This article is part of a series on resistance to mining in Cajamarca, Peru, written by Alice Bernard and Diego Cupolo.
Read Part 1: Peru: Cajamarca Protests Continue as Conga Gold Mine Awaits Green Light
Read Part 2: Regional Peruvian Government Fights Conga Gold Mining: An Interview with Dr. César Aliaga Díaz
The long-awaited environmental impact review for the Conga project was published Wednesday, suggesting U.S.-based Newmont Mining Corp make “substantive improvements” to its development plans if it wants to move forward with its $4.8 billion gold and copper mining project in Cajamarca, Peru.
The Conga project was set to become the single largest mining investment in the nation’s history, but on-site operations stalled last November after mass protests erupted in northern Peru’s Cajamarca region. Citizens blocked highways and organized general strikes, claiming Newmont’s plan to replace four high-altitude lakes with artificial reservoirs and mine tailing dumps would contaminate their drinking water and diminish subterranean water resources.
In attempt to quell the civil unrest, Ollanta Humala’s government ordered an external review of the Conga Mine’s original Environmental Impact Study, which was approved in 2010 by the previous administration. After many delays, the findings were made public at a press conference in Lima earlier this week, where three international auditors presented their recommendations for the gold mine.
"There's no such thing as zero environmental impact. You need to find a balance between economics, the environmental, social needs and technical ones," said Rafael Fernandez Rubio, one of the environmental experts hired by Peru's government.
The 260-page study said Newmont should consider leaving two of the four targeted lakes intact and increase the water capacity of the artificial reservoirs it plans to build in the region. Other suggestions included relocating mine tailing dumps, securing waste storage sites from water treatment plants and improving soil conservation methods.
While Cajamarca Regional President Gregorio Santos, a leader of the anti-Conga movement, said the EIS review is a victory for the region, many question the quality of the findings. “Hydrological sciences need long periods of data, something that does not exist for the Conga mine area,” said Reinhard Seifert, a hydrological engineer and former president of Frente de Defensa Ambiental de Cajamarca. “Ideally, you need 30 years of consolidated data to predict [the project’s impacts] with impeccable objectivity. Or at least they should investigate meteorological data for one year to talk seriously.”
“The audit was based on data from EIS which was already inadequate. Consequently, the auditors’ technical opinions can only be partial and biased,” he continued.
In the coming months, various government agencies will analyze the report before establishing new conditions for the Conga project, said Environment Minister Manuel Pulgar during the same press conference. He declined to give a timeline for the process.
"It's not our mission to say if the project is viable or not ... we've just tried to improve its technical aspects," said Luis Lopez Garcia, another auditor working for the Peruvian Government. "Some measures could be implemented quite easily but others would require economic studies to see if they make sense."
Any new conditions applied to the Conga Project, especially the expansion of artificial reservoirs, are expected to increase operating costs for the mine and could prove problematic for Newmont. While the company remains one of the world’s leading gold producers, it has experienced a backlash in recent years, suffering mine closures in Canada and Indonesia. This instability has caused Newmont’s stock value to fall about 20 percent in the last 12 months.
The Conga project is the highest profile environmental conflict among more than 200 resource-related disputes occurring in Peru at the moment. If the project is cancelled, industry analysts and economists fear the nation’s investment climate could be damaged. Currently, Humala’s government is under mounting pressure to resolve nationwide mining conflicts as more than $50 billion in new mining and energy projects await approval.
A week before the environmental study was published, Humala’s administration deployed armed forces throughout the Cajamarca region to contain any possible reactions by anti-Conga groups. At the time of publication, no conflicts between civilians and military personnel have been reported.
The same day the study was released, Peru’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled against Ordinance 036, a measure proposed by Cajamarca’s regional government which declared the Conga project ‘unviable’ and illegal. The court said Cajamarcan government officials overstepped their powers by making regulations against the mining project.
While anti-Conga activists see the strong recommendations in the EIS review as a step in the right direction, many remain skeptical of the national government’s intentions for the project after witnessing the militarization of the Cajamarca region and watching Ordinance 036 fall in court.
In response, representatives from Cajamarcan cities met on Thursday to plan a prolonged region-wide general strike. Cajamarca Regional President Gregorio Santos said he will also try to push through Ordinance 036 with the help of foreign councils.
“The judges that shot down our regional ordinance were under political pressure. We’re going to resubmit the ordinance to international bodies and continue the fight against Conga,” he said.