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PERU
Swallowed whole
Leslie Josephs
8/31/2009
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Expanding base metal mine to destroy city center with no plan in sight for population´s relocation.

Cerro de Pasco was born as a mining town more than four centuries ago. If all goes according to plan, it will die a mining town as well.

Peru´s government has approved a plan to move this city of some 70,000 people, where a massive open-pit base metals mine –already the culprit behind significant health and environmental damage – is scheduled to undergo a major expansion. It would be the first time a government would relocate a city of this size in Latin America.

Pollution, health and safety hazards – already notable – would only worsen when Volcan Compañía Minera, one of Peru´s top base metal producers, moves forward with the extension plan that will literally swallow the city´s historic quarter, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses to reach the lead and zinc reserves beneath the soil.

Volcan´s zinc pit dominates this bleak Andean city – one of the highest in the world – in every sense: economically, health-wise, and most visibly: geographically.

The gaping pit, which Volcan has operated for a decade, is a 1.8-kilometer-gash in the middle of the city. Homes, rattled and damaged, their walls cracked by daily underground explosions in the mine at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday to Saturday, sit along the edges, separated from the mine at some points by just a chain-link fence. Children who play next to the mine´s slag heaps have blood-lead levels above accepted international limits. Water is limited – only available for a few hours a day to residents here.

Production expanding
In the first half of this year, Volcan mined more than 51,700 metric tons of zinc from the pit, becoming one of the country´s top producers of the metal.

But the company is thinking of the future. Its proposed “Plan L” will increase the mine´s area by 11.4 hectares. It is projected to swallow the city´s central district of Chaupimarca, including its church and central square, forcing out at least 5,000 people. A 2007 study by the US Center for Disease Control found that that 42 percent of children there had blood-lead levels surpassing World Health Organization´s acceptable limit of 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood.

Cerro de Pasco is an accidental city, never intended for urban dwelling. Mining here dates back to the 16th century, where precious metals were mined by the Incas, and then expanded by the Spanish, who gave it the name Ciudad Real de Minas, or “Royal City of Mines.” US-mining company Cerro de Pasco Corporation began mining here at the turn of the 20th century, but state-owned mining company Centromin Peru took over during the 1968-80 military dictatorship.

Volcan took over the mine from now-defunct Centromin in 1999.

Industrialized mining has left a serious mark on this town. Local campesino farmers have complained that the toxic waters and grass have killed their livestock, which eat grass around massive, rust-colored, oxidized lakes, waste from the multi-billion-dollar mine.

First to go
Quiulacocha, a campesino community of mainly sheep and alpaca farmers, whose animals feed next to the bright orange tailings dam, is the most severely affected sites in the area.

According to a 2005 study by the local health agency, more than 89 percent of the children there had blood-lead levels above WHO standards. The study found unsafe levels of other heavy metals as well.

The move, which is expected to take over a decade, will likely start with Quiulacocha.

“This is the place we´ve always lived, but we just can´t anymore” said Leonardo Santiago Rojas, president of the community. “We´re completely intoxicated by lead, arsenic.”

Pollution and health damage near mines is nothing new for Peru. To the west on the Carretera Central, Peru´s main east-west highway, is La Oroya, where a polymetallic smelter, the town´s main employer, is blamed for dangerous environmental practices. Studies have shown 99 percent of the children in the old section of La Oroya have blood-lead levels exceeding WHO limits. High blood-lead levels can cause learning disabilities and neurological damage. Children face a special risk because their bodies absorb the lead faster than adults.

In the Junin department, also part of Peru´s central Andean mineral belt, Chinese state-owned company Chinalco, is planning to finance the move of some 5,000 residents in Morococha before it starts operations in its $2.5 billion copper mine, one of the country´s largest.

But Volcan´s expansion plan has taken precedence over the population. Peru´s Congress only approved a law to relocate the population more than 30 kilometers away last December once the government had already approved the expansion project.

Now the question remains: who will pay for the move, a study for which is estimated at some 8 million soles ($2.7 million). Earlier this year, president of the Pasco department, Félix Rivera estimated the move will cost 1.5 billion soles ($500 million). It is not yet clear who will foot the bill for the move.

“The state has a historic debt to Pasco,” said Dimas Peña Armas, president of a civic organization of residents affected by the mine´s expansion. “The state has never invested in this mining zone directly.”

“We know the company, Volcan, never wanted to assume [responsibility],” he added. “The state has an obligation to make them do so.”

“Almost the entire population of Quiulacocha is contaminated,” says Dionisio Travesaño Atencio, a 50-year-old resident of Quiulacocha, who runs a small mechanic shop. “They always say, ´we´re going to move you, we´re going to move you,´ but they haven´t done anything.”

Earlier this year, Peru´s government set up a multi-sector commission that includes local community members as well as state health and environment officials. But the relocation site has not even been established. Meanwhile, the company is pushing forward with its plan though houses near mouth of the pit have already been deemed uninhabitable.

But some do not want to leave.

“It affects the vendors,” said a Cerro de Pasco native and street vendor, who refused to give her name.

“If we move somewhere else, what would we live on?” said the mother of four, selling olives and fried, shredded coconut, and sugarcane juice on a Sunday morning.

For Percy Suárez Minaya, president of the Civic Defense Front, a local citizens group, residents must leave the area, and hope they will have a better quality of life in the new site.

“It´s not possible to continue living like this,” he said, over the constant drone of the mine that reverberates throughout the city 24 hours a day here. “It´s a crime to live here.”
—Latinamerica Press.


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Cerro de Pasco residents live dangerously close to a massive open-pit mine. (Photo: Leslie Josephs)
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