I was reading through the news last week when something caught my eye. The interior minister, Wilfredo Pedraza, was quoted as having said that, “Mining conflict is going to be permanent.”
That’s kind of a crazy thing to say, I thought to myself. So it’s the government’s stated position that there’s no way to avoid fighting with villagers whenever it wants a mine built somewhere? It’s not even worth considering changes to how mining projects are conceived, presented to the community and implemented, so that they do not generate conflict? The finance minister recently said that Peru is in line to receive $30 billion in mining investment; is the interior minister really saying that the police are going to have to clear the way for every single dollar of that investment with billy clubs, tear gas and rubber bullets?
My curiosity piqued, I kept reading. “Mining conflict is going to be permanent, and that’s why we are creating police fronts to guarantee the activities of the citizens, mining investment, and peaceful protest,” the minister said.
I was startled, because this was an even crazier thing to say. The Ministry of the Interior was creating new police forces to send to areas of mining conflict. Of course, every police officer who is dispatched to these "mining fronts" is one less who will be working to arrest sicarios, break up gangs and bust narcotraffickers. While the murder rate skyrockets around Peru (doubling between 2009 and 2011, according to numbers reported to the OAS), the best use of the police’s resources is really to protect the investments of mining companies?
What’s more, there’s no recent evidence that heavy police involvement solves these mining conflicts, or even allows the investments to go ahead. Plenty of police were deployed to Cajamarca, and a state of emergency was declared to restrict people’s right to assemble, but Conga still had to be postponed. Something similar happened in Puno with Bear Creek’s project. And in Tambogrande. And it is happening in Cañaris, now.
Nor is there any reason to think that arresting the protest leaders would yield positive results. Remember the arrest of Oscar Mollehuanca in Espinar? All that accomplished was to turn the local mayor into a folk hero. Arresting and roughing up Marco Arana in Cajamarca just earned the government condemnation from human rights groups. Conga was halted, anyway.
It’s not clear to me what the government\‘s end-game is here. If mining projects are inevitably going to be met with conflict, and the solution to those conflicts is to send in more police, how are things ever going to be settled? With states of emergency, with the leaders of the opposition thrown in jail? Even if that worked to “guarantee mining investment,” what mining company, with its social responsibility officers and investors’ meeting back in Europe or North America, is going to want to invest under those conditions?
An independent poll found that 78% of Cajamarca’s residents were opposed to the Conga mine. An unsanctioned local vote in Cañaris found that 97% of residents opposed mining exploration there. That is overwhelming opposition, and it’s clear that in both cases, the local population needs a lot of convincing before any mine can be built.
It’s also clear that for that to happen, there needs to be a deep, long-lasting dialogue between the communities and the mining companies, with the government playing a role as mediator and regulator. However, by declaring that conflict is inevitable, and then sending in the police, the government makes that very dialogue impossible.
What Pedraza said was crazy, but, in a strange way, it wasn’t wrong. If the government follows through with this plan, mining conflict really will be permanent.
The views expressed here are solely those of the author.