Farmers, miners face off in Peru's land of plenty
BY KEVIN G. HALL
Herald World Staff
TAMBOGRANDE, Peru -- In this lush region where Peru borders Ecuador, farmers grow papayas the size of basketballs and mangoes bigger than softballs. Beneath their feet lie huge deposits of gold and other precious metals.
Rather than dig up these riches, farmers are waging a fight -- sometimes violent and touched by murder and intrigue -- to prevent a Canadian company from excavating the fertile farmland of the San Lorenzo Valley for a huge open-pit mine.
On March 31, the leading voice against Vancouver-based Manhattan Minerals Corp.'s mining plans was mysteriously shot to death, a murder reminiscent of the 1988 killing of Chico Mendes, a Brazilian union official whose death spotlighted the conflict between rubber tappers and landowners in the Amazon.
The fight in northern Peru is not just about mining and agriculture, but over globalization and the rights of local communities when their governments turn to international investors in search of foreign currency earnings.
Many versions of this struggle are playing out in poor countries around the world, and the fight in Tambogrande shows why free trade and globalization have become such a hard sell in some places.
``Twenty-five hundred rural communities in our country today are directly affected by mining activities'' or are on lands mining companies own the rights to explore, said Alejandro Silva, a Catholic Church lawyer.
Mining exports last year brought Peru more than $3.2 billion,
nearly half of its export earnings and a much-needed boost to a standstill
economy. During the 1990s,
President Alberto Fujimori drew praise from U.S. policymakers for free-market reforms that included mining exploration rights, or concessions, throughout Peru.
In the Piura region of northern Peru alone, those concessions covered nearly one million acres. But unlike concessions for remote regions of the Andes, the Piura region has productive farms and no tradition of mining.
Farmers in the San Lorenzo Valley want it to stay that way, and
they think they should have a say. They export roughly $40 million in mangoes
annually and generate
domestic and foreign farm sales of $100 million each year. Farming also generates more jobs, though mining brings in more foreign income.
Farm owners fear that mining will pollute their land and destroy
their underground water supplies. Tenant farmers and many residents expect
to be displaced as the
miners set up shop.
``We reject all these mining companies that come here to Tambogrande, because they will do the same as Manhattan. They will pollute and destroy the agriculture that sustains us,'' said José Hernández Panta, 45, a schoolteacher in the town at the center of controversy.
Manhattan Minerals' president in Peru, Roberto Obradovich, denies that the impact will be that severe. He said the company would deploy high-tech anti-pollution systems and, in exchange for moving an estimated 1,600 families in the town of 16,000 to 20,000 people, would pave roads and build new and better homes, schools and clinics for the displaced.
Manhattan holds three exploration blocks in northern Peru, totaling nearly 215,000 acres. It has spent more than $55 million and expects to invest more than $300 million to develop mines in the Tambogrande area.
The deposit is estimated to contain one million ounces of gold
and 12.4 million ounces of silver, and to have huge potential for copper
and zinc, making it one of the
leading prospective mine sites in the world.
``The geological merits are very strong,'' said Glenn Brown, a mining analyst for Toronto's Haywood Securities. ``The problem is not below ground; it is above ground.''
In February, the dispute turned violent as angry farmers torched Manhattan's field offices, damaged equipment and burned model homes like the ones pledged to be built for displaced families.
On March 31, a masked gunman killed Godofredo García with a single bullet to the heart while García was traveling along a dirt road near his 200-acre farm.
García was an agronomist, president of the Peruvian Mango Growers Association and a leading voice against the mines. His murder has generated even more protest.
With scant evidence, police have charged neighbor Meléndez Zapata Atoche with García's murder, saying robbery was the motive. García's supporters question why a masked robber would kill the passenger instead of trying to incapacitate the driver.
``We know well who killed him. We just don't have the proof in our hands,'' Manuel Calderón Chunga shouted during a raucous meeting June 22 of farmers from the village of San Lorenzo, who voted to have no dialogue at all with Manhattan Minerals.
Manhattan's Obradovich denied that the company was involved. ``Unfortunately, it is a subject that [the farmers] have politicized,'' he said.
Special correspondent Lucien Chauvin contributed to this report.