Peru mine project threatened by water needs

PERU’S biggest mining investment is under threat, and government social welfare programmes with it, as highlands peasants step up protests against a gold and copper mine they fear could taint and diminish their water supply.

About 400 protesters have tried to enter the mine’s grounds and some hurled rocks at police, who responded with tear gas and shotgun blasts, wounding one protester in the leg, interior minister Oscar Valdes told a Lima television station.

Opposition to the $4.8 billion (£3.1bn) project, an extension of the Yanacocha open-pit gold mine that is Latin America’s largest, poses the first major challenge to President Ollanta Humala’s leadership. He won office in June after promising the very people now mobilising against Conga, whose 51 per cent owner is Denver-based Newmont Mining Corp, that he would put clean water above mineral extraction.

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He told the residents of the northern state of Cajamarca, one of Peru’s most heavily mined, during a May campaign swing that he would ensure their water supply “because you don’t drink gold, you don’t eat gold.”

But as protests began to rattle the project last month, with heavy equipment vandalised, roads blocked and work halted, Humala was modifying the message. The choice, he now said, need not be water or gold. Peruvians can have both.

After thousands joined protests in Cajamarca against Conga last week, Humala told a gathering of peasant organisations in the capital: “You have my word. The state will guarantee water. All our children must have water.”

Work at Conga was suspended for a third straight day on Friday as protests continued, and Valdes said the wounded man was among two protesters arrested. Newmont spokesman Omar Jabara said one Conga worker’s truck was badly damaged in a hamlet on the mine’s periphery.

Peru’s environment ministry began last month to review “some critical aspects” of the project, said Fausto Roncal, the ministry official in charge of evaluating environmental impact studies. He said its report would soon be delivered to Peru’s chief cabinet minister.

But investigative journalist Gustavo Gorriti has reported on the IDL-Reporteros website that the 11-page report raises “serious environmental objections”. He said it recommends a “detailed hydrological and hydrogeological analysis” of the impact of the mine’s two pits on an aquifer not adequately studied by Yanacocha.

Neither Roncal nor other environment ministry officials could immediately be reached for comment.