Monday 23 January 2012

Protestors object to the expansion of the Conga Mine in Peru.

The Conga Gold Mine in the Cajamarca Region of Northern Peru is owned by the Colorado based Newmont Mining Corporation. In July 2011 Newmont announced plans for a major expansion of the project, bringing US$4.8 billion in investment to the area, and creating between 5000 and 7000 jobs during the expansion process (the number of permanent positions that would be created is unclear). The project would involve the destruction of a number of lakes used to supply water for agriculture and irrigation in the region, though Newmont have promised to build new reservoirs and water distribution infrastructure for the region.

The location of the Conga Mine. Map from the United States Geological Survey.

The project has received support from the Peruvian Government, the leadership of the Catholic Church in Peru (who are politically important), and much of the Lima-based press. However much of the local population oppose the project strongly, as do environmental groups, and grass-roots church organizations. This has lead to a string of protests, some of which have turned violent, and which threaten to badly disrupt the project, if not actually halt it.

Protestors opposed to the Conga Mine expansion.

The project seems to have polarized political opinions in Peru, a country with a wide political gulf between the urban elite and the rural poor, that has flared into all-out conflict in the past. Supporters of the mine cite the need for investment in the country, and the promise of investment in infrastructure and jobs.

Opponents dispute the need for investment as the country has a buoyant economy, currently the 42nd largest in the world and growing rapidly, but poor economic distribution; many of the country's 30 million citizens remain impoverished, while a small elite have grown very wealthy. In addition they completely distrust pledges on employment and environmental protection from Newmont and the Peruvian Government. Many regard the lakes threatened by the project as sacred, and favor expansion of the tourist industry, already worth over US$1 million a day, and employing more people than the mining industry, but threatened by the project.

An anti-Conga Mine group on Facebook has attracted over 11 000 members, whereas a pro-Conga Mine page has less than a hundred, and a petition opposed to the project has appeared on the care2 petition site. Newmont point out that they carried out a public consultation before announcing the project, in which they consulted 13 000 local people, though since this is only twice the number they are planning to employ it may have been a bit on the low side. Meanwhile troops have been moved to the area as confrontations with protestors escalate, and right-wing commenters in Peru are calling for a movement to protect democracy from 'left-wing radicalism'.

While all this is going on it seems that Newmont, have become caught up in a wider political debate in Peru, and that their operations will continue to face disruption because of this. Even if their intentions to protect the local environment and population are entirely honorable they will continue to be mistrusted simply because of the support they receive from the Peruvian political right.