It is a painful irony that the new minister of energy and mines, Miguel Incháustegui, began his first full day at work on the very day his predecessor, Rafael Belaunde, was committed to travel to Espinar (in Cuzco region) to meet grassroots groups there demanding to be heard, and other actors including the company, Glencore, and local and regional authorities. His achievement in forging at least a short-term agreement represents an important breakthrough.

To appreciate the challenge faced, we need to go back briefly over the issues involved in this long-running dispute. The immediate conflict began over a right the communities consider they have under the Framework Agreement (convenio marco) signed in 2003 with BHP Billiton, the owners at that date. This allows for a payment of 1,000 soles (£217) as a bono from the Convenio’s Social Fund to each adult on the electoral role in the zone of influence of the mine in case of an ‘emergency’. The view of Glencore, which now holds the concession, had hitherto been that the fund exists for development projects, and the proposed use was therefore invalid.

The conflict gradually widened to incorporate other problems that have accrued over the years. Of these, four are the most critical:

  • The need to revise the Framework Agreement itself.
  • The long running problem of heavy metals poisoning in Espinar.
  • The criminalisation of protest and abuses experienced by local people.
  • The lack of appropriate consultation over the Antapaccay project and its extension, Coroccohuayco.

Each involves substantial issues for national policy, and success in achieving a sustainable outcome depends on the ministerial team having both a clear framework and good negotiating skills.

Notwithstanding his recent appointment, Incháustegui decided to go to Espinar with a team including the ministers of agriculture and the environment and various vice ministers or their representatives, and the High-Commissioner for Dialogue and Development in the Southern Corridor. The meeting was attended by strong representation from Glencore, plus regional and local governments, as well as the bishop of Sicuani, Monseñor Pedro Bustamante, who has been playing the role of mediator.

A previous visit by the authorities failed to reach Espinar, turning back in Cuzco on grounds of lack of security.

The meeting clearly could not deal with the complex of demands being made by the communities, given their implications for national policy. However, a major short-term accord was reached, with the company agreeing to pay the bono demanded by the communities and a date was set for a further meeting on 3 September at which the deeper issues will be negotiated.

The bono is to be paid as a voucher (‘tarjeta de uso multiple’) and can be used for essential food, medicine, shelter, personal protection, education and payment for basic services. It is a one-off ‘extraordinary’ payment in view of the health crisis in Espinar. Following the agreement, the local authorities will suspend all use of force in the province and regular commercial activities will be resumed. The strike action is now lifted, although El Comercio reports that the Comite de Lucha of Espinar claimed afterwards it did not sign, since it remains opposed to the use of vouchers. The newspaper also reports that there will be a further virtual conversation between them and the mining minister on 11 August.

The strike in Espinar was already into its fourth week, and some sort of reconciliation was badly needed. But what is required goes far beyond ‘band-aid’ solutions, and the 3 September meeting will be crucial. Goodwill has been shown by most actors – including, it seems, by Glencore – and this is of itself no mean achievement.