9 Jun 2013

Standing up to big gold

On July 3, 2012, Peruvian police opened fire on a public demonstration in the Andean town of Celendin, killing four protesters. José Sánchez was shot in the throat; Eleuterio García in the chest; Faustino Silva in the head. César Medina — the youngest among the dead at only 16 years old — was also shot in the head. Dozens more were seriously injured, and several arrested without cause. They were among 3,000 people rallying against the Minas Conga, a proposed gold mine that threatens to contaminate their community’s water supply.

The government immediately called a state of emergency in Celendin and two other provinces, suspending civil liberties and mobilizing riot police and soldiers to the region. But the very next morning, police and soldiers again fired at unarmed anti-Conga demonstrators in the nearby town of Bambamarca, this time killing Joselito Vásquez, 26, and injuring and arresting several others.

News of the violence sparked indignation in Peru and abroad. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, along with a host of other human rights groups, condemned the brutality, calling for a thorough investigation.

The soaring price of gold over the past several years has sparked a surge in mining in Peru and elsewhere in the developing world. Mining activity has been linked to water shortages, the contamination of lakes, rivers and land, and the loss of fragile ecosystems. It has been connected to a spike in human rights violations: those who speak out against the mines in their own backyards too often face unlawful imprisonment, eviction, threats, violence and even death. Thanks to a growing global movement made up of Indigenous communities, human rights advocates, independent journalists, church leaders and other concerned citizens, mining-related abuses are beginning to face international scrutiny.

In a February report, the Peruvian government’s ombuds office counted 147 ongoing socio-environmental conflicts across the country and cited mining as the leading cause. And yet, Peru’s mineral wealth and mining-friendly laws continue to make this Andean nation a top destination for international mining corporations — many of them Canadian.

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