Peru protest leaders decry siege

AP News
Posted: Dec 05, 2011 3:40 PM
Peru protest leaders decry siege

Opponents of Peru's biggest mining investment said Monday they felt betrayed by the president's decision to impose a state of emergency to end violent protests against the $4.8 billion highlands gold mine, saying they had already halted a general strike and agreed to negotiations.

President Ollanta Humala said Sunday night's emergency declaration aimed to restore order and to reopen schools and roads paralyzed by a general strike and clashes with police in which dozens of people have been injured.

But Cajamarca state Gov. Gregorio Santos, who has been leading protests, said demonstrators had suspended a weeklong general strike on Thursday when they agreed to talks with the government.

He said Monday that the president was "deceiving" Peruvians with the decree.

"Everything was normal," Santos told The Associated Press by telephone. "We reject the state of emergency and all manner of violence."

Before the state of emergency took effect at midnight Sunday, Santos said the protests would continue but didn't specify in what form. Protest leaders have been careful not to advocate any lawbreaking. They were meeting Monday to discuss strategy.

The emergency restricts civil liberties including the right to assembly and allows arrests without warrants in four provinces of the northern state.

The protesters fear the Conga gold-and-silver mine, majority owned by U.S.-based Newmont Mining Corp., will taint their water and affect a major aquifer. They are alarmed by plans to drain or displace four lakes more than 2 miles (3 kilometers) in elevation and create four reservoirs, the biggest of which will supply water to wash metal out of crushed rock using cyanide. Two of the lake beds would become open mining pits.

Cajamarca is one of Peru's most heavily mined regions and many residents mistrust the new project because it is an extension of nearby Yanacocha mine, Latin America's largest gold mine, which is nearing the end of production. It has a history of troubled relations with neighboring farmers, ranchers and city dwellers downstream who claim it has harmed water supplies.

Humala said in a brief televised address Sunday night that protest leaders had shown no interest "in reaching minimal agreements to permit a return of social peace" after a day of talks in Cajamarca with Cabinet chief Salmon Lerner, who was accompanied by military and police chiefs and was guarded by heavily armed police.

Humala blamed "the intransigence of a sector of local and regional leaders."

But Santos said protest leaders had asked government officials for an additional 12 hours to consult with protesters.

A German agronomist advising them, Reinhard Seifert, said he believed the government had no intention of engaging in serious dialogue. He noted that authorities had sealed off the state capital's central square on Sunday and the only demonstration was by mine workers "who marched, wearing white shirts and carrying placards that said "No to the roadblocks. We want work. We want peace. We want water."

"It was all manipulated," he said.

National officials have balked at protesters' demands for a new study of the environmental impact of the mine, which was to begin production in 2015. The initial study was approved by the Ministry of Mining in October 2010.

A top Interior Ministry lawyer, Julio Talledo told the AP that the agency has asked prosecutors to file criminal charges against Santos and four other protesting local leaders on charges that include "hindering the functioning of public services," which carry possible prison terms of at least two years. It was not immediately clear whether prosecutors have acted on the requests.

Newmont announced last week that it was suspending work at Conga until order could be restored. On Monday, company spokesman Omar Jabara said by email that the company is "closely monitoring the situation and continues to want to participate in a good-faith dialogue" with local residents.

Its chief executive, Richard O'Brien, said in a statement earlier that if Newmont was unable to continue with Conga, the Denver-based company would "re-prioritize and reallocate capital" to "alternatives in Nevada, Canada, Ghana, Indonesia and Suriname."

Humala told Cajamarca residents during campaign swings before his June election that clean water was more important for him than gold. Many local inhabitants said they now feel betrayed.

"We expected a president who would stand up for Peruvians, for those in greatest need," said Jose Quintero, a 45-year-old farmer who lives in Celendin near the Conga site and was reached by phone at random. "First he says he's going to protect the water, now he says no."

"He needs to keep his word, that he was gong to protect the water." said Karla Ramos, a 33-year-old preschool teacher in Celendin. "People don't live off gold. They use water to wash the gold. that's the way it is."

Peru's economy depends heavily on mining, which accounts for 61 percent of its export income.

Humala, a former radical leftist who moved toward the center before his June election, persuaded the mining industry to agree to a tax on windfall profits to help him fund social programs. The government says that will yield about $1 billion a year.

Officials fear that the shelving of Conga would not only reduce the windfall tax but also would affect some of the more than $40 billion in mining investments that are planned.

There are currently more than 60 disputes over the alleged detrimental impact of mining on water supplies across Peru, according to the national ombudsman's office. Several big projects have recently been scrapped as a result.

One protest leader in Cajamarca, Milton Sanchez, told the AP "this government that has put itself on the side of mining companies and distanced itself from its electoral promises."

"We are not radical," he added. "It's just that the Conga project has no legitimacy in the eyes of the people."

An early November opinion poll by the Datum firm found that 74 percent of Peruvians believe anti-mining protesters across the country are justified in their concerns.

The nationwide survey of 1,206 adults from across the economic spectrum had an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.


Associated Press writers Martin Villena and Carla Salazar contributed to this report.