A visit by Martín Vizcarra, Peru’s vice-president, to Las Bambas on 22 October sought to resolve the stand-off between communities and MMG mining over the transshipment of minerals through community lands. Vizcarra promised to look into the problems that have arisen during a 45-day truce, but a number of the communities most directly involved have so far refused to lift their road blocks preventing mineral cargos leaving the mine for the port of Mollendo.
As we reported last week, the conflict reached a new pitch with the killing of a protester by the police. This had created a critical situation for the PPK government. In its first 90 days the government had gone all-out to reassure potential investors in the crucial mining sector. But the lack of any specific measures on the side of community relations had been conspicuous, creating a dangerous situation. As Mirko Lauer said on 21 October in La República, the situation could have a demonstration effect that would set the tone for conflicts elsewhere.
The death at Las Bambas also raised a particularly thorny issue in mine-community-state relations: the role of the police in such events. In this case, the police were not operating in their private security role, and were under the command of the provincial police chief. However, the police have a base on company property in Las Bambas. This highlights confusion as to their function and line of command, aggravating the distrust to which such situations have given rise in recent years. As José De Echave, the former vice-minister of the environment, said in a robust article last week, this is an issue that needs to be properly resolved.
So far, the national police have said that what happened at Las Bambas was not authorised by Lima, in itself hardly a route to rebuilding confidence.
The appointment of Rolando Luque (present with Vizcarra at Las Bambas) to head up the Oficina Nacional de Dialogo y Sostenibilidad (ONDS) was an attempt by the government to a spearhead a new approach to such problems. But when Luque went last week to Saramurilla on his first visit to a live conflict to try to resolve problems created by the oil spill in the Marañón, he went with a government adviser whose behaviour was so unacceptable to the locals that he had to leave for discussion to continue. This episode shows that communities are still dealing with the same often distrusted faces, the same attitudes and the same institutional arrangements. Changing the person at the top does not, in itself, create confidence.
Some critics believe that the dialogue roundtables (mesas de diálogo) no longer provide an adequate framework for resolving conflict. The dispute at Las Bambas highlights the problem, since promises made are often not fulfilled. The agreement reached at the mesa de diálogo on 6 October that the controversial road through the communities should at last be paved, was not seen as a cast-iron commitment. Indeed, only the regional governor subsequently appeared to endorse it. The protesters also felt that their demand for compensation over the road passing through their land had not been addressed.
Nor was the problem surrounding the original points of dispute (the modification of the EIA without consultation) resolved, and then the lack of compensation for five violent deaths since the protests began. On the EIA point, however, Vizcarra was forthcoming when he said “the change in the EIA needs to be the subject of consulted and the [local] population need to give their approval”. In the original EIA, shipments from the mine would have been transported through a specially constructed mineroducto, not using heavy trucks.
Vizcarra’s visit was only arranged at the last minute, following the failure of a ‘high-level commission’ led by the minister of energy and mines. On 19 October, this reached Cuzco only to face stalemate and the continuing strike against at Las Bambas. The community organisations and authorities in Cotabambas declared that this commission was not sufficiently ‘high level’ and that the strike would continue until either Prime Minister Fernando Zavala or President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski came to the area. The commission returned to Lima. All this did little to help reinforce Luque’s credibility as the ‘new actor’.
Vizcarra’s visit goes some way towards creating a new and affirmative approach recognising community concerns and helping to convince community members that the government’s commitment to a solution is for real. This is crucial if the ‘demonstration effect’, envisaged by Lauer, is to be convincing elsewhere. Many, no doubt, will feel that Vizcarra’s presence was down primarily to the crucial significance of Las Bambas as a source of future export revenue.