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PERU
Mangoes vs. Gold
Mary Powers
11/27/2003
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Tambogrande residents mobilize to defend their farming livelihood in northern Peru.

Thousands of residents of Tambogrande blocked the highway into the northern Peruvian town and marched to the regional capital, Piura, as part of a three-day stoppage to protest Vancouver-based Manhattan Minerals’s plans to develop an open-pit gold-copper mine they say would destroy their farming livelihood.

The demonstrations against Manhattan in the first week of November led to the suspension of public hearings scheduled in Lima and Piura called to review Manhattan’s Environmental Impact Study (EIA).

By law, the Ministry of Energy and Ministry must hold the hearings before approving the EIA. In turn, Manhattan must secure approval of the EIA before it can move forward with the mine’s development. It was not clear if there would be sufficient time to reschedule the hearings before Manhattan’s May deadline for exercising its option. At each stage, the process gives the company and the government respectively periods of 60 days to respond to observations and corrections made to the study.

The regional government, meanwhile, is likely to issue a regional ordinance declaring the San Lorenzo valley, where Tambogrande is located, a zone of exclusive use for agriculture and livestock grazing. Simultaneously, a congressman from the region has proposed a bill to make the valley a protected zone.

"The only thing this regional government has done is defend agriculture," Cesar Trelles Lara, president of the Piura region, said on receiving Tambogrande residents in Piura during the demonstrations. He also called on President Alejandro Toledo to make good on his promise to provide more technical assistance and credits to farmers in his region. The San Lorenzo valley is a major producer of lemons and mangoes for export.

"Agriculture yes, mine no," read banners held by protesters who showed up at dawn on Nov. 5 to block several points on the road that runs from Sullana to the Ecuadoran province of Loja. The 72-hour stoppage, aimed at assuring that public hearings on the EIA would be scrapped, was organized by the Defense Front of San Lorenzo Valley and Tambogrande.

The Energy and Mines Ministry in late October had announced the cancellation of the hearing scheduled in Tambogrande, alleging a lack of security for ministry officials. A week later, it was forced to call off a hearing in Lima when the Engineers Guild withdrew permission to use its headquarters. Demonstrators dressed up as lemons had appeared the night before at the guild’s office to protest the planned hearing. On Nov. 6, the National University of Piura also advised the ministry that the hearing planned that day in its auditorium would also be called off. Hundreds of Tambogrande residents had flooded onto the campus to demonstrate their opposition.

Manhattan, a so-called junior mining company whose only project is Tambogrande, has called on the government to reschedule the hearings.

"The mining project will not be developed if the company does not count on the acceptance of the population of Tambogrande for this purpose, even if the Environmental Impact Study is approved by the competent authority," Americo Villafuerte, president of Manhattan’s Peruvian subsidiary Manhattan Sechura Compania Minera, told a congressional sub-commission on Nov. 12.

"Our commitment is to obtain the free and voluntary acceptance of the Tambogrande population for the development of the project," he added.

Over the last four years, Tambogrande has been the focus of a heated debate over whether a mine can be developed without causing harm to the environment and the farm industry (LP, July 31, 2000).

Peru has a long mining tradition and minerals account for about half of the country’s overall exports. Most of the mines, however, are located in the Andean highlands, where the development of other economic activities is often difficult.

The San Lorenzo valley, located in a zone of so-called dry tropical forest, has thrived thanks to a World Bank-financed irrigation system built in the 1960s.The valley produces 40 percent of Peru’s lemons and mangoes, the latter of which earn some US$20 million annually in foreign exchange.

The rich polymetallic deposit strides the town of 17,000 residents, most of whom work on farms nearby. In order to develop the deposit and carve out the open pit, about half of those people would have to be moved to a zone on the outskirts of the town.

In June 2002, the residents of Tambogrande, in a non-binding referendum sponsored by the municipal government, voted overwhelmingly against plans to develop a mine in the area.

"The opposition of the population of Tambogrande to mining development and (support for) the maintenance of their farming livelihood is very clear," Fabiola Morales, the congresswoman who presided the sub-commission designated in January to review the EIA said in her final report.

She added: "A large number of specialists have provided solid and justifiable reasons of the inconveniences and impacts (of the mining project) ranging from moderate to serious, even high risk, which led them to describe the project as unviable."

She cited the fragility of the dry tropical forest ecosystem, possible pollution to the Piura River and other water sources in the arid zone as well as the expected impact of rains on the tailings dam, particularly during the El Nino climatic phenomenon.

The government, which owns a 25 percent share in the $405 million project, is between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, officials have said the project, which Manhattan has said will observe the strictest environmental standards, will not be developed against the population’s will. On the other, the Energy and Mines Ministry is legally obliged to hold the hearings as a guarantee that the investor can adequately inform the populace on the project‘s environmental impact. Some reports said if the hearings were not to take place, Manhattan might try to seek economic compensation from the Peruvian State.

"The problem is that the population is opposed to the celebration of the hearings," Morales said. "In their eyes, the ministry, which is on both sides of table, has lost credibility. What we need is a strong, autonomous environmental body that can review these studies with objectivity.


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