the nation Saturday, Humala said the Conga project would go forward and promised that water supplies would not be compromised.
“Water comes first, that’s the condition,” he said. “My government would never permit the development of any mining project that exposes the population to the loss of water or the lack of quality standards required for human consumption.” '
Mining has been a prime engine of Peru’s stellar economic growth over the last decade, luring billions of investment dollars amid a global commodities boom. Humala has said he needs the taxes and royalties from the Conga project, which was approved by his predecessor, to help pay for ambitious social programs.
Observers say the project is also a gauge of Humala's commitment to foreign investment despite his leftist rhetoric during his successful presidential campaign last year.
Colorado-based Newmont says the mining design is sound and there is no need for the months-long delay that would result from carrying out another environmental study. Company Vice President Carlos Santa Cruz said recently that Newmont was willing to address any mistakes of the past, reach “a new state of understanding” with residents and contribute to a $49-million social works fund.
Peasant protests over mining projects in Cajamarca in December and in Espinar province to the south in May prompted the government to declare states of emergency, suspending the right to assembly and other constitutional protections. Unlike with the standoff in Cajamarca, protesters against the $1.5-billion Espinar project proposed by Swiss-based Xstrata are negotiating with the company.
“We will not accept Conga," said Santos, the regional president. "There are projects in Peru that are just going to sit there because the people feel they would mean abandoning their natural resources. Cajamarca will continue resisting.”
-- Adriana Leon in Lima and Chris Kraul in Bogota, Colombia
Photo: Hundreds of people demonstrate against the Conga mining project in Cajamarca, in the mountains of northern Peru, in May. Credit: Francisco Vigo/European Pressphoto Agency