An indigenous group with a millenarian bond to their land are sitting on large reserves of a precious metal. A massive multinational corporation coming from a foreign land with the intention of getting access to the said metal at whatever cost. A conflict that has left people dead and that has the potential to take even more lives - indigenous lives, of course - destroying the environment in the process.
If the story rings any bells, it is because it does. But you would be forgiven for thinking we are talking about Pandora, and the RDA Corporation's relentless search for unobtanium under the sacred soil of the Na'vi, in the 2009 film Avatar, directed by James Cameron.
As a matter of fact, we are talking about the Minas Conga project in the region of Yanacocha in Peru, and about the Colorado-based Newmont Mining Corporation's persistent attempts at removing the local indigenous communities, and changing and contaminating their ancestral landscape in the process, all to expand their gold extraction operations in the area. Sadly enough, the entire world knows about Pandora, but not very many know about Yanacocha.
The new gold rush
With the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008 gold suddenly became one of the most precious commodities in the international markets. Not surprisingly, this led directly to an increase in gold mining worldwide, and to an expansion of the operations - both legal and illegal - of multinational corporations, often with questionable human rights and environmental records.
In neighbouring Colombia, an estimated 5,000 children are now daily engaged in illegal gold mining works often under the most treacherous conditions. Also in Colombia, former paramilitary groups have now eagerly taken on the extraction of this precious metal as a form of supplementing their drug-related incomes. The situation is not much better in Ecuador, where it is only through the fundraising efforts of international NGOs and individuals that the national park of Yasuni and the indigenous communities that inhabit it, have been spared the destruction that open air mining brings.
The case of Newmont is not unique. Other gold mining companies, mostly with headquarters in the US and Canada, have been repeatedly accused of manipulating local politics, of ignoring the interests of local communities standing in their way, and of destroying and polluting the environment across Latin America and other parts of the world.
Barrick Gold, for example, has been accused of dumping toxic substances directly into the riverine system in Porgera, Indonesia. Although the Canadian-based company has been successful in rebutting local demonstrations, the magnitude of the damage caused to the environment has been so noticeable that the Norwegian Pension Fund felt necessary to exclude the company from their investment plans as a penalty. Another Canadian-based company, Gold Corp, has been at the end of similar accusations in relation to Marlin Gold Mine in Guatemala.
Although Newmont is then hardly an exception, what makes it special is their talent in manipulating public opinion. Over the years, they have dodged public demonstrations and have taken on local politicians and community leaders who have questioned their actions in the area.
Newmont also has dubious records in other parts of the world. In the US, they were accused of taking years of questionable tax deductions from the state of Nevada. In Ghana, their invasive Akyem project, for which they were given the 2009 Public Eye "Hall of Shame" award, led to accusations of the destruction of unique natural habitats, the pollution of soils and rivers, and the displacement and resettlement of people. All facts that Newmont, naturally, dispute.
Minas Conga project
Newmont's involvement in Yanacocha is not new. One of the two largest and more productive gold mines in the world, with a number of open pits across approximately 25,000 hectares of this Peruvian region, the potential of extracting yet more gold in Yanacocha is not to be overlooked.
For almost two decades, Newmont has linked up with Peruvian companies, including Minas Buenaventura, to extract gold from the soil of Cajamarca region, where Yanacocha is located. Daily dynamite blasts loosen the rock, which is then sprayed with a solution of cyanide. The process, predictably, is far from being environmentally friendly, producing a number of contaminant agents, including mercury, cadmium and arsenic.
Although Newmont's own environmental impact assessment states that their projects are not causing irreparable damage to the local ecosystems, their opinion is questionable, especially in light of their previous record in the area.
Back in June 2000, one of Newmont's trucks spilled between 80 and 151kgs of mercury just outside the village of Choropampa. The locals, completely unaware of the danger and thinking they had found some valuable metal, gathered the mercury and took it to their homes. Only a few days later, between 50 and 70 residents, including several children, showed symptoms of mercury poisoning and had to be hospitalised. Newmont, predictably, denied failing to inform the locals about the accident and the danger they had been exposed to.
Newmont also failed, at least initially, to recognise the local population as indigenous in their 1999 environmental impact study. By doing so, they probably hoped to get around Peru’s strict legislation protecting indigenous communities from enterprises such as theirs.
These early signs caused the locals to distrust the Newmont and helped to create a state of awareness that was recently revived when the Minas Conga project was approved.
The escalation of the conflict in the past year is a result of a plan to open a new pit with disastrous consequences for the indigenous communities and for the local ecosystem. Particularly problematic has been the idea of drying out four lagoons and replacing them with four water reservoirs, a move that would certainly lead to increasing problems with drinking water supplies and to the extermination of the flora and fauna in the lagoons. There are well founded fears that the soils in the region may never be fertile again and that the contamination may even reach the Maranon river, an important affluent of the Amazon.
Given that, according to Newmont's own assessment, the mining industry has hardly brought any improvement to the locals in the area before, the new project has understandably been received with fierce resistance.
Rather than engaging openly with the indigenous communities, who have lived in the region for millennia, Newmont has lobbied the government, accused local politicians of opposing Newmont's interests, and has even gone so far as to dismiss opposition to the project as emanating mostly from the most uneducated portion of the communities.
The series of demonstrations that began last year against Newmont’s Minas Conga project has, for now, ushered encouraging results for the locals. The Peruvian government has recently come to the realisation that the conflict associated with the project is having an adverse effect on local businesses in the area, and has agreed to call it off, at least for now.
A recent poll conducted in the Cajamarca region showed that 78 per cent of the people opposed it. Only a few days ago, Diario Correo, one of the main newspapers of Peru referred to the project as "dead" and "collapsed". It seems that the communities, as in Avatar, have won the first round.
Nevertheless, as in Avatar, sequels are likely to happen. All that gold won't be sitting there for long without greedy multinationals attempting to extract it, even against the will of the local populations. By all the means available to them, they must remain alert for the time when the big machines show up again.
Manuel Barcia is Deputy Director at the Institute for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Leeds.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.