Peru: Relocating Entire Villages for Mines, Dams

(IPS) – Hundreds of Peruvian communities were displaced as they fled the 1980-2000 civil war. Today the government is pushing for urgent passage of a law that would facilitate the relocation of entire villages or neighbourhoods in mineral or energy-rich areas.

The draft law that the government of Alan García introduced to the single-chamber Congress for urgent consideration would move communities from areas where development projects deemed to be of “public or fundamental interest” are planned. 

The bill is in the hands of two legislative committees, whose members told IPS that the debates and plenary vote would be scheduled this week. 

The Justice Committee sent the bill to the Defensoría del Pueblo (ombudsman’s office) and other experts to request advisory opinions, while the Women’s Committee is waiting for a technical opinion from the Committee on Indigenous Peoples. 

“The bill is aimed at facilitating investment by the mining industry and hydroelectric plants, which is increasing on the land of indigenous communities,” said Congresswoman Gloria Ramos. 

“This bill must be studied carefully, to make sure the rights of relocated communities are guaranteed,” said Ramos, who chaired the multiparty committee set up to respond to indigenous demands after protests by native associations began to heat up in 2008. 

The bill is designed to “pave the way” for the construction of five hydropower plants as part of a memorandum of understanding between Peru and Brazil, analyst Santiago Pedraglio wrote in a column in the Perú 21 newspaper.

The number of concessions granted to mining companies increased by more than 70 percent between 2002 and 2007, and has continued to grow since then, driven up by the boom in minerals prices. 

Several of the mining projects, still in the exploration phase, are on land that is populated by local communities. In other cases, mines have expanded to the point where they encroach on nearby populations, making it necessary to relocate entire villages or neighbourhoods. 

One of the most notorious cases is the town of Morococha in the central highlands region of Junín, where the Chinese company Chinalco plans to mine for copper on a hill ringed by the homes of hundreds of people. 

Another case is the city of Cerro de Pasco, also in the central highlands, where a huge open-pit mine operated by the Peruvian company Volcán is surrounded on all sides by neighbourhoods, and some 11,000 families could be relocated because of the mine’s negative effects on their health as well as their homes, many of which have cracks as a result of the detonations. 

Ramos told IPS that Congress should make every effort to first pass a bill establishing the requirement that indigenous communities be consulted on mining, timber or oil investments, for instance, that affect them and their land, as stipulated by International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, which was ratified by Peru in 1993. 

“The initiative should be submitted to an urgent consultation process to prevent social conflicts,” Asunta Santillán, coordinator of the indigenous social programme of Derecho, Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (DAR – Law, Environment and Natural Resources), a local NGO, told IPS. 

The bill presented to Congress on Feb. 4 would modify article 8 of law 28.223 on forced displacement, incorporating a clause calling for the authorities to reach decisions on permits for investment projects with “the greatest possible speed.” 

The bill also says the head of the Ministry of Women and Social Development (MINDES) will be in charge of authorising relocation in the case of local populations displaced as a result of “large-scale development projects justified by a higher or vital public interest.” 

Although the bill states that in case of displacement of native peasant communities, national and international standards on the question will be met, Santillán warned that, because permits for the projects are to be processed quickly under the new law, there is a risk that any consultation with local communities will be merely a meaningless administrative exercise. 

The legislative Committee on Indigenous Peoples is drafting an initial report on the bill on prior consultation based on a proposal from the Defensoría del Pueblo. 

Pedraglio said the bill on displacement and relocation expands the concept of “displaced” communities, previously restricted to those who were forced to flee their homes by the violence and human rights abuses during the two-decade armed conflict between the Maoist Shining Path (and smaller MRTA) guerrillas and government forces. 

The head of the office on displacement and peace issues in MINDES, Lizandro Tovar, told IPS that the economic growth enjoyed by Peru and other countries of Latin America over the last few years “makes it necessary to regulate this kind of internal displacement caused by economic activity, which is a new issue that raises the need to protect the rights of local populations. 

“Displacement can only be allowed to occur in cases of projects of vital interest, because unjustified forced displacement is considered a crime against humanity,” said Tovar. 

And what are the criteria used to determine which projects are “vital” enough to justify removing entire populations from their homes? The bill says the decision is up to the heads of the ministries and government offices that regulate the activities of investment projects. 

The bill does not specify who would cover the costs of relocation, which remains a pending problem in the case of Volcán’s mine in Cerro de Pasco, Gladys Huamán with the non-governmental Centro Labor told IPS. 

The owner of the company should assume the costs, as part of the investment, the activist argued. 

Furthermore, in Cerro de Pasco, “the local residents are city people,” and not only indigenous people, “which means the process of consultation is not only governed by Convention 169. How will they bring the bill introduced by the executive branch into line with existing laws and international treaties?” asked Huamán. 

Tovar also pointed to the need to reconcile national laws with international legislation. 

In the view of the experts who talked to IPS, the key lies in a transparent debate in parliament.