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Peru's Farmers Demand Healthy Land

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Issue: 55 Section: Agriculture Geography: Latin America Peru Topics: Mining

November 26, 2008

Peru's Farmers Demand Healthy Land

Criminalization of anti-mining dissent strengthens resolve

by Sander Otten

March in the village of Ayabaca, commemorating the first anniversary of the consulta vecinal in which 97 per cent of voters rejected any mining activity within their territory. Photo: Sander Otten

LIMA, PERU–In Peru’s northern Piura region, in a high-altitude valley surrounded by forests and clouds, sits the village of Ayabaca. The streets of the village are narrow and crooked; most houses are made of adobe and covered with brown tiles. Ayabaca’s farmers’ market offers a large variety of fruits and vegetables grown in the fertile fields surrounding the community.

Underneath this productive land lie enormous copper deposits. In 2003, the Ministry of Energy and Mines announced that large territories belonging to indigenous farmer communities in Ayabaca and the neighbouring town of Huancabamba were open for mineral exploration.

Shortly after the announcement, Río Blanco Copper, a subsidiary of Chinese company Zijin Mining Group, completed its exploration activities and is now ready to convert the area into one of the major mining extraction projects in Peru. Adjacent mining concessions are managed by subsidiaries of mining giants Newmont and Vale who are planning to initiate exploration activities shortly.

Ayabacan student holding a sign that says, "We need to protect this earth that nourishes our ecosystem." Photo: Sander Otten

Mario Tabra, a school teacher from Ayabaca, has been one of the leaders in the resistance to the Rio Blanco mine.

“It started in 2003 with the illegal presence of the mining company within the territory of the farmer community of Yanta,” Tabra says. In order to acquire farmer-community land in Peru, two-thirds of the community members need to agree with the change of ownership. This permission was never given to the mining company. “We reacted by filing an official complaint against Río Blanco for usurpation of land, but it never received any attention. Hence, we increased our resistance and organized two marches to the mining camp, which were both met by brutal force from the private security company contracted by Río Blanco.”

The clash resulted in two deaths among the protesters. The pro-government media has since initiated what opponents to the mine consider a smear campaign against the farmers, calling them "communists" and "anti-development activists."

“We are not anti-mining; we just don’t think it’s a viable economic option for Ayabaca, given that our local agriculture has comparative advantage compared to other regions in Peru," says Tabra.

Some of the world's largest mining companies are now active in Peru, as well as a host of junior exploration companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Peru’s controversial President Alan García, who has become a key force for neoliberalism in South America, is working hard to make the country an attractive place for foreign investors. Peru and the US ratified a free-trade agreement in December 2007 and Canada concluded free-trade negotiations with Peru in May 2008.

This new political climate and rise in interest from the world’s top mining companies has generated serious and sometimes bloody conflicts with the land-based indigenous and campesino (peasant farmer) populations who rely on the land to live.

Water is a primary concern for Tabra. The mountains around Ayabaca are the upper part of two drainage basins, generating rivers that flow to the lower areas in the Piura and Cajamarca regions. "Large-scale open-pit mining will require so much water that all agricultural activities in the valleys below will be severely affected," he says.

An expert in Peru’s pre-Columbian culture, Tabra has a home that doubles as Ayabaca’s archeological museum. “The area around Ayabaca has several pre-Columbian offering sites. Combined with the many artifacts and petroglyphs encountered over the years, we determined that this area has been inhabited for at least 15,000 years. Surely we will not permit the destruction of the land on which our ancestors have worked for thousands of years.”

Re-evaluating the action strategy

After the violent clash with mine security, campesino leaders fighting the mine realized they needed to change tactics.

With the help of various solidarity organizations, they called for a consulta vecinal in which the inhabitants of the region would be able to vote for or against the Rio Blanco project.

Ignoring the central government’s appeal to boycott the consulta, two-thirds of Ayabacans cast their vote in the referendum. Of those who voted, 97 per cent rejected any mining activity within their territory.

"The consulta showed the entire world that we are peaceful people who are not willing to give up our agriculture for a project that might bring short-term economic growth but a lot of destruction in the long run," says Tabra. "And furthermore, the Defensoría del Pueblo [the Peruvian Human Rights Ombudsman] also affirmed on several occasions that the consulta is legal and that we, as native inhabitants of this region, should participate in any decision that will directly affect our communities.”

Anti-mining, anti-development?

Tabra’s participation in organizing the referendum has not gone unnoticed; along with 34 other local leaders and supportive activists involved in the consulta, he now faces allegations of various crimes, including terrorism, crimes against humanity and coercion.

“The charges have been presented by an obscure campesino organization, including former community members who now work for Río Blanco Copper," he says. "The accusations are so vague...they don’t even indicate how we are in any way connected to those acts other than the fact that we participate in the anti-mining opposition.”

Magdiel Carrión is a member of the Yanta farmer community, as well as President of the Provincial Federation of Farmer Communities of Ayabaca. Confronted by the exploration activities on the mountain opposite his house, Carrión led Yanta’s resistance to the Rio Blanco project and managed to increase awareness in surrounding communities of the far-reaching impacts of large-scale mining. As a consequence, he has received 16 charges of criminal activity. He has not yet been convicted of any of the charges.

“These allegations are politically motivated by those who fear the success of the anti-mining movement in Ayabaca,” Carrión says. “It’s a strategy of the state and the corporate interests, aiming to silence our resistance.”

However, Carrión doesn’t think that this strategy will be successful. “The pro-mining groups think that the accumulation of criminal charges will lead to the preventive sentencing of the leaders, which, in turn, will discourage our communities from exercising their civil rights and deter a debate on matters of public interest. Indeed, eventually we might go to jail, but I feel as if the exact opposite is happening, because this criminalization of our movement has provoked widespread anger among the communities. Already, younger generations are stepping up and telling me that they will continue the struggle in defence of our territory. Truly, I believe the mining company’s strategy will never work here in Ayabaca, because these people don’t comprehend our identity, our ancestral relationship with our land, which is what gives us strength.”

Sander Otten works for the Belgian NGO Broederlijk Delen in Lima, Perú.

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