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PERU
Environmentalists under threat
Hildegard Willer
2/8/2007
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Activists risk their lives to demand environmental protection from mining giants.

The security firm dubbed it “Operation Devil.” In December 2006, the Peruvian daily La Republica revealed that a security firm had launched a spy and intimidation operation against environmentalists in the northern Peruvian city of Cajamarca.

The firm, C & G Investigaciones, was spying on and filming staff and sympathizers of the organization Grufides, a nongovernmental environmental organization that promotes sustainable development. The firm reportedly handed over the results of the spying to the security firm Forza, which provides services to Yanacocha, a subsidiary of the Denver-based Newmont Mining Corp., which runs Latin America’s largest gold mine, 14 kilometers (9 miles) from Cajamarca.

The firm had police-like files on the environmentalists, including Catholic priest and Grufides leader, Marco Arana, who was dubbed “el diablo,” or “the devil.”

“The object of this operation is personal defamation as well as intimidation,” Arana said.

Arana and his colleague attorney Mirtha Vásquez have been alerting the public to environmental damage caused by the Yanacocha mine for years.

Violent clashes between Cajamarca residents and Yanacocha erupted in 2004, when the company attempted to explore Cerro Quilish, a mountain rich in gold, but also a key source of water for the town ( LP, Sept. 22, 2004 and Oct. 18, 2006). Protesters succeeded in convincing Yanacocha to back away from the project, but the conflicts are far from over.

Last August, campesino Isidro Llanos was gunned down in clashes between the company and residents of the nearby town of Combayo, following the mine’s announcement that it planned to expand operations in the area.

Hostilities toward Arana and Vásquez are part of a string of 16 cases of harassment and threats against environmentalists registered by the National Coordinating Committee of Human Rights, the majority of which have not been made public until now. Eleven cases alone were registered in La Oroya, home to the Doe Run smelter, and one of the world’s most polluted towns ( LP, March 8, 2006).

The Doe Run smelter releases 900 metric tons of surfur dioxide into the air every day. According to a 2004 Health Ministry study, 99.9 percent of the 788 children living in Old La Oroya, the part of the city closest to the smelter, has blood lead levels higher than the about permitted by the World Health Organization.

A common scenario

Other organizations have reported similar incidents. According to the National Coordinating Committee of Communities Affected by Mining, known as CONACAMI, some 600 environmental and social activists have been threatened and pursued, while the National Radio Coordinating Committee said nine radio stations in northeastern Peru — an area where conflicts between mining companies and the surrounding communities are common — have been threatened.

“Now you know what’s going to happen,” was one of the telephone threats that Yolanda Zurita received when she served as coordinator of the La Oroya Movement for Health. Anonymous phone calls, public defamations on local radio stations, flyers with phrases such as “People like Yolanda Zurita must disappear,” were among the reported threats.
Zurita, a Catholic social worker from La Oroya, said she felt obligated to leave her position. “We were afraid that they were going to threaten other members of the parish,” she said. “We can’t fight the people with the people.”

Though these threats were reported to authorities, no one was arrested in connection with the crimes, because Doe Run has divided La Oroya. The company is the city’s largest employer, providing jobs to 3,000 people there.

Similar tactics

These tactics, to oppose the right to work to the right to a clean environment, also has been used in Cajamarca.

“Father Arana, let us work,” Arana was told.

“Little by little, we are seeing a pattern behind all of these cases,” said Pablo Rojas, executive secretary of the National Coordinating Committee of Human Rights. “One consists of contracting private security companies to investigate environmental organizations … for the dirty war.” In Arana’s case, a security company whose founding dates back to notorious Vladimiro Montesinos’ time as security advisor under ex-President Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000).

“There is a plan to avoid action by those opposed to mining, to define them as a danger to the investment and development of the country,” says Rojas. “We are faced with a level of hostility and intimidation that we’ve never seen before.”

For Rojas, it was no accident that the spying on the environmentalists coincided with President Alan García’s signing of a controversial law that would allow greater state control over the activities and financing of nongovernmental organizations.

“We know for sure that there was strong lobbying by the mining companies in relation to the new law (that states) the Peruvian International Cooperation Agency will supervise the projects and funds nongovernmental organizations accept,” he says.

Until now, Peruvian authorities have done little to provide these environmentalists with security. There is no protection system, adds Rojas. “The authorities play into the mining companies’ hands.”
A Cajamarca judge dismissed Arana’s case Jan. 25, saying that the alleged spying was actually just a journalistic investigation.

 


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