Tension mounts over Tia Maria as government tries to walk tightrope

21 July 2019

The indefinite strike announced last week by the communities of the Tambo valley in Arequipa began on Monday 15 July. It was a response to the government's granting of the crucial construction permit to Southern Peru Copper Corporation.

As we went to press the blockade of routes in the area was continuing, and protesters had blocked roads leading to and from the port of Matarani. On 18 July, the protest was reinforced by the small-scale fishermen leaving their boats and joining the blockade of Peru's main coastal highway. The fisheries sector is worried about possible contamination of fishing grounds.

The regional governor of Arequipa, Elmer Cáceres, is vigorously backing the strike and has spent much of the past week in Lima insisting that the construction permit be rescinded.

As readers will know, it was crucial for the company to be granted the construction permit before August; at that point the EIA would have become obsolete and it would have required re-drafting and re-submission. This would have opened up a huge area of trouble for the company.

The first EIA was reviewed back in 2010 by the United Nations Office for Project Services, (UNOPS) at the invitation of the Ministry of Energy and Mines (Minem). An enormously detailed and critical report was produced by March 2011, apparently coinciding with the cancellation of the contract. The UNOPS report contained no less than 138 critical observations. Environmental groups and the communities considered that the second version of the EIA failed to deal adequately with the criticisms. Revising and rewriting the EIA yet again was likely to open up a can of worms.

The granting of the permit has been accompanied by a campaign from the government, spearheaded by the president, saying loud and clear that the project will not go ahead until the company demonstrates it has seriously engaged with the communities over their issues. The Bishops' Conference has now weighed in too, pressing for dialogue. 

The company has made a statement accepting this proviso. But as an analysis by José de Echave makes clear, this is difficult territory. Over Las Bambas, the church and the government were able to make headway in bringing all parties to the table, given that the population had an interest in what mining can do for the region, if properly regulated. In Islay, the communities are agriculturists deeply worried about the effect of mining on their water supplies and the purity of their environment, with the fishing sector now adding its voice. Numerous photos of the blockade make clear the message: 'Agro sí, mina no’.

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