A sad but poignant anniversary looms.
On 2 June 2000, a poorly secured canister of mercury overturned on a truck travelling from the Yanacocha mine in Cajamarca to Lima. Yanacocha is Latin America’s largest gold mine, owned by Newmont, Buenaventura, and Japan’s Sumitomo Metal Mining Co ltd. At the time of the accident the IFC (the commercial arm of the World Bank) held 5% which it subsequently sold.
Back in 2000, poor regulation, a slow reaction from the company, and ignorance of the population led to tragic consequences with over 150 kg of mercury trickling along the dirt road connecting three villages. “We thought it was valuable. The silvery liquid was shining bright and the children immediately started collecting it,” a villager told a reporter from The Guardian for an article highlighting the anniversary. She herself “filled a small bottle and placed it beside her bed, where she says it stood for five days before managers of the mine told the villagers that mercury was toxic.”
A Defensoría report appeared in 2001 slamming weak regulation. In due course, the company moved to deliver compensation. According to the Defensoría, contracts bound villagers receiving compensation not to speak out. These stated that the company was not responsible for the spill and no legal action would be taken against it. Yanacocha agreed to provide people with health insurance for illnesses related to the mercury spill. The majority of villagers signed.
The Guardian reports that subsequently, illnesses emerged not covered by the insurance, which the villagers are convinced are related to the mercury spill.
Legal action against the mine is an option only for the 80 families who did not sign the contracts. “There are 36 legal cases [in Peru] still pending against Minera Yanacocha,” Roberto del Aguila, of Newmont, said in an email response to the Guardian reporter.
The mercury spill helped poison relations between people living in Cajamarca and the giant gold mine that lies in close proximity to the region’s capital.
Twenty years on, some kind of independent review to lay these issues to rest would surely be a desirable anniversary present for villagers whose relatives are still dying from what they are convinced are the long-term effects of mercury poisoning. And an evaluation is needed of how far the regulations previously criticised by the Defensoría work better today.