(IPS) - Local residents and authorities in the northern Peruvian region of Cajamarca say they will continue to protest the Conga gold mine, despite the state of emergency declared by President Ollanta Humala.
The 4.8 billion dollar Conga gold mine project, to be run by the Yanacocha mining company, is backed by the government of Humala, a left-leaning former army officer who took office in July.
Yanacocha operates the largest gold mine in Latin America, 25 km southwest of Conga, and is owned by the U.S.-based Newmont Mining and the Lima-based Buenaventura corporations.
Peasant farmers, backed by local and regional authorities, environmental activists and independent experts, say the Conga mining operation would cause irremediable damage to four high mountain lakes, and deplete their water supply.
Newmont and Buenaventura have promised to replace the lakes with artificial reservoirs.
Last week, Newmont suspended work on the project, which affects the Cajamarca districts of Encañada, Sorochuco and Huasmín, where the mainly impoverished rural highlands population depends on agriculture and livestock for a living and needs abundant clean water.
The 60-day state of emergency was imposed by Humala after Prime Minister Salomón Lerner failed – after 10 hours of negotiations Sunday in the city of Cajamarca, the regional capital, 160 km from the lakes – to convince the demonstrators to call off the protests, which have brought activity in the city to a halt for two weeks.
"We will agree to sign the agreement if Yanacocha removes its machinery from the Conga project area, because its mere presence there is a provocation for the peasants," the president of the Cajamarca Defence Front, Idelso Hernández, told IPS.
"But minister Lerner told us that we couldn't force Yanacocha to pull its machines out - which made it clear to us which side the government is on," he said.
"Even though Yanacocha suspended the Conga project on Nov. 29, it left its machinery in the area, which means the police are still there, to protect the equipment," Hernández said. "The aim is to seek any pretext to trigger an outbreak of violence. The government is offering dialogue with one hand whole holding a club ready in the other."
The head of the Cajamarca Environmental Defence Front, Wilfredo Saavedra, concurred with Hernández, telling IPS that "we even called off the shut-down of activities in the city on Friday (Nov. 3) to facilitate the talks, which shows that we are not intransigent.
"However, the government deployed a large number of troops over the weekend, and even brought in the head of the joint forces command, General Luis Howell, on Sunday. That means everything was prepared for the declaration of a state of emergency, and they were just looking for a pretext for a military crackdown on the social protests," he added.
The two-month state of emergency, which covers the provinces of Cajamarca, Celendín, Hualgayoc and Contumazá in the south of the region of Cajamarca, suspends constitutional rights such as freedom of assembly, association and circulation, and gives the security forces the right to search homes at will. Humala also said the armed forces would help the police maintain public order.
The aim of the measure was to reopen schools, businesses, the airport, bus stations and markets in the city of Cajamarca, which had been shut down by the protesters since Nov. 24.
When he visited Cajamarca as a presidential candidate, Humala expressed his support for the protest against the Conga project.
But he has now decided that it will go ahead, on the argument that if the gold and copper mining project is properly managed, the local residents will benefit from the "canon minero" - the direct economic compensation received by areas where minerals or oil are extracted.
Cajamarca is one of the Peruvian regions that receive the largest amounts of revenue from the canon minero.
Figures from the Ministry of Economy and Finance indicate that since 2007, the district of Encañada received 8.1 million dollars in canon minero funds, Sorochuco took in 2.1 million dollars, and Huasmín 661,000 dollars.
But that money has done little or nothing to change the lives of local residents. The latest report from the national statistics institute, dating to 2009, shows that 75 percent of people in Encañada and Socochuco are poor, as are 63 percent of people in Huasmín.
The most recent report from the Defensoría del Pueblo (ombudsman's office) says that nearly 60 percent of the 154 active social conflicts in the country's 25 regions involve socioenvironmental protests, like the one in Cajamarca.
"The people of Cajamarca weren't expecting a state of emergency to be declared," Mesías Guevara, who represents the region in Congress for Perú Posible, a party allied with Humala's Gana Perú party, told IPS. "It is an extreme measure that will fuel the discontent.
"The people of Cajamarca are not anti-mining," the lawmaker added. "What we want is respect for our rights, such as the obligatory prior consultation. I would think that people in Cajamarca who voted for Humala are feeling pretty disillusioned."
Under Peruvian law, mining companies must consult local communities and obtain prior approval before conducting any mining operations.
Besides demanding the removal of Yanacocha's machinery from the area around the lakes, the local and regional authorities and social leaders were asking for 24 hours to consult with the mainly indigenous protesters holding a vigil at the site of the Conga mining project, which is located in the Andes highlands over 4,000 metres above sea level.
"We told Lerner that we couldn't sign anything without informing and consulting with the peasant protesters in the mountains, because that's how we do things among our people," said Saavedra. "But the prime minister didn't understand, and insisted we sign immediately."
The Defensoría del Pueblo's special envoy, Rolando Luque, a specialist in social conflicts, who was present at the talks on Sunday, said both sides were respectful, and that the negotiations were "broad and participative."
He added that even though no agreement was reached, due to the disagreement over the removal of the machinery, he was optimistic.
"Although unilateral measures have been taken, the talks have not collapsed," Luque told IPS. "We have been following the process over the last few days, and are confident that the negotiations will continue and that an agreement that is beneficial to the people of Cajamarca will soon be reached."