|Injured protesters were brought to hospital after clashing with police during protests in Juliaca [Reuters]|
Thousands of protesters opposed to mining and energy projects in southern Peru have taken over an airport as the government struggled to restore calm a day after five died in a clash with police.
Officials said approximately 3,000 protesters had occupied the runway at the Juliaca airport in the region of Puno on Saturday. Several hundred police officers retreated to avoid another clash after weeks of protests over a controversial Canadian mining project.
Peru’s outgoing president, Alan Garcia, whose tenure has been marred by conflicts over natural resources that have killed nearly 100 people over the past three years, said the mostly indigenous protesters were making a show of force to get a slice of power in the government of president-elect Ollanta Humala, who takes office on July 28.
“There are dark political interests here that are demanding power,” Garcia told reporters. “What they are trying to do is pressure the next government of Ollanta Humala by issuing threats and forcefully demonstrating.”
Humala, a leftist former army officer, campaigned on promises to end bitter conflicts that pit poor towns against mining and oil companies. Humala has promised to govern as a moderate, but his traditional support base is in Peru’s poor southern provinces.
Protesters often mobilise to protect scarce water supplies, what they see as ancestral lands, or complain about potential pollution from new mines.
Often times they also demand direct economic benefits from mining and oil projects, which have helped turn the Andean nation’s economy into one of the world’s fastest-growing but left a third of its people in poverty.
On Friday, Fernando Gala, the deputy mining minister, announced that the government had revoked a 2007 decree granting approval to the British Columbia-based Bear Creek Mining Corp to mine silver at Santa Ana.
The decree was required because the mine site is within 80km of the international border with Bolivia.
“It has been agreed to repeal the authorisation,” said Yohny Lescano, a politician who participated in a government dialogue on Thursday with protesters over the Santa Ana project.
Bear Creek Chief Executive Andrew Swarthout told Reuters news agency that the company would sue the government to get its concession back and mining analysts have said the government’s move could lead foreign companies to think contracts are not respected in Peru.
But Garcia said stability and social peace was more important. In the days before the clash at the airport, the first time the protests turned deadly, protesters had set fire to government buildings in the area.
“I think there are more important objectives and the first one is to guarantee a peaceful transition and a trouble-free start to the government of Ollanta Humala,” Garcia told reporters.
About 5,000 protesters, mostly indigenous Aymara people, have descended on Puno over the past few weeks to demand concessions be revoked for all mining companies, not just Bear Creek’s Santa Ana project, ostensibly over concerns about potential pollution, as well as to protest over a proposed hydroelectric project on the Inambari river.
Caretas magazine reported this week, however, that wildcat miners are interested in Bear Creek’s concession and are working alongside protesters.
Locals think the land has valuable gold deposits, in addition to silver.
Bear Creek, whose share price has sunk during the protests, had planned to produce silver starting in 2012 in Santa Ana, located some 1,385 km from Lima. The mine has reserves of 63.2 million ounces of silver.