Mining Shakes Peruvian Farmers

by Brian Liberatore

Men in dark red ponchos and women with children tied to their backs crowded into an adobe room off the main square in the tiny Peruvian village of La Jalca.

The room was packed and tense.  The handful of men from the Ministry of Energy and Mines at the front of the room, represented a looming threat to the future of the community.  Mining is a rapidly growing industry in Peru with exports in 2014 expected to reach as high as US$27 billion.  However, this growth is often achieved through unregulated, environmentally disastrous “artesenal” or unofficial operations. Peruvians who rely on the fertile soils of the cloud forests over the Amazon Jungle live in fear of the heavy machinery, pollution, and disruption.  They have seen neighboring communities suffer the loss of their water, their land, and their future.

Peruvian farmers may have rights to the soil, but according to the government men in that adobe room, the minerals underneath belong to the state.  They have already sold hundreds of concessions to mining companies around the world, literally out from under the feet of the farmers who own that land.

The farmers had little patience for talk of mining concessions and one by one stood to rebuke the officials.

“Water,” they repeated, “is life.”  This, the unofficial battle cry of rural farmers in much of Peruvians Andes, points to a growing unease as the mining industry continues to expand.  The government men left hurriedly, but questions lingered.

Mining is complicated in Peru.  The state pulls nearly half of its budget from taxes on mining and other extractive industries. The money has funded social programs, paved roads, and built schools.  From the outside, the Peruvian economy is among South America’s most robust, growing with the help of mining, petroleum, and natural gas extraction.

But at what cost?  Many Amazon tributaries are polluted beyond repair.  Heavy metals, essential to copper mining, are showing up in drinking water hundreds of miles from mining sites in the central Andes. Unsanctioned mining operations in the southern Peruvian Amazon have led to deadly levels of mercury in drinking water according to state figures.  Deforestation continues at an alarming rate.

The Peruvian Government under Ollanta Humala is at least offering lip service to the need for environmental protection.  But the economic realities can cloud convictions.  Extraction is a pillar of the economy.  At the macro level, the issue is complicated. But we gain something from looking at the issue from a micro perspective.  For thousands of Peruvians, the issue comes down to something as simple as, “water is life.”

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Brian Liberatore has spent the last two years as a water specialist with the Peace Corps in Peru.  He and his wife have worked to obtain federal protection for more than 20,000 hectares of virgin cloud forest surrounding the small Andean community where they live.

About the Author

Brian Liberatore was a newspaper journalist for 10 years before joining the Peace Corps in 2011. He and his wife served in the northern Peruvian sierra. Brian has been a lifelong environmentalist. Humanity cannot survive without a healthy planet. Brian sees it as our moral obligation to be good stewards of the Earth.