Intervenor: Vol 23. No 4 October - December 1998

Mineral Rights vs Community Rights In Peru

It is 2 o'clock in the afternoon of a stunningly beautiful day high in the Andes of Peru. The sun is so hot even at 4,200 meters (15,000+ feet) that I have to peel off some of the layers I put on this morning when we set out.

We have left the acid scarred hills of La Oroya behind, a smelter town dating from the 1920s set on the banks of the Rio Mantaro whose heavy metal pollution reaches all the way to the Amazon. We have negotiated the police road-blocks where the underpaid officers extracted payment to let us pass. We have crossed the plains of Junin where in 1842 Simon Bolivar defeated the Spanish in an earlier chapter of the globalization story.

Now we are jammed in the back of a Toyota mini-bus with representatives from the community of Vicco--off to see the zone of conflict, a mineral claim set in the bend of the Rio San Juan, where Cominco, a Canadian mining company is a key player.

Miquel Palacin sits across from me in the bus. He is the fiscal for the community of Vicco, a kind of ombudsman elected to watch over the interests of the community in their relations with central government. As we bump over the back roads Miquel alternates between answering his new cell phone and explaining to us the ins and outs of his court battle with El Brocal. El Brocal is the Peruvian mining company asserting a claim over 3,000 of the Vicco's 25,000 hectares.

There is history to everything, including Miquel's cell phone. "Kidnapping" charges were laid against Miquel because he and other community leaders refused to let El Brocal and government officials on their lands unannounced. When the legal stuff escalated, they needed phones in a bad way. But it takes months to get anything with wires here-hence his cell phone.

A call from Lima tells us the Mining Association of Peru has agreed with Vicco that the claim for 3,000 hectares is too large and should be reviewed. A small victory.

I ask a question about their land titles and Miquel pulls out a binder. He has made a presentation to the InterAmerican Committee on Human Rights recently and has it all organized. He pulls out a photocopy of a land grant made to the community of Vicco by the Spanish King in 1625. They went to the archives in Lima and photocopied the original, King's Seal and all.

After the presentation to the InterAmerican Committee their story went out over the Internet and information has been posted on a number of websites. It may be a local struggle but it has global reach. And in the mountains of Peru, it does not hurt having international support and visibility when you are part of a test-case on mineral rights versus community land rights in a rapidly changing Peru. And of course that is part of why we have been invited to visit-we can help with the Canadian connection.

First we snake past a huge tailings dump sitting right on the banks of the river where El Brocal has been dumping tailings for years. Later, in Lima, I will be told proudly by an El Brocal official that the company has built new containment walls and in 1999 will finally stop dumping untreated effluent from their concentrator directly into the river. Another small victory, this one long overdue.

But today we are being shown the latest point of contention between the company and the community.

For years the dream of the Vicco community has been to bring unpolluted water around the mine site to their lands in order to grow fodder crops for their livestock. With a small grant from the government for materials, they have used volunteer labour from their community to dig a five kilometer(!) concrete-lined canal. The canal skirted the original tailings dump but in July last year El Brocal decided to expand the dump and filled in the canal for a distance of a few hundred meters.

Vicco has two conditions for reopening talks with El Brocal about the new mine they want to develop with Cominco. First, reopen the canal. Second, drop the kidnapping charges.

After all the site visits and conversations, the request from the community of Vicco is simple. The community wants CELA to help them engage Cominco directly in order to change the confrontational approach they are getting from El Brocal on the ground in Peru. It represents a small test of whether our international links can help people in their day-to-day struggles.

When I get back to Toronto I have an e-mail from the Cominco's VP for International Relations among the hundreds in my in-box after two weeks away. I pass on the message from the community and report the VP's views back to the folks in Vicco.

Early in January there is finally movement in Peru and El Brocal has dropped the confrontation mode and is negotiating. Another small victory.

In the coming years we will be collaborating with Cooperaccion in Peru to support the community of Vicco as this particular mine development decision plays out. But the struggle at Vicco is being repeated elsewhere. In the process of working with local communities affected by environmental degradation, we are, I think, building our own version of "globalization".

You can't understand the local without knowing the global

Mining oriented work has expanded for CELA over the past year including both a Canadian and International focus. In Canada, CELA has co-chaired a process involving over ten environmental, development, research and aboriginal organizations to develop a proposal for a National organization on mining tentatively called MiningWatch Canada. The proposal has been submitted to a number of funders and we will have answers from them by early in 1999.

CELA co-sponsored a workshop on Mining in the Americas, with the Observatorio Latinoamericano de Conflictos Ambientales, in Santiago Chile following the Summit of the Americas. The workshop was attended by representatives from Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, Canada, Costa Rica and the United States. It provided an opportunity for an exchange on issues and created an informal set of links which can be drawn upon as needed by any of the participants.

CELA has been working with Cooperaccion in Peru and EMCBC on a series of local community workshops on Mining and Development in the Andean region. We also helped organize a recent national workshop on Mining and Communities in Lima which drew representatives including a number of mayors from over 30 communities in Peru engaged with old or new mineral development issues.

CELA developed a series of case studies on mine development issues and translated the materials into Spanish. This one-year project will form the basis for a further proposal for a three year collaboration with Cooperaccion on mining and communities issues funded by CIDA. This program would focus on work in the two specific areas of La Oroya and Vicco and provide ongoing advice and support to the newly developing Association of Mining Municipalities of Peru.

Ken Traynor is a researcher, and International Programme coordinator at CELA