He promised to make The Great Transformation. This “radical change” would be a “democratic alternative” to neoliberalism, which he blamed for “social inequality, deprivation of natural resources”, and a failure to generate development.
He vowed to listen to farming and indigenous communities.
He said that water was more important than gold.
One year ago, Ollanta Humala, a former army captain, was swept to electoral victory by Peru’s majority poor: the peasant farmers, urban street vendors and Amazonian indigenous peoples.
But once in power, Humala cast off his jeans and blue work shirt, donned a suit and adopted the same neoliberal policies he criticised during his campaign.
|Gold rush imperils Peru’s Amazon rainforest
His voters were not amused.
Since Humala took office, ten people have died in social conflicts in Peru, more than 120 civilians have been wounded, and states of emergency have been declared in two regions. More than 120 farming leaders and human rights defenders are reportedly under criminal investigation for their alleged involvement in protests against foreign mining companies, including one provincial and one state governor, a priest, and two Catholic Church workers.
The president’s honeymoon with voters ended abruptly in November, when the state of Cajamarca in Peru’s northern Andes declared a strike against a proposed mine. The shutdown paralysed several provinces, with schools and businesses closed and transport routes blocked.
At stake is the $4.8bn Minas Conga project, owned by Newmont Mining of Colorado. It would be the biggest mining investment in Peru’s history, paying $2bn in taxes over the mine’s lifetime. But the project would destroy four sacred lakes, the source of water for an entire farming region.
Humala has taken a hard-line on Conga, insisting it is a project of “national interest” and must go forward. The government says it needs mining revenues to fund development programmes, and has secured a $1.1bn increase in taxes from the industry.
Peruvian groups such as Red Muqui and CONACAMI, a nation-wide coalition of mining communities, say they are not against mining. They want a national zoning plan to designate areas for mining and other industry, agriculture and protected reserves. They’re also demanding a moratorium on mining in watersheds and the use of cyanide in gold mining operations.
Conga, located in a fragile watershed, has become the first major test of Humala’s government, pitting environmentalists against the mining industry, regional politicians against the president, and farmers and indigenous communities against the urban, upper-middle class (who don’t understand why the Technology Gods can’t build artificial lakes to replace real ones, as though natural ecosystems were as easy to create as images on their iPads).
During the strike in November, Humala’s prime minister, Salomon Lerner, a left-leaning businessman, was sent to negotiate. He wasn’t given much time. One day after Lerner initiated talks, the president trumped him by declaring a state of emergency. This meant that civil liberties were suspended and martial law was in effect. At least 28 people were injured during brutal police repression, including a young farmer who was reportedly paralysed by a rubber bullet fired by police.
Lerner resigned, allowing Humala to re-stock his cabinet with a decided shift to the right. The new prime minister, Oscar Valdés, was Humala’s army instructor and reportedly owns a mining concession. Peru’s National Intelligence Service is headed by Victor Gómez, another of the president’s old army buddies and former head of security [Sp] at the Antamina copper mine.
The president’s national security advisor is Adrian Villafuerte, an ex-colonel with alleged ties to Vladimiro Montesinos, the notorious security adviser to former president Alberto Fujimori. Both Fujimori and Montesinos are currently in jail for human rights abuses and corruption.
Humala himself was an army captain during Fujimori’s rule, and had been accused of crimes such as torture and forced disappearances when he was in charge of the Madre Mia military base. The case against Humala was shelved, but human rights groups in Peru are not satisfied and want to see the former captain on trial.
The Conga uprising isn’t the government’s only worry. Humala has faced demonstrations against a proposed hydro-electric plant in the south, uprisings against illegal miners in the jungle region of Madre de Dios and Andahuaylas, and protests against a prison expansion in Arequipa.
In late May, Humala declared his second state of emergency, this time in the southern Andean province of Espinar. On May 21, farming leaders declared a strike to pressure the Tintaya copper mine to negotiate a new social contract. Leaders want improved environmental standards, independent monitoring and increased funds for development projects.
|Many Peruvians oppose the Minas Conga project, the biggest mining investment in the country’s history
[Photo courtesy of Grufides]
Thousands of unarmed civilians blocked access routes to the mine, owned by Xstrata of Switzerland. In response, the government sent in hundreds of special police commandos trained in counter-insurgency and anti-terrorism. These heavily armed officers were charged with “subduing” peasant farmers, teachers, lawyers and other urban professionals.
Two civilians were killed (one of them, a school teacher, leaves behind a pregnant widow), two remain hospitalised in a coma, and more than 100 people were wounded. Police allegedly detained 22 people without arrest warrants inside the mine’s compound, including two employees of the human rights office operated by the local Catholic bishop.
After several days in captivity, the detained persons were freed, but many say they suffered torture. Rather than investigating these allegations, judiciary authorities have charged the detainees with crimes related to terrorism.
In an attempt to end the conflict, Oscar Mollohuanca, Espinar’s provincial governor, asked the national government to mediate talks with the mining company. The following day, while Mollohuanca met with local leaders to plan the negotiations, about 50 police commandos reportedly burst into his office in a scene reminiscent of the reality show Cops.
The governor was arrested and imprisoned in Ica, a coastal town 800 kilometres from Espinar. He was sentenced to five months in jail while judicial authorities investigated charges against him related to the strike. Lawyers from Peruvian human rights groups appealed his imprisonment on the grounds that he had not been given a trial and was a prisoner of conscience.
Amnesty International launched a campaign demanding Mollohuanca’s release, and citizens groups across Peru held vigils and protests. On June 13, two weeks after his arrest, Mollohuanca was freed on conditional release. The criminal investigation against the governor continues, however.
The national and international outcry against the human rights abuses in Espinar has brought some positive results in recent days. Peru’s Congress has now formed a commission to investigate possible environmental contamination from the mine, and Xstrata has agreed to negotiate with provincial leaders.
In a public statement, Xstrata “profoundly lamented the acts of violence” in Espinar, and insisted they have always been open to dialogue. The company claims to adhere to all the environmental requirements “established by legislation”, and pledged to “take part in all the environmental studies that may be required”.
But just as the Espinar conflict was beginning to cool, a new strike began in the state of Cajamarca on May 31 to protest against the Conga mining project.
After the 2011 strike, the Peruvian government commissioned an independent review of the company’s environmental study by European auditors. The review recommended several changes to the company’s plan, such as leaving two of the four lakes intact and increasing the amount of water planned for artificial resevoirs.
Newmont defended its original study, saying it had been approved by Peru’s previous government and would provide farming communities with year-round water supplies. Company officials said they were “evaluating” the recommendations, but that if the changes proved too costly, they would “reallocate” their capital to projects in other countries.
Cajamarca’s leaders accuse the company of using scare tactics to force Humala to cave in and allow them to proceed without following the recommendations. In any case, the state governor and a coalition of civil society groups say that preserving two out of four lakes is not enough: they remain firmly opposed to the mine.
Once again, thousands of citizens took to the streets throughout the state in protest.
President Humala vowed to “restore order”. Police repression in Cajamarca over the past two weeks has resulted in more than 60 wounded civilians. Since the conflict began last year, at least 100 protesters have been charged with crimes under tough new legislation. Once-minor offences such as blocking a road have been turned into criminal acts punishable with 20-year prison sentences.
|In Cajamarca, about 60 protesters have been wounded by police [GRUFIDES]
Human rights groups say Humala is criminalising social protest, but the president rejects these charges, saying he is merely “defending the rule of law”. The president has also accused protest leaders of being part of a political conspiracy to overthrow his government.
Father Marco Arana, one of the protest leaders, says the government finds it easier to look for scapegoats than “to admit it has a widespread social problem”. According to Peru’s government ombudsman’s office, there are 171 “active social conflicts” across the nation, most centred on mining, petroleum and hydroelectric projects.
Humala also faces opposition from within his own ranks. Last week, four Congress members resigned from the president’s party, accusing him of abandoning election promises.
The president tried to put on a happy face and insisted that the resignations would “strengthen” his congressional block.
Denial aside, it’s clear that Ollanta Humala faces a crisis on several fronts. But with less than a year in office, political analysts say he still has the chance to make amends.
Gustavo Gorriti, a renowned Peruvian journalist, wrote an impassioned letter to the president last week.
“You were elected to be the champion of democracy, and not plutocracy, Mr President,” wrote Gorriti. “There’s still time to adjust your path. I hope you do so. Your success would be a triumph for all of us.”