Tia Maria and Peru’s Water Wars
For the last few month’s the Tia Maria project had been in the news daily, featuring mounting public protest against this proposed copper mine, with riots, strikes and closing of the Pan American Highway and local roads, overwhelming the capacity of the local police. Finally, a state of emergency was declared by the central government which promptly sent in 2,000 soldiers to control the regional unrest. All told, more than 200 people were injured, many more arrested and placed in detention, and at least seven killed. The government framed the story in terms of “terrorists,” a very loaded term in a country which suffered over a decade of civil insurrection from the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and MRTA (Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement).
Tia Maria is a $1.4 billion project by Southern Copper, which is part of the Grupo Mexico. Peru’s president, Ollanta Humala said it couldn’t be suspended, although Southern later announced a “pause” in the project’s development when the situation became really tense, and most recently said they were cancelling it because of continued resistance from the local population, now going on six years, and a lack of “governmental support.” This issue had been simmering even prior to 2014 when the government announced the approval of the Environmental Impact (EI) statement for the project and subsequent green light for the project. The project had been previously closed down in 2011 when an earlier EI was declared “inadmissible” by the previous national government, after clashes between protestors and police left at least three dead. This followed earlier protests in 2009 when the project was first announced.
Popular discontent with the proposed mine led to results in recent local elections in which anti-mining candidates were elected as provincial governor and mayors of several surrounding towns. The biggest contention is the issue of water access and water quality, although soil contamination also is a concern. The project is located near the Tambo Valley, a fertile and productive area that sustains local farming communities. They see the mine project as a direct threat to their livelihood and the conversion of an agricultural region to one of mining. One of the main fears is that the mine will compete for available water resources, even though the EI states the mine will use desalinated sea water from a new plant they would build. The concern in part is the impact on underground water reserves, both in terms of quantity and quality, as they constitute half of the available water in the valley.
This area is basically arid, as is most of the Peruvian coast. What makes life possible is the flow of water down from the Andes, which over time has created a series of fertile valleys whose rivers empty into the Pacific. There already is a concern about the impact of climate change on the water supply, as there has been a visible and consistent reduction in glacier ice as temperatures rise, leading to less run-off and reduced available water in all these valley areas.
While the issue of Tia Maria has been resolved – at least for the time being – in a rather bloody fashion, there are a number of other projects which present environmental and social issues for the country that again find water availability and contamination to be the central area of contention, including the US company Newmont’s proposed Conga gold mine, the expansion of the Camisea gas project, the renewal of oil concession in the Amazon region, and plans for 20 new hydroelectric dams up and down the Marañon River – proposals which would provide abundant energy for an expansion of mining in this entire region, and potential to contaminate the Amazon River of which it is a major tributary.
John Hertz, Alamo Group Green Building Contact, in Lima, Peru
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