The recent discovery of gold deposits in northwestern Peru has split the population between those who support proposed mineral extraction and those who fear it will cause irreparable ecological damage to human health, agriculture and endangered species.
The minerals have been discovered in the agrarian valley of the Tambo Grande district, Piura state, and its surrounding dry tropical forests, part of the lower Piura River basin.
Local residents and conservationists fear the effects of exploration and mining activities by Manhattan Minerals Corp. of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and 11 other Peruvian, Canadian, Australian and Argentinian mining firms.
Considerable local protest has been manifested, and violence has broken out between mining supporters and fruit producing citizens who see their watersheds threatened with deforestation and contamination.
In February, the Manhattan Minerals project facilities near the town of Tambo Grande were vandalized. Calling the perpetrators "politically motivated," the company said, "The actions of the group are not representative of the majority of the townspeople, who have strongly supported Manhattan's efforts to bring environmentally sound economic development to the area."
The companies have already done mineral exploration in the mountainous nature reserves of Piura, according to a local former mining engineer. In addition to gold and silver, copper and zinc have been found. "These companies are waiting for Manhattan to commence Piura's ecological destruction, then they will follow suit," he predicts.
Other mining companies poised to exploit northern Peru are: Canadian firms AngloGold, Newmont, Minera Britannia Gold, and Redmond Ventures Corp.; Peruvian companies Buenaventura, Mineria Urumalqui, Minero Peru, Sur Mineria Peruana, and Cedemin; as well as Mineria North S.A. of Australia, and Minera Argento of Argentina.
These companies have claimed extensive concessions in the northern Peruvian districts of Ayabaca, Sullana, Piura, as well as Tambo Grande. They have already proved the ore samples from their explorations and await the final government decisions under the new Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, the nation's first elected indigenous president.
Thousands of people have in recent months taken to the streets of Sullana, Piura, and other cities and towns to demand the cancellation of the mining concessions permits, permits that had received support from the now discredited regime of former President Alberto Fujimori.
Critics say the proposed mines would dislocate local communities, and destroy the region's fruit and carob bean industry and its vegetable fields. Conservationists fear the scale of the mining activities would be "overwhelming, causing irreparable ecological impact."
The first open pit mine to be allowed in Piura would release large amounts of dust into the strong winds of the area, warned a source who asked not to be identified. The mines would be situated roughly 60 miles inland of South America's Pacific coast - a region which first feels the effects of the cyclical El Nino and La Nina eastern tropical Pacific weather patterns.
Scientists working for the preservation of these unique cloud forest ecosystems say water is more precious than anything.
Another source who asked not to be named, said, "For a short term profit to obliterate these areas is very unwise, so much of Peru is becoming desertified due to overgrazing and forest destruction. There are only precious tiny remnants left for the mountain tapir and water and the quality of life."
When sources of information for this article ask not to be named, they are likely recalling the March 31 death of agricultural engineer Godofredo Garcia Baca, a campaigner for environmental causes who opposed mining proposals in the Piura region.
Baca, the former executive director of the Special Project for Chira-Piura and assessor of the Municipality of Chulucana, was shot while driving to his small farm in Somate Bajo, greater Sullana, local newspapers reported.
Driving his truck accompanied by his son Ulises, Baca was shot in the chest by a hooded boy who ambushed him alongside an irrigation canal. Ulises told reporters he believes the killing was well planned and deliberate.
A long time naturalist guide in the area, who asked to remain anonymous, says Baca was murdered. "Myself, I have eluded two attempts on my life. Still I have not completed my personal investigation of the murder and the attempts in order to determine who is/are behind this." He suspects a connection with two of the mining companies, but does not have enough information to charge anyone. "I also know that other regional ecologists have been threatened," he says. To date no conservationists other than Baca have been killed.
Roughly 600,000 hectares (1.5 million acres) of the Piura region, about 60 miles inland of the Pacific Ocean, have been claimed by the transnational mining companies. Manhattan Minerals plans to exploit gold bearing ores in the Valley of San Lorenzo, extracting out of what would be the first open pit operation in the town of Tambo Grande.
Nearly all of this proposed area is a populated agricultural region. The inhabitants of these agrarian lands do not welcome the mining exploitation. But business people from Peru's capital city, Lima, see an opportunity to become rich, so support the foreigners who come bearing mining wealth.
Manhattan has claimed 87,000 hectares in 97 concessions in the area. By comparison, the cultivated region of Tambo Grande is 50,000 hectares. The mining concession includes 27 percent of the carob bean, or algorroba, forest of Piura state, an economically important, healthful and ecologically compatible agricultural product. Carob beans become a chocolate substitute in products for the health food market worldwide.
Oil exploration is coming into Piura state hand in hand with mining development. Members of the Piura based NGO Pro-Norte Peru are alarmed that near the neighboring town of Sullana an allocation for petroleum has been given to Argentina-Pluspetrol Company.
This area is inhabited by rare and endangered animals such as tigrillos, jaguars, pumas, mountain lions, crested ducks, and pelicans, nutria and crocodiles. All are listed as threatened or endangered by the IUCN - World Conservation Union and most are also listed by the government of Peru.
Concerned that the World Bank might be funding these industrial activities in northern Peru, Craig Downer of Minden, Nevada who is president of the Andean Tapir Fund and a member of the IUCN SSC Tapir Specialist Group, wrote this month to World Bank executives in Washington, DC, and Peru. "I am quite disturbed to learn of a mining project in the area of Tambo Grande and involving the highland cloud forests and paramos of the Cordillera de las Lagunillas along Ecuador's southern border. This project involves the Manhattan mining company and other Canadian companies and would disrupt a fruit and carob bean producing agrarian society."
The Manhattan Mining Corporation is not a World Bank Group sponsored project, replied Juan Blazquez, who is with Knowledge Management & Information Services, Environmentally & Socially Sustainable Development Network, at the World Bank's Washington, DC headquarters.
Graham Clow, president of Manhattan Mining, says, "We have conducted preliminary exploration over only a portion of our ground and we are presently reviewing our exploration program with the objective of becoming more aggressive." Two new "massive" deposits have been discovered this year in the Tambo Grande area, and the potential for recovering valuable gold and silver is "much larger" than the company's limited explorations have found to date.
"The size and strength of the district is obvious," said Clow. "The TG-1 gold/silver deposit will produce gold at one of the lowest cash costs in the industry and is only the start of what should develop into a long-term mining district."
Clow says the company is working with the local people to win them over to the companies' mining proposals. "We continue to work closely with the people of the community of Tambo Grande and the surrounding areas. Work continues on town planning and the design of new housing. Our communications and consultation programs with the people are designed to demonstrate that a potential long-term mining operation can be developed in a sustainable manner, compatible with the very important agricultural base of the region."
Local critics say the mining companies are "taking in" a lot of people in Tambo Grande with promises of money and minimizing the ecological impact it will cause.
One scientist says, "Politics play in decisions like this, people that are not so sophisticated, used to working in the fields, there are politicians that will promise them almost anything, but it's what happens afterwards, if they undermine their watersheds and pollute them, in the long term they will curse these people for deceiving them."
Another critic sees that if a large scale mining project in Piura is established, it will not be limited to only one mining company with only three open mines in a district, but will lead to many such open mines over a very large portion of Piura state.
"The earth disruption and environmental contamination of water, air, and soil that will result from these open pit mines, their process stores, their fumes, and their leachates, are inimical to all forms of living creatures and their anciently evolved, intricately interrelated ecosystem," he says.
The Environmental Impact Statement for the projects, by Manhattan and Pluspetrol, do not mention endangered or threatened species. Independent scientists have located occupied habitats for these species throughout northern Peru and many fall within the areas claimed by the mining companies Manhattan, Anglo Gold, and Buenaventura.
The fragile harmony around the Northwestern Biosphere Reserve will be disrupted, critics predict. The mining company Western Atlas has already penetrated several times within the Biosphere Reserve, disrupting endangered birds and animals. The authorities do not appear to be concerned.
Mineral explorations and claims have penetrated into the very headwaters of the Quiroz River in the high cloud forests and paramos around the frontier garrison town of Ayabaca. All they await is the final government decision respecting the Tambo Grande mine, before what conservationists see as violations of Piura's last nature reserves and highland source aquifers will take place.
These aquifers absorb, filter, purify, and equitably distribute pure water to all life downslope during all seasons of the year. "They constitute a natural value and service whose despoliation we Piurans simply cannot allow!" said one man.
"The magical heights around Ayabaca and including especially the Cordillera de las Lagunillas constitute one of a dozen or so sanctuaries for the intriguing mountain tapir, Tapirus pinchaque, a large mammalian herbivore," one scientist said. The tapir acts as a seed disperser in the northern Andes mountains where it evolved along with the rise of the mountane cloud forests and paramo ecosystems during the past three million years since its forebears migrated to Peru from Central America.
The mountain, or Andean, tapir is seriously threatened with extinction due to habitat destruction and hunting. It is classified as fully endangered with extinction by the World Conservation Union Species Survival Commission Tapir Specialist Group. There are estimated to be fewer than 200 of these mountaineering animals surviving Peru today and 2,500 in the northern Andes, including fragmented populations in Ecuador and Colombia.
But the mining corporations are moving ahead with their plans for mineral extraction from beneath these cloud forests. On June 27, Manhattan Minerals Corp. announced that Cedimin, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Buenaventura Group has granted a 15 month extension to Manhattan's Option Agreement on the Papayo Concessions to January 15, 2004. The area contains the intersection of two mineral bearing deposits, and the extension is the latest in a series of extensions granted over the past year.
Proclaiming substantial employment opportunities, Manhattan would employ a about 600 Peruvians for the relatively short term life of the project, estimated at between three and 15 years, depending on which mining site is being worked.
A forum for stakeholder dialogue has been established in the hope that talk will defuse the anger. On May 2, the Minister of Energy and Mines for Peru, Carlos Herrera Descalzi, the Archbishop of the Diocese of Piura and Tumbes, Monsignor Oscar Cantuarias Pastor, the leaders of the Front of Defense of Tambogrande, and Manhattan Mining endorsed a document that will establish the mechanism to inform the people of Tambo Grande and the surrounding area as to the specific details of the Environmental Impact Study and town relocation process.
Also that day, Descalzi opened the first Reconciliation Board Meeting to discuss the Tambogrande Mining Project. He said the process has been set up so that, "by means of dialogue, the people of this district have a better awareness of the project before adopting any decision over whether they accept its execution, or not."
The process of consultation will be led by the government. The Minister of Agriculture and elected representatives of the town of Tambogrande will be invited to join the discussions.
The final decision, Herrera indicated, would be taken by the people, but will have to wait for the conclusion of ongoing studies, he said, so that they might be aware of all details of the project before any decision is made.
- 183 Environment