Sitting on the Chalcobamba hill, almost 4,700 meters high in the Peruvian Andes, Romualdo Ochoa, leader of the indigenous community of Huancuire, proclaims: “We have come with our animals to recover our lands.”
From up here, where the few outsiders who arrive often succumb to altitude sickness, Ochoa can see the narrow valley in the Apurimac region where her community has lived for centuries dedicated to farming.
The indigenous leader, like other local men, lately spends more time on the heights of Chalcobamba than in the fields where potatoes are harvested and sheep graze.
It is difficult for him to express himself in Spanish, a language he learned at the age of 21, but his message is clear. Chalcobamba belongs to the indigenous people of Huancuire. It is “the legacy of their ancestors”.
The problem is that a giant Chinese mining multinational, MMG, also says that Chalcobamba is its own.
But neither the documents wielded by the mining company, nor the permit granted by the Ministry of Energy and Mines to begin exploiting the mineral wealth hidden in this rocky mountain are sufficient arguments for the indigenous people of Huancuire, who remain camped here, fighting the icy night temperatures in the Andean heights based on a lot of shelter and lamb broth.
Armed with their warakas, the traditional indigenous slingshot, they say they are determined to repel any attempt to take away a mountain they have considered theirs since time immemorial.
They have placed a Peruvian flag on top and from there they stand guard day and night.
The litigation began in 2013, when the Chinese company and the leaders of the Huancuire community signed a contract by which MMG acquired the Chalcobamba land, but the new generations of indigenous people assure that the company deceived their elders in the negotiations, taking advantage of their ignorance.
“They didn’t know how to read and write, they didn’t know Spanish, and they were tricked into appropriating our lands,” says their current leader.
Hundreds of kilometers from there, in Lima, where the MMG headquarters in Peru are located, its legal affairs manager, Claudio Cáceres, gave BBC Mundo a different version.
“We paid 122 million soles (about US$32.2 million at the current exchange rate) for the sale in 2013. In 2017 the community pretended to ignore this sale and we signed a judicial transaction to close any controversy for which we paid 100 million (soles )”.
The indigenous deny receiving these amounts.
The differences remain and there have already been clashes.
The last one was on May 31, when company personnel tried to access Chalcobamba escorted by the police. According to the community members, one of them was injured by a pellet thrown by the police. The mining company spoke in a statement of “some injuries and bruises in the troops of the PNP (Peruvian National Police) and maintenance personnel.”
It was not the first time that episodes of violence had occurred in the area, in which the government of Pedro Castillo decreed a state of emergency last April to channel the situation.
But why is this isolated, mountainous area so important?
The answer lies on the other side of the mountain, in the gigantic Las Bambas mine, owned by MMG, a colossal bite into the Andean mountain range whose view dominates the landscape.
The data gives an idea of the magnitude of Las Bambas.
It is one of the world’s largest copper mines and according to MMG, whose main shareholder is a Chinese state-owned company, it is the largest investment Beijing has ever made in a foreign mine.
Only last year it produced 290,000 tons of copper and in its first five years of activity it added two million tons. Reserves are estimated at around 5,630 million tons, to be exploited during the 18-year life of the mine.
“Las Bambas is the second largest mining company in Latin America and is reaching 2% of Peru’s Gross Domestic Product,” explained Roberto Sánchez Palomino, Minister of Foreign Trade of Peru.
But production in recent years has begun to decline. That is why MMG wants to open a second exploitation pit in Chalcobamba as soon as possible.
Troy Hey, general manager of MMG, told BBC Mundo that “Chalcobamba is critical to maintaining Las Bambas’ production levels.”
The director regrets that the project has been delayed due to the delay in granting the necessary permits. Now that everything is ready and that the price of copper has reached record levels in the international markets, only the resistance of the around 400 indigenous people of Huancuire prevents it from being carried out.
On June 9, the company and the indigenous people signed a 30-day truce to negotiate, but MMG promised not to start mining Cerro de la Discordia within that period.
“If we don’t get access to that mine and we can’t develop the operations, we lose money every day,” complains Hey.
The potential of Chalcobamba is perceived at a glance. The reddish tone of the copper can be seen in the rocks and the indigenous people have already begun to do there on an artisanal scale what MMG has been doing for years on an industrial scale in Las Bambas: take it out and sell it.
In a world increasingly dependent on electronic devices and in which global warming pushes towards alternatives to fossil fuels, copper has become one of the most demanded items.
The shock in the energy markets caused by the war in Ukraine has only accentuated the trend.
And Peru, the world’s second largest producer of the mineral after Chile, has become the scene of more and more conflicts between the multinationals that extract it and local communities that believe that the treatment received is not fair, amid reproaches to President Pedro Castillo. and its apparent inability to address a problem whose price the national economy is already paying.
A report by the Ombudsman’s Office published on June 7 indicates that 86 of the 130 ongoing social conflicts in Peru are related to the action of mining companies and another study by Banco de Credito del Peru showed that national mining production fell by 0 .5% last March.
For Minister Sánchez Palomina, “the country is missing an opportunity” by not benefiting as much as it could from the high prices of raw materials.
But the divergences around Las Bambas are nothing new.
The mine has seen its production paralyzed for nearly 400 days since it began operating in 2016. In 2015, three people died in clashes with the police in a protest against its entry into operation.
In addition to Huancuire, other neighboring communities such as Chila, Fuerabamba, Choaquere, Pumamarca and Chuicuni are fighting against Las Bambas and have blocked access to the mine to prevent it from producing. Each one has its own list of complaints, in which they highlight the breach of the promise to give them work in the facility and alleged damage to the environment.
The conflict around Las Bambas and the refusal of the Huancuire community to fulfill the contract that their elders signed on Chalcobamba has become a national problem and the sending of successive delegations of ministers and more and more police officers to the area They haven’t worked so far to fix it.
When on May 19 the Prime Minister, Aníbal Torres, traveled to the area to meet with the community members, he was greeted with shouts of protest and left without reaching any agreement, as BBC Mundo witnessed.
This is an uncomfortable issue for Castillo, who promised in the campaign a new relationship with foreign companies so that their activity benefits Peruvians and who was a candidate for a party, Peru Libre, which advocates the nationalization of resources natural.
Baltazar Lantarón, governor of Apurímac, is clear that the stopped mine is not a good business. According to his calculations, Las Bambas contributes 70% of the region’s GDP. “Apart from generating income, it also generates jobs,” he indicates in a conversation with BBC Mundo.
The most concerned are those who depend on the mine for food. According to union calculations, there are approximately 9,000 direct and indirect jobs in danger due to the stoppage of the mine. One of those who has been left without a job for the moment is Eyner Arredondo.
“Without being able to work we feel on the street, in nothing. In Apurimac practically all the people supported this government. But we felt disappointed.”
Minister Sánchez Palomino, who has traveled to the area several times to unblock the conflict, recalls that Castillo has been in government for less than a year and for such a complex problem, there are no “overnight solutions”.
stress in the mine
In its last forced stoppage, the tension is palpable in the mine. A strong security device guards some facilities, in which a strange calm prevails far from the feverish activity of other times.
A large contingent of policemen equipped with riot gear receives the reporters, on whom some intimidating stones fly from the group of community members stationed at the entrance.
On the other side of the access fence, half a dozen charred cars. According to the company’s security personnel, the community members burned them in their attacks on the facilities.
At a stop above the main pit, the hauling vehicles, gigantic trucks charged with transporting the raw ore, have been parked for weeks. The only machinery in operation is the one in charge of ensuring its maintenance.
The workers breathed a sigh of relief with the temporary truce that has allowed the restart of the mine’s operations, but they fear that the lack of an in-depth solution will cause new blockades and leave them on the streets again.
But in Huancuire things are seen radically differently.
Entire families spend the day dedicated to picking potatoes. Mountains of them are grouped next to the fields. At noon, they pause and cook some underground to eat with some homemade cheese while chatting animatedly in Quechua.
“The State never set foot here”
One of the youngest is Ruth Candia Ochoa. At 25, his is a rare case in the community. She went to Arequipa to train and now she is one of its leaders and she is completing her studies in Business Administration.
Despite his youth, he says he remembers the time when his elders made ritual offerings to Chalcobamba and other hills, which they saw as sacred mountains. That is why he especially regrets the transfer of Chalcobamba.
“As the years have passed, people have realized that there has been no progress in the community,” he says.
“We need space for livestock and agriculture, and the elders realize that they gave up half of the territory for nothing. That is why we young people are up for the fight”.
Candia assures that they have learned the lesson and this time they will not give in to either the company or the State, which according to her has never been interested in them before.
“Not a mayor ever set foot here before mining appeared.”
Ruth, like other young people in the community, is hurt by how the conflict is seen from other parts of Peru. “They criticize us on social networks, saying that we want money and more money, that we are not capable of thinking about other people. No one has ever thought of us.”
“If the company leaves after exploiting all these resources, who will remember us?”
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