Cerro de Pasco, Peru: Mining, Red Lakes, and Piles of Waste


Photo by Thomas Quirynen

The roughly 300 km trip from Lima to Cerro de Pasco is a seven hour bus ride. The contrast between the trendy restaurants and bars in Lima and the gloomy town of Cerro de Pasco is like comparing heaven and hell.

The road to Pasco extends from sea level over a pass of 4800m and winds up a high plateau. We pass hundreds of heavy loaded trucks that crawl up the mountain. A splendid green mountain landscape passes by. Large empty orange spots are visible in between the mountain tops. These deep scars, in this largely undisturbed landscape, appear to be mining projects.

Later, as we approach 4000m in elevation, a sterile valley is unveiled from the grey fog. A mountain, halve excavated, shows beautiful colors from its interior: from yellow to orange. The huge project of Morococha is at our feet and forms a forerunner from what we would see net in Cerro de Pasco.

We drive under a sign ‘Welcome to Cerro de Pasco, Capital of Mining in Peru’. Another 200m further the town is suddenly at our feet. The town is divided by a 1 km wide, 500m deep pit – the result of 55 years of excavations. A quest for metal and profits by the Volcan company (the Peruvian company that acquired the mine in 1999), working within an exploitative and destructive global capitalist system, is responsible for the damage plaguing this town.

Cerro de Pasco is literally divided by the large, yawning hole that separates different neighborhoods; It has been called the largest “Plaza de Armas” (central square) of Peru. But there is also a duality in the social costs of the project: the population is well-aware of the impact of this mine on their health, but they are not indifferent to the financial side of the company.

The economic dependency leads to a dangerous tolerance and indifference among both local communities as the government. This, combined with the lack of responsibility of Volcan, leads to an overwhelming social, medical and ecological disaster.


Photo by Thomas Quirynen

Where do our metals come from?

Cerro de Pasco hosts a polymineral mine containing lead, silver and zinc. To extract the metals from the ground, the rock is grinded, after which a chemical process is used to extract the metals from the ore.

The extraction process creates an abundance of residual waste. This waste consists of fine grained rock polluted with chemicals such as cyanide from the extraction process.

When this waste is not stored properly there is a danger for irreversible pollution. In Cerro de Pasco this is present everywhere: trucks drive by with these dangerous wastes, while the dust blows up from their open beds. Two lagunes, one a drinking place for llamas, cows and goats are almost fully filled. The remaining water is bright red. Even inside the town this material is present everywhere. Due to the fact that the minerals are grinded, chemicals and heavy metals which are present mix much more easily with air and water. An additional problem is acid drainage, caused by the contact between the sulphide-rich ores and the oxygen in the air. This leads to an extreme acidification of the water, which in turn releases more heavy metals.


Photo by Thomas Quirynen

Situation in Pasco

In Pasco children often play on and all around the mine waste. On a field next to the mining waste a fútbol game is being held. Dust is blown up, hands are dirty from the ground, while dangerous substances can also enter the mouth. Volcan launches a new project: ‘Wash your hands sufficiently, to reduce the impact. We are a social company, we think about the inhabitants of Pasco…’

The pollution is everywhere. The mining waste is everywhere: in between different neighborhoods in the form of gigantic piles, to raise the surface for the new bus station (the old one had to go for the expansion of the pit), for the construction of rural roads, etc.


Photo by Thomas Quirynen

The air, the earth and the water in and around Pasco are not only polluted by the pit itself, but especially by the surrounding mining waste. The whole town is covered by a thin layer of dangerous mining dust. The groundwater, rivers and lakes are affected by acid drainage and chemicals.

The promised economic development is left behind

The mining industry promises economic development and progress, but these are empty promises. Although mining is present everywhere in the Pasco department, 63.4% of the population lives in poverty. The percentage of extreme poverty is slightly above 30%.

In addition, farmers have declared that their animals died after drinking from the surrounding rivers.

“I went up to the company with my cadavers. They asked the price for the animals, gave the money and that’s it,” one said.

Previously, animal husbandry (llama’s, goat, sheep) was the major source of income, now it is disappearing. Also, the little agriculture present on these heights disappears.

Apart from that, the economic development does not take into account the (future) costs of pollution ad health impact. Can we really speak of development when a whole town is polluted and a population is poisoned?

The scarce research shows that 85% of the children in the town have too much lead in their blood. Up to 3 times more than the international threshold of the World Health organization (WHO): 10 µg/dl. Too much lead in the blood leads to migraine, concentration problems, auto immune diseases and cancers. The currently conducted studies only focused on the presence of lead, but mining also produces other chemicals and heavy metals. But, as long as no data is present, there is no problem, right?

Also in depth research about the impact on the environment is lacking. A visit to the town leaves nothing to our imagination. The so called efforts of Volcan offer only little solace. The buildings that clean the water are only an attempt to fulfill the norms. Also the project about hygiene passes the core cause of pollution and health problems.

If even that that were not enough …

Apart from pollution, the population is threatened by other inconveniences. Volcan is not only using an open it, but also has underground mining activities. This is taking place among others below certain neighborhoods of the town, and collapsing mines and the use of dynamite cause earth shocks and subsidences. Houses subside, walls burst and some houses are prone to collapse. Also here the company takes no responsibility: A mining engineer explains: the bursting house was built with 7 bags of sand per bag of cement, it should be only 3. That’s why the house is collapsing! People just have to build stronger.


Photo by Thomas Quirynen

Since the houses are close to the edge of the open pit, Volcan is often willing to buy the houses to enable future expansion. But the prices of the houses are set by their current state.The town is in continuing turmoil. The ever expanding pit grows at the expense of the town. The ground is getting scarser and people start building higher upon the surrounding mountains, with additional problems for the distribution of water and electricity. If people do not fancy selling they are being bullied and pressure is put upon them. Jaime Luis Silva Ponce of LABOR, a ngo that focuses on the problems in Cerro de Pasco tells that a man that opposed had water poured in his electricity meter box for two times.
How can this continue happening?

80% of the media in Cerro de Pasco is controlled by the company. Apart from that, LABOR suspects Volcan to bribe different organizations and the government.
Different events support these allegations. During the meetings about the current expansion of the pit, “plan L”, the local government denied access to even 1 cm² of land. Two weeks later, an agreement was signed: the major gave permission to exploit the rest of the area. During the execution of PLAN L 11,4 ha town will disappear in the pit, including the complete old town centre.

The conditions that are included in the agreement are incomprehensible. The plan L values the part of town that had to disappear at 10 million $, a mere summation of the value of the parts; 719770$ for the church, the towns plaza 320000$, …). Volcan will invest in the form of different projects. Important to realize is that one third of this sum is used for a controversial project: this plans the backfilling, with mining waste of the last lagune of the town This way Volcan can get rid of part of the dangerous waste and living space is created for the people that have to move due to the implementation of PLAN L. No where it is mentioned that the surface on which these people will live consist of heavily polluted soil.

The major, that wouldn’t even loose 1 cm² to the company thus signed 2 weeks after the resolute NO an agreement where he is not only sacrificing the old town centre, but also gives permission to fill and pollute the last lagune of the town.
The only thing that can stop PLAN L is the rejection of the Environmental Impact assessment. This study of the ministry of energy and mining will try to account for the ecological impact of the project.

Since the current government of Peru, lead by president Allan Garia, attaches to a blind belief in ‘mining as the driving force for development of Peru’, the approval of this document is very probable.

Large scale resettlement

Since no one wants the closure of the company, and the situation is becoming unbearable, proposals are made to move the complete town to a new, healthy environment. According to a review by LABOR, 67% of the population supports this plan. The regional and provincial governments of Pasco have decided to open an information centre that will listen to the opinions of the habitants of Cerro de Pasco. Yomar Meléndez, advisor of the major of Pasco declared that the office will be installed by the end of April, and that the regional government is searching for a suitable location to move the village.

The question remains who will pay for the costs of this ambitious resettlement. Logic and common sense point towards the mining company and the government. However, the history in Peru shows that common sense and logic are often far away.
And that way, the city remains being excavated and the pollution continues. Trucks continue driving by 24h a day. The pit becomes deeper, the piles of mining waste higher. Lakes turn red and find their way to the countryside. Life continues…

Thomas Quirynen has a Master in Moral sciences and is currently a collaborator in the South for the Belgian organisation CATAPA (Comité Académico Técnico de Asesoramiento a Problemas Ambientales). He is working in Jaén, Northern Peru, focusing on the mining conflicts in the country.