Big miners have a better record than their critics claim. But it is up to governments to balance the interests of diggers, locals and the nation
COCACHACRA, PERU – COUPLE of hours drive south of Arequipa, Peru’s second city, the Pan-American highway drops down from the high desert of the La Joya plain and threads its way through tight defiles patrolled by turkey vultures before reaching the green braid of the valley of the river Tambo.
The river burbles past fields of rice, potatoes and sugar cane. It is a tranquil, bucolic scene. The only hint of anything untoward is the five armed policemen guarding the bridge at the town of Cocachacra.
Last April the valley was the scene of a month-long “strike” that saw pitched battles between the police and hooded protesters hurling stones from catapults (see picture). Two protesters and a policeman were killed; 150 police and 54 civilians were hurt. The protest was over a plan by Southern Peru Copper Corporation, a Mexican-owned company, for a $1.4 billion copper and gold mine, called Tía María, on the desert bluffs overlooking the valley.
Southern, as Peruvians know the firm, says the mine would generate 3,000 construction jobs and 650 well-paid permanent posts and would add more than $500m a year to Peru’s exports. Local farmers insist it would kill their livelihoods by polluting the river.
The company denies this: after a previous round of protests in 2011 in which three people died, it redesigned the project to include a $95m desalination plant as a way to avoid drawing water from the river.
So far the farmers are winning. Because of the protests, Southern suspended the project. Although his government approved Tía María, Ollanta Humala, Peru’s president, gave it only lukewarm support. Southern is waiting for a new government to take office in July.
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