Sunday, August 10, 2014

VICE and a few words on Peru's New Cocaine

VICE magazine recently wrote an article about illegal gold mining in Peru and the environmental devastation that it has wrought on the country's southern Amazon jungle. The piece took a much-needed, subtly sympathetic perspective of the workers' plights — men from impoverished communities, increasingly marginalized from Peru's rapidly burgeoning middle class, lured from the rural Andean mountains to have their hand at striking gold. And while many of the men make little more than Peru's already-paltry minimum wage, for those who are undocumented — lacking a National Identity Document (NID) because their families were too isolated or poor to obtain birth certificates — mining may be one of the few jobs available to them. As one young miner was quoted in VICE:
“In Cuzco there were no jobs,” he said, screaming over the sound of the roaring engine. “I didn’t have a chance to go to school because I was working at a very young age to help support my parents. This is the only work there is.”
With the price of gold tripling over the past decade and Peru projected to receive $14 billion in mining investments (almost all by foreign-owned corporations) this year alone, the industry has provided Peru with the majority of its widely-hailed economic growth. Verité, a non-profit that monitors international labor rights violations, reported that over 100,000 people are directly employed in legal and illegal mining, with another 400,000 indirectly employed by mining — though those numbers are significantly larger depending on the source. Luis Castillo, the leader of the National Federation of Mine, Metal and Steelworkers, stated that there are approximately 450,000 people employed in informal mining in Peru, a number that is more than double the 180,000 formally employed, according to the Energy and Mines Ministry. And those employed in illegal mining are fighting to hold on to their jobs.

In early 2012 Peru launched a campaign to bring illegal miners under national regulation: miners must complete a six step formalization process and submit paperwork to 5 different government regulatory bodies for land titles, environmental impact certificates, and labor oversight, as well as pay fees and taxes. But the process is prohibitively complicated in a country with vague land ownership, rampant corruption, and high rates of illiteracy. Verité reports that as of February 2013, the Peruvian government "had only received 2,700 declarations of commitment and 40 environmental impact certificates (IGAC)," paperwork necessary to the process of becoming formalized. Workers held regional strikes, asking for a simplification of the formalization process and an extension on the deadline, which the government partially conceded, stretching the deadline out another 8 months. For those who were unable to finish the formalization process, or who were mining too close to the Tambopata National Reserve, the consequences were severe.

Bombing in La Pampa (originally published in VICE; photo by Michael Mullady)
VICE reports that on April 29th, 2014, the military began a bombing campaign in La Pampa. This assault was part of a larger military campaign to destroy the infrastructure of the illegal mining operations. "We have to eliminate this scourge," declared Peru's new high commissioner for mining formalization, former army general Augusto Soto Castañola. The multi-pronged assault has included burning camps, bombing equipment and pumps, burning boat engines and capturing stockpiles of mercury. It has met with massive resistance, from violence to hunger strikes.
"I am telling the central government to bring coffins and body bags here because they won't just be taking dead miners away, they'll also be taking police and their soldiers. We will never let them steal our work from us." — Luis Otsuka, Head of the Local Miners Association in Madre de Dios.
And yet the conflict runs deeper, still. The workers aren't only protesting taxes, greater regulation, burdensome, complicated and corrupt formalization procedures, or even a growing economy that continues to push them further down into poverty. Tied up in the informal mining economy is a vast array of human rights abuses: human trafficking, labor bondage, sexual coercion and kidnapping, violence and murder. Many workers are brought to the mines under false pretenses, told that they'll get rich quickly, that they'll be paid in gold. Yet when they arrive they find themselves sold into labor bondage, owing everything they earn to their recruiter and mine owner. One 16 year old who was sold to the mines by his cousin was forced to work for free for 8 months to fulfill his "90 day contract"; when he was finally allowed to go home, he was paid 10 grams of gold, which, without the proper paperwork, he was able to sell for app. $115. Verité found countless stories of "disappearances," unmarked graves, intimidation. And that doesn't even go into the abuses that women face at the camps.

With these kinds of rampant human rights abuses tied up in the poverty of undocumented and highly vulnerable workers, it's hard to determine where loyalty to their profession ends and coercion and desperation for income begins. And it's unlikely that the motives of the Peruvian government are any less muddled.

A man holds his daughter in front of the now-closed La Oroya plant (originally published by The LEAD Group)
While the VICE article states that the crackdown on illegal mining is largely related to international pressure for better environmental protections, Peru's heavy-handedness has been more than lopsided. While crushing illegal miners with one hand, it has doled out significant incentives, tax-breaks, and environmental concessions to international mining companies with the other. Many legal mine owners readily acknowledge that their work can be just as devastating to the environment as that of small and artisanal miners. One of the world's most polluted places is La Oroya in the Central Andes, a small mining town that is home to a U.S.-owned mining and processing plant and lead levels triple the WHO limit. 99% of children have lead poisoning, and the soil will remain contaminated for centuries. Yet despite the environmental havoc wrought by legal mining, President Humala recently passed legislation to ease permitting, environmental regulations, and impact assessments for international mining firms, all while scaling back the power and scope of his own Ministry of Environment.

Immediately after easing environmental restrictions on international mining companies, one of Peru's most heavily contested mining projects was finally approved. Newmont Mining Corp's $5 billion Minas Conga project in the northern Highlands of Cajamarca was stalled for years as it faced lawsuits, complaints lodged with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and protests over its proposed project—protests which gained publicity in Human Rights Watch's 2013 report detailing the deaths of 4 unarmed civilians when military personnel opened fire on a public protest at the Minas Conga mine. In fact, according to Peru's Defensoria del Pueblo, between 2008 and 2012, social conflicts increased by 300%, with almost half related to social/environmental issues.

Through the moral haze of Peru's push-back against illegal mining, one group stands resolute: Foreign mining companies themselves. One Canadian company with a gold mining facility and exploration project in Peru praised the campaign, stating that the recent legislation creates a "perfect storm of opportunity" and "captive market" for their company's small-scale mining business model. It's a statement that warrants further investigation as we wonder at Peru's sudden, violent and incomplete interest in protecting the environment from illegal mining.

Whatever their reasons, Peru needs to vastly broaden the scope of its crackdown on illegal mining if they're to successfully (and legally) challenge it. The social needs of the populations involved in illegal mining are as vast as the highlands they come from. As the Amazon Conservation Association stated, sustainable economic alternatives for illegal miners are needed if the campaign is ever truly to succeed, by:
  • "Providing sustainable economic alternatives to mining for communities in the region, including agroforestry, aquaculture, and ecotourism.
  • Helping smallholders whose land is invaded by illegal miners and working to clarify land tenure and conflicts over land rights – ACA has already provided free legal advice to nearly 100 beneficiaries.
  • Providing technical assistance to government authorities responsible for carrying out land use zoning and developing policy.
  • Supporting the science needed to help decision‐makers and the public understand the impacts of mercury on public health and the environment.
  • Piloting reforestation of areas destroyed by mining.
  • Implementing a communications strategy, including environmental education for schoolchildren, broadcasting a radio show for rural families, and communicating research results.
  • Working with timber concessionaires to strengthen management and reduce invasions by miners.
  • Supporting the creation of regional and private conservation areas to preserve forest cover and stronger management of the Tambopata National Reserve.
  • Collaborating with a coalition of conservation partners to propose and advocate for a regional mining strategy."
(Amazon Conservation Association, "Fact Sheet: Illegal Gold Mining in Madre de Dios, Peru," n.d.)

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