Today, while those in power wage a campaign of media disinformation to prepare the scene for the 2011 presidential elections, peasant communities of Ayabaca, Piura continue to fight multinational mining corporations. With government support, these companies continue to explore for and exploit mineral deposits, ignoring residents’ concerns about the environment and the water supply. Upside Down World interviewed Mario Tabra Guerrero, one of the leaders in this fight, and president of the Frente de Defensa del Medio Ambiente de la Vida y el Agro de Ayabaca (Life Environment and Farm Defence Front of Ayabaca).
Since 2003, the Rio Blanco project, formerly called Majaz, a proposed open-pit copper and molybdenum mine, has generated opposition from resident campesino communities. Residents are concerned about potential impacts on water supplies and agricultural activities taking place within the watershed. As a result, the company has never obtained the two-thirds approval from local assemblies that it is required to have by law in order to operate in the area. In August of 2005, a campesino delegation marching to meet a mining commission for dialogue was ambushed by Peruvian national police and private mining security forces. For three days, 29 campesino representatives, including Mario Tabra, were held and subjected to physical, psychological and chemical torture. In 2007, a popular referendum reaffirmed community opposition to mining. The government refused to discuss the results, and, in recent years, nearly 300 local leaders have been politically persecuted for their participation in the referendum by threats and complicated legal processes.
- In the context of militarization of the territories and criminalization of protests in Ayabaca, in what state are your trial processes?
- They're still open, and I can't even leave Ayabaca without the judge's previous authorization. This is another way of keeping my activities under surveillance. As a person and as a citizen, I should be able to carry out these activities and move freely in my country. But this measure was taken to prevent me from realizing any kind of activity or coordination with anybody.
- Is it related to your participation in the resistance against the mining company Majaz in 2005?
- Yes, and they are still accusing me despite the lack of evidence that I took a gun from a DINOES (Special Operations National Office) police captain. They say I shot him, and I took the gun with me. But what happened was totally the opposite: I was detained and tortured for three days. Therefore, I didn't have the option of stealing guns or participating in any kind of confrontation. Besides, when the atomic absorption test was performed on us, no substance related to having fired a gun was found. They can't uphold the accusation, and there are also contradictions in the captain's version. He doesn't know what the subject he says he confronted looked like or what he was doing. In his first version, the captain stated that there had been a struggle and the gun had been accidentally shot. Afterwards, he said I had taken the gun from him. There are a lot of contradictions, enough to suspend this trial; however, they keep us controlled under these accusations.
- By claiming that they are after the author of the attack of the Río Blanco mining company's installations, they continue to persecute you...
- Due to the resistance of the peasant communities - which agreed in large assemblies not to accept mining- and what looks like a close deadline for Alan García to give away these territories to transnational corporations like Newmont and Sigiminim (so they can start their explorations for mine exploitation), a strong persecution that criminalizes all kind of resistance has started. Specifically on November 1st, 2009, there was a very strange attack at the Río Blanco camp. Initially, the peasant communities were accused of this attack in which, unfortunately, mine company workers died. These workers were just the villagers from Huancabamba that were working there, and the manager.
After this strange attack, those who were defending the environment were accused. First, the media was used to express that environmentalists, terrorists and drug traffickers' allies didn't want the mining presence and for that reason would perpetrate attacks of this kind. Then, since this hypothesis couldn't be proved, they began to send notifications: I got three notifications in one week. This is something very strange that hadn't happened in a trial process before. The notifications would arrive every two days, even though the most efficient administration would send notifications only every three days.
It wasn't possible to arrive on time in Huancabamba from Ayabaca because you need a day to climb down from Ayabaca to Piura, and another day to climb up to Huancabamba. Therefore, we couldn't go. They would notify us over the phone, but when we wanted to contact the person to ask for a prorogation that would allow us to appear in trial they would refuse to give us any contact information. They would say, “We know nothing; we just follow orders and notify you.” That was the problem.
After the second notification, on November 29, the Huancabamba attorney and the DININCRI (Criminal Investigation National Office) commander came to my house, and claimed they were investigating the November 1st attack. They told my family -since I was not at home- that they wanted me to expose what had happened on November 1st. The second notification stated: “bloody deed in Huancabamba;” this means that they were accusing me of murder. It wasn't that they wanted me as a witness; they directly got me involved in the case.
My daughter called me and told me that the attorney, the commander and four policemen were waiting in front of my house. They were watching both doors, waiting for me to get out. When I called my lawyers, they told me that given the circumstances I shouldn't turn up because surrounding the house meant something different from what they had stated. They even followed my daughter when she was looking for me in Ayabaca. This situation is growing: it's not only that they persecute me for being a leader but they also persecute my family, which is an aggravating factor.
I was in Ayabaca, but not at home. So they left a certificate to let me know that I had to appear in 2 days -i.e. on December 1st- but I hadn't been formally notified; there was only this certificate that was intended to confirm whether I was home. I only got the formal notification on Monday 30th, at about 10 AM. It stated that I had to appear on Tuesday at 6:00 PM in Huancabamba. I left for Huancabamba that afternoon, I slept in Piura, and climbed up to Huancabamba in the afternoon. My surprise was that the attorney was not on time to take my statement. He was more than a hour late, and told me “you didn't need to be here. You could have presented your statement at your leisure, because you are just a witness.”
A witness shouldn't be pressured to present a statement; being a witness is a voluntary action, so they shouldn't have sent the policemen and the attorneys to my house to put pressure on me to present my statement. Then, they asked me why I had told the media that they sent the policemen and the attorneys. They were caught a bit off guard because the media started to denounce this new act of persecution, so my lawyer and I presented the statement and they let us go in the middle of nowhere at around 9:00 PM. Because the place where the DININCRI had been installed in Huancabamba is not within the city, it's in a health centre located in a village out of town; and this can lend itself to various things, like the disappearances that the Peruvian state has perpetrated in many places in the country.
From then on, we don't know the results. They had told us they had 20 days to finalize the investigation -that was secret, without reports of who stated what-, but more than a month has passed by and they haven't prepared a report or a file with the charges to accuse us. We don't know anything about the state of the process. I thank the supportive media, especially the independent media that managed to denounce what's happening and slightly deter the arbitrary detentions.
- Is the Peruvian state acting as the transnational corporations' private army?
- That is the intention, shown by what the last supreme decrees have granted to Newmont company and other corporations: the government gave them 18.000 hectares of moor and cloud forest. The Aprista [party of President Alan García’s] government has practically given up all the Ayabaca mountain range, border between Ecuador and Peru. First, it was Alejandro Toledo's government with the decrees 022 and 023 (2003); and now Alan Garcia's decree 072 (2009) gave away the sections of the range that remained. This is a serious attack against the environment, in the province where the water spouts out from the plains and goes down the mountains towards Piura. If these mining projects are developed in the highlands, Piura and the provinces north of Cajamarca -like San Ignacio and Jaén- won't have water anymore.
- There was also a version, very much publicized by the mainstream media, in which the drug traffickers were blamed for the attack at the Río Blanco mining company.
- Sure. They always try to mix both issues in order to justify what was demanded by the corporate media: a militarization of the region to bring peace. In other words, if they are not terrorists, they are traffickers or there is a perverse alliance between the drug traffickers and the terrorists to stop investments. But see how they promote confusion; it's a psychosocial campaign to get people to accept the militarization of Ayabaca. It's true this is a border zone, but the militarization goal won't be to protect our border from external enemies but to protect transnational corporations and their actions that destroy the environment. Due to the fact that this accusation didn't work out, I believe they are trying to find another strategy to establish the army; because now they want not only the DINOES, that is currently guarding the mining company, but also the army. In other words, they became the mining companies' guardians.
- Is that why they threatened to install of a military base in Ayabaca?
- Exactly. The government started to throw out the idea, aiming at us. It's a trial to see what the towns people would say about the possibility of this installation. It'd be an early test of militarization in Ayabaca, so they can later militarize other zones when resistance against transnational corporations arises. The trial to see if it is possible to militarize and silence Ayabaca has to do with the fact that this is one of the most resistant communities against mining in Peru. If they can get their way here, they can do it in other places. That's the idea.
Yasser Gomez is a journalist, Upside Down World correspondent in Peru and editor of Mariátegui. La revista de las ideas. [The Magazine of Ideas]. Email: Yassergomez@gmail.com.
Marcelo Virkel is a political scientist and translates documents form English to Spanish and vice versa. He specializes in current world affairs and human rights, and has completed translations of policy documents, organizational procedures, informative reports, news articles and websites. Marcelo collaborates with Upside Down World and with Peace Brigades International, a grassroots NGO that promotes nonviolence and protects human rights defenders through accompaniment and advocacy. E-mail: