PERU: Mineral-Rich Highlands Lack Legal Protection

  • by Milagros Salazar* - Tierramérica (lima)
  • Inter Press Service
  • Tierramérica

Maps of mining areas and fragile ecosystems overlap in this South American nation with vast mineral wealth. Environmental organisations are calling on the government to issue new land-use regulations that would establish zones of exclusion for mining.

The total area covered by mining rights in Peru nearly doubled between 2006 and 2009, from 11.6 million hectares to about 20 million.

As a result, more than 40 percent of the highland moors, known in Spanish as 'páramos,' of the northern region of Piura have been turned over to mining projects, according to the government's mining institute INGEMMET and the non-governmental U.S.-based Mountain Institute.

The páramos, which act as sponges, and the cloud forests of the Andes -- both located between 1,500 and 2,500 metres above sea level -- are important sources of water for Piura's arid areas.

During the dry season, the highland plateau drains its water slowly, thus maintaining life in the valley, regulating the water cycle and supplying the farms below. The for-export lemon and mango crops provide livelihoods for thousands in Piura.

About 14.9 million hectares are under concession, according to INGEMMET figures published in May. Currently, just 0.69 percent of that area is being mined, and 0.63 percent is being explored for minerals.

However, complaints have already been filed about water contamination and land disputes have erupted.

'If the exploitation of a small mine already causes these serious social conflicts, what will happen with the rest of the concessions? This cannot be left in the private sector's hands; the government has to intervene to regulate land use,' Rommy Torres, of the non-governmental Cities for Life Forum, told Tierramérica.

In this country, more than 60 percent of the social conflicts are related to environmental problems, according to the Office of the People's Defender (ombudsman).

In Piura, the problems revolve around the Zijin Consortium, based on Chinese capital, which is exploring the Río Blanco for copper. Around the area to be mined are páramos and the Quiroz and Chinchipe rivers, which flow through Piura and Cajamarca provinces.

At the request of the Muqui Action Network, an umbrella of some 20 institutions that support the communities in defending their rights, the Cities for Life Forum is drafting a proposal for land-use regulations.

The initiative is intended to integrate the local, regional and national policies, avoid isolated decision-making, and ensure that the government entities involved -- like the ministries of Environment and Agriculture -- establish basic criteria to determine which economic activities are feasible in each territory.

The Executive Branch is also drawing up a land regulation proposal, which is to incorporate opinions from civil society.

The Muqui Network wants the government to create a sub-ministry with the authority to implement the policies.

But what should be protected? In Torres's view, the answer is clear: glaciers, river sources, zones at risk of natural disaster, fragile Amazonian ecosystems, and land with high agro-ecological value.

Most of Peru's official protected natural areas do not have an overall plan that identifies their potential economic activities.

In 2007, the Constitutional Court ruled that such plans are necessary to determine the compatibility of natural resource exploration and exploitation with conservation.

'The idea is not to eliminate mining, but rather break down the productive scheme in order to get a cross-section view for territorial management,' José de Echave, an economist with the non-governmental group CooperAcción, told Tierramérica.

Only in the regions of San Martín and Amazonas, in the north, and Cuzco, in the south, has economic-ecological zoning taken place -- the step prior to territorial planning.

'The central government prefers disorder so that it can continue blindly giving out mining concessions. Otherwise it means beginning from zero, and there is no political will to do that,' Carlos Martínez, mayor of the San Ignacio district in the northwestern department (province) of Cajamarca, told Tierramérica.

'Nor is there the political will in some regional governments, even though part of the authority has been transferred to them,' he added.

Meanwhile, Argentina passed a law this year to protect glaciers from mining, Costa Rica penalises the use of cyanide in mining, and Ecuador is trying to obtain an international fund to compensate it for keeping oil drilling out of the Yasuní region of the Amazon.

Three years ago, the opposition Peruvian Nationalist Party presented a legislative bill to declare the páramos and cloud forests 'public necessity,' but so far lacks the votes for it to become law.

When the land-use regulations are implemented, 'they should guarantee communities access to information and prior consultation,' said Magdiel Carrión, a community leader from Piura and president of the National Confederation of Peruvian Communities Affected by Mining.

'What happens in the highlands will affect the lowlands of the valley. That is why we should be consulted about the kind of development we want,' said Carrión.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service