As the year ends, we look back to the visits to London and Brussels of Virginia Pinares and Julia Cuadros during which we highlighted the predicament facing communities in the vicinity of Las Bambas in Apurímac. This is also the subject of a stimulating interview in New Internationalist with Virginia.
Virginia Pinares is a community leader from Cotabambas where she has been at the forefront of the lengthy dispute over the mining operations at the Las Bambas copper mining project. She has had a number of public roles. She was president of the Committee for the Struggle of Las Bambas (Comité de Lucha de Las Bambas) and is now member of the Front for the Defence and Development of Cotabambas and the women’s federation there. She was a participant in the 2015 protests and still faces the threat of penal charges of up to 11 years in prison.
Julia Cuadros is one of the founding members of Cooperacción, one of the PSG’s partner organisations. From the outset of the conflict at Las Bambas she has been advising the communities.
Their visit to London, which started on 14 November, involved a packed agenda that focused on issues related to mining, territory and the protection of human rights defenders. Both Virginia and Julia met that day with the FCO Desk Officer for Peru, and then addressed a public event with Latin Americans living in London. The following day, both participated in the PSG’s annual conference, where they spoke about political conditions in Peru and how these affect civil society’s capacity to dialogue, not least because of the high rotation in relevant government posts. They spoke about the situation of human rights defenders working on issues relating to mining and the legal charges hanging over Virginia.
Virginia stressed the importance of international pressure in helping generate change in Peru and the reasons why she had been driven to come to Europe for the first time. An active member of her community, she is one of the very few women that take part in public forums. She also spoke of the difficulties of negotiating with professionals from mining companies.
Tensions in Las Bambas began in 2015 when communities learned of changes to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that led to some 300 trucks a day passing through their communities. They complained that the changes to the EIA had been made without consultation.
Confrontation with around 5,000 police led to three deaths and dozens being charged for affray. As well as a possible 11-year jail sentences, Virginia faces having to pay US$80,000 to the mining company in compensation. She and others were accused of illicit association to commit crimes and usurpation. Although these charges have since been dropped, she is still accused of blocking roads and disturbing the peace. She spoke of how women are deterred from raising their voices for fear of criminalisation and eventual arrest, a fate with serious ramifications for their families and livelihoods.
Virginia made clear that the communities are not against mining as such. They simply want mining activities to be carried out responsibly and for them to have a say in decisions that affect their lives.
The public event was co-organised with the London Mining Network and the Movimiento Jaguar Despierto, a group of young Latin Americans living in London who seek to raise awareness about issues affecting communities in their countries. The situation of mining and human rights defenders in Peru was compared with the rest of South America. The similarities and patterns of abuse against those defending their land, territories and their local environment stood out. The panel also included Paula Serafini of the Argentina Solidarity Group and Natalia Sobrevilla from the Peru Support Group and the University of Kent. Paula talked about cases of criminalisation in Argentina and of communities’ struggle against fracking. It became clear that solidarity in the UK with the work of human rights defenders in Peru and beyond gives these strength while expanding awareness of their predicament.
Virginia Pinares and Julia Cuadros then left London for Brussels for a week of advocacy events and meetings with European Union institutions organised by the Peru Europe Platform (PEP) and the EU-LAT coalition. The PSG coordinator travelled with them, also representing the PEP. Human rights defenders Santiago Manuin, an indigenous Awajún defender from the north of the Peruvian Amazon, and David Velazco, a lawyer from Fedepaz (Federación Ecuménica para la Paz) were also in Brussels to talk about the implications of extractive activities for human rights.
Meetings were held with representatives of DG-Trade of the European Commission, with the desk officer of the European External Action Service, and with members of the European Parliament. Representatives from Peru addressed an event organised by the Parliament, attended by MEPs Leopoldo López (Spain, People’s Party), Miguel Urban (Spain, European United Left) and García del Blanco (Spain, Socialist Workers Party). They spoke about their experiences in defending their local environment and livelihoods against the consequences of extractivism.
Santiago Manuin spoke of the contamination of rivers caused by oil spills from the north Peruvian pipeline. He also spoke about the lack of consultation and how indigenous communities were still fighting for their right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent in the case of Block 116. Communities there are appealing for their right to consultation to be respected with regard to the renegotiation of oil concessions.
David Velazco spoke about the criminalisation of human rights defenders and social protests and how the state has prioritised the extraction of natural resources above all else and, instead of carrying out the role of guarantor of human rights, how the state uses the penal system to criminalise communities.
Julia Cuadros and Virginia Pinares left Brussels on 23 November for Geneva to participate in the UN forum on business and human rights. They insist that human rights are fully integrated into business practices and for those seeking to defend the rights of communities without fear of stigmatisation, imprisonment or attacks.