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Security & Strategic Review - May 2015 (ISSN 1741-4202)

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PERU: Arequipa protests start claiming lives

Protests against the Tía María copper mining project in the southwestern region of Arequipa have reached a new level of violence as they entered their sixteenth year. In the first fifteen years, clashes over protest actions had led to more than 100 injuries in the ranks of the police and at least 70 in those of the protesters. In late April the confrontations began to claim lives and prompted the government to send in the military and withdraw an ‘out-of-control’ police unit.

The Tía María project of the Southern Copper Corporation (SCC) envisages the extraction of copper from two open-cast sites, using water pumped from the Río Tambo valley. Locals from six municipalities in the area have raised a number of objections to the scheme, the most important of which is that it would reduce the availability of water in the valley, affecting the production of rice, sugarcane and paprika. SCC is an affiliate of Grupo México, the biggest mining conglomerate in Mexico and, including the output of its Tucson-based subsidiary Asarco, the third-biggest producer of copper in the world. The Tía María scheme is a US$1.4bn undertaking, designed to deliver 120,000 tonnes per annum of copper cathodes.

A public consultation in September 2009 showed 97% of the population of the six affected municipalities opposing the project. The authorities ignored this and approved the company’s environmental impact assessment (EIA). Protests in 2010 persuaded the government to declare the intangibility of the Río Tambo basin waters, above and below ground, but the EIA remained approved.

Protests met with stiff repression led to the declaration of an indefinite strike in the area in early 2011. The impact of continuing repression on public opinion countrywide led the government to withdraw its approval of the EIA. This notwithstanding, an amended EIA was approved in August 2014. With work on the project scheduled to begin in 2016, the protests continued, with the province of Islay as the main hotpots.

Last March an SCC spokesman in Peru said the project would be called off as a result of ‘anti-mining terrorism’, but the company promptly announced that it would be going ahead.

In late April at Pampa Blanca, a protester was shot by a police officer, he died as a result of blood loss. Officers of the same unit were caught on video as they ‘planted’ what was described as a ‘pointed and cutting instrument’ on a protester. Interior minister José Luis Pérez Guadalupe revealed that the unit in question was a 280-strong team from the police’s special operations directorate (DINOES) shipped from Lima to Arequipa. He described them as ‘out of control’ and on 5 March ordered them withdrawn from the area, pending investigation (which will cover the unauthorised use of a rifle).

On 30 April protesters attacked the police station at La Curva, Islay, with stones and clubs; two officers were injured. Five days later two protesters were injured by shotgun pellets at Alto Inclán, Mollendo, as police broke up an attempt to set up a roadblock. One of the protesters died later. On 7 May a group of protesters torched a bus at Matarani and damaged several others. That same day, also in Islay, two police were injured by protesters; one of them died later. On 12 May in another clash in Islay, seven more police officers were injured.

President Ollanta Humala said he was pondering the declaration of a state of emergency in the area, but on 9 May defence minister Jakke Valakivi announced that more than 2,000 soldiers would be deployed in Islay, ‘in support of the police’. Their mission, he said, would be to guard ‘strategic installations’ and ‘essential public services, such as bridges and roads.’ The soldiers, he noted, would not be patrolling the streets, and the police would remain in charge of ‘direct intervention’. Three days later the ministry of economy & finance announced that it had blocked the bank accounts of the Islay provincial municipality and the town halls of three districts (Punta del Bombón, Deán Valdivia and Cocachacra) in order to prevent their use to finance the protests.

Almost simultaneously the national prosecutor, Pablo Sánchez, announced that he had ordered the arrest of Pepe Julio Gutiérrez, leader of the Frente de Defensa del Valle de Tambo (the umbrella body coordinating the protest actions), after the airing of a recorded telephone conversation in which he was heard discussing with a lawyer the possibility of halting the protests in exchange for monetary compensation. A day earlier SCC had said that this ‘incorrect action’ had been ‘caused by third parties not linked to the organisation.’ However, mining minister Rosa María Ortiz said that her department was considering legal action against the company on a charge of covering up an attempted extortion. ‘We have,’ she said, ‘the leader who extorts from the company and the firm that fails to report this to the authorities.’

By tallies picked up by several media, from the beginning of the Tía María conflict to mid-May 121 police officers had been injured and one had been killed, while among the civilians 75 had been injured and two killed.

On 15 May in a nationwide broadcast, President Humala dismissed calls for a suspension of the Tía María project on the grounds that ‘you can’t suspend what has not yet been initiated’. He called on all branches of government to act jointly to defend the principle of authority and the rule of law, and revived the prospect of declaring a state of emergency. ‘We are always ready to do so,’ he said, ‘but have not decided; we believe that there is still space to restore dialogue.’ It is up to SCC, he said, to ‘generate the bases for an understanding.’

‘As government,’ he said, ‘we do not defend the company. Let this be clear: we defend the rule of law and the normalisation of activities.’

SCC’s chairman in Peru, Óscar González Rocha, promptly issued a communiqué announcing a two-month ‘pause’ in the execution of the project in order to ‘socialise the project and dispel all doubts about it’.

Once upon a time

It was almost inevitable that the Peruvian media would recall Humala’s past stance regarding the Tía María project. Television video recordings made back in 2010, when he was campaigning for the presidency and the protests were reviving after the then government of President Alan García (2006-2011) had approved SSC’s environmental impact assessment, showed Humala turning up in Cocachacra to address the protesters.

‘Here,’ he said, ‘is where it will be decided which will be the development projects of Islay, of Arequipa. The government will have to dialogue, the President of the Republic will have to come here and not lie, because if he lies he will have to be vacated. I came here to listen to you. I have listened. I now believe that the majority here in Cocachacra are quite clear about what they want. If that is what you want, we will support you.’