Latin America Solidarity Centre

Guest Blog: Dirty Water, Endless Thirst

The threats and impacts of mining, from Peru to Northern Ireland.

By Maddy Ryle

Greetings from across the Brexit-infested waters, to those interested in the issues raised by the ‘Historias del Agua’ (‘Stories of Water’) documentary shown at LASC on Wednesday May 30th. I saw the film last month in London, at a screening accompanied by presentations from Javier Jahnke of Red Muqui (the Peruvian mining and human rights organisation behind ‘Historias del Agua’) and Martha Cecilia García of Colombian organisation CINEP.

Both spoke – to a packed and lively audience of students, academics, NGO staff, activists and others at London’s UCL – about the shocking facts of the impacts of mining in Colombia and Peru. CINEP have produced many resources relating the statistics on this – and also on the increase in social struggles and conflicts related to mining and extraction. In particular, both focused in on the ever-present and ever-urgent subject of water, how it is exploited and despoiled by the extractive industries, and what that means for human and other life in those areas (and, indeed, beyond). We were informed that the UK is the second-largest foreign investor in Peru, and the eighth-largest in Colombia. The role of British money in what happens with natural resources in these countries is, as has been the case for a long time, crucial.

The event was coordinated by ABColombia and the Peru Support Group here in the UK. Both receive support from Cafod – and the ‘Historias del Agua’ film is also a Cafod-supported initiative, along with Trocaire, Oxfam GB, SCIAF and Christian Aid. The film follows Peruvian waterways as they flow from the high mining town of Cerro de Pasco, down to the capital Lima on the coast. Less than 2% of the water which bubbles out of the high Andean valleys flows west towards the Atlantic.  Lima, as the film points out, is the second-largest city in the world to be built next to a desert. As the rivers, and the film crew, pass through the places en route between the mountains and the coast, they pick up on the stories of communities existing alongside mining projects and their inevitable by-products – tailings and chemicals – that too often find their ways into the bloodstreams of local people. One vivid example of this is the blood-red poisoned lakes contaminated by the infamous smelting plant in the town of La Oroya – declared in several studies to be one of the most polluted places on Earth. The tales carried by these waters are not happy ones, but they desperately need to be heard and understood.

The smelting plant in the town of La Oroya, one of the most polluted places on Earth.

 

In a recent piece for Unearthed Ricardo Martinez wrote about Cerro de Pasco and the Raúl Rojas open-pit mine which dominates it, and in which the multinational Glencore is a major investor. Heavy metal concentrations in the area exceed World Health Organisation levels – Peru’s own standards are weaker than that of WHO, in a bid to lure foreign mining investment to the country. Indeed, the government there has been softening environmental regulations across the board under pressure from the mining industry –  as economist and campaigner José de Echave points out in the documentary:

“The companies are important actors in policy influencing processes, provoking a situation in which Peru’s laws are getting progressively weakened and the capacity of the government to act more and more precarious.” And referring to the mess left behind by these companies he goes on to say: “The problem is that the economic costs of, for example, environmental problems, are never made visible. It is never pointed out that Peru loses, each year, nearly 3.9% of its gross domestic product due to environmental degradation. And it is not pointed out that elsewhere in the world today they have begun to instead calculate an ‘ecological internal net product’ which takes this into account…economists need to learn how to subtract as well as to add.”

Aerial view of the Cerro de Pasco Mine in Peru.

 

At my own organisation, the Democracy Center, we have been following one of the many cases of mining, contamination and social conflict that sadly continue to define modern-day Peru. Another Glencore mine, that of Tintaya in Espinar in the Cuzco region, has been a site of police brutality and source of proceedings to criminalise social leaders demanding (including via a legal case brought against Glencore in 2011) that the mining industry clean up its act in the area. As is often the case, these are struggles that have persisted for years  – there are ongoing states of emergency in Southern Peru – and in which justice for both individuals and communities feels as far away as ever.  As is nearly always the case, the impacts of both the social and environmental degradation end up being a disproportionate burden on women.

In both Peru and Colombia the politics of mining and the investment that governments seek to attract to it operate in highly complex post-conflict situations, in which land use and ownership are contested and the export of raw materials onto world markets seeks to bankroll a fragile peace even as it sets some communities up for disaster.

And it seems that the thirst of the mining industry to exploit fragile political climates may soon become even more apparent closer to home. Earlier this month, Tommy Greene wrote about how post-conflict politics and government crises in Northern Ireland have helped create the conditions for a highly-damaging pro-extractive neoliberal model there. This is seen in places like Lough Neagh, and campaigners fighting the Sperrins gold mining and processing plant recently pointed to how the Island of Ireland has been marketed in Canada as a prime location for mining  –  Canada of course being a stronghold for the industry, with Canadian extractive companies profiting widely across Latin America. Save our Sperrins campaigners foresee the potential for cyanide poisoning in the mountains’ water supply – an eventuality which has also been seen many times in Latin America of course. The fears are that post-Brexit conditions will further exacerbate the gaps left by the Peace Agreement, with James Orr of Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland saying:

Save Our Sperrins activists protesting at Belfast’s Waterfront.

“There’s been a hidden history in the last 20 years in Northern Ireland. We’ve seen a Balkanisation of politics reflected in resource and sacrifice zones – like illegal mining in Tyrone, new mineral concessions awarded along the border, attempts to introduce fracking into various communities and industrialised farming. In this sense, natural resources – [shared] things that unite people: air, land and water – have been a hidden and forgotten victim of the Peace Process…With Brexit, we’re seeing an acceleration of this process, on a much larger scale, with much more money available to the interests who stand to benefit [from these projects]”.

 

With City of London finance and UK trade deals powering mining equipment in so many places across the globe, the stories of water and the degradation that these ventures create need to be heard on these islands as loudly as possible.  As the polluted waterways in ‘Historias del Agua’ pick up the dirty tales of the industry and the neglect of those most affected by it, we need to track the sources and flow of investment and political interference by the industry to have any hope of stopping the damage it causes.

Maddy Ryle works for The Democracy Center, which is headquartered in Cochabamba, Bolivia, although she is mostly based in Brighton, UK. Maddy’s work for the Center is focused around editorial and communications.

Please note that the views expressed in the LASC Blog are exclusively those of the authors unless otherwise stated, and do not necessarily reflect those of LASC and its members.