By Dr. Fiorella Triscritti.
In Africa, Asia and Latin America, the development of the mining industry has often been accompanied by violence and community-led social protest. In the presence of fragmented societies and fragile governance structure, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Papua New Guinea and Sierra Leone, mining has fuelled conflicts and civil wars. But even in contexts where democratic institutions are consolidating, such as Indonesia, Peru and South Africa, mining has been a latent attractor for social protest over community rights, fiscal policies and labor and environmental standards.
To halt these protests, young democratic institutions have, in various cases, turned to authoritarian dogmas. Civil rights and freedoms, normally guaranteed under the constitution, have been suspended in attempts to reinstate order, and security forces have responded to violence with violence, implementing counterterrorism practices.
What is happening in Peru illustrates this argument.
Peru is rich in mineral resources. In 2010, Peru, a country the size of South Africa, was the world’s largest producer of silver, second-largest for copper and zinc, third-largest for tin, fourth-largest for lead and molybdenum and sixth-largest for gold.
Peru is also a young consolidating democracy, where social tensions over the management of natural resources have repeatedly plunged the country into political and social chaos. Such tensions, originate from the absence of dialogue among stakeholders. When the central government licenses a mining corporation to explore and exploit mining concessions, in remote areas, regional authorities and local communities have limited rights to negotiate their interests and preserve their livelihoods. As local communities struggle to make their voices heard, they often resort to violence in order to express their discontent. Since January 2006, the number of conflicts per month has tripled; in that same time, over 2,400 have been injured and over 200 have been killed in clashes.
To halt the civil unrest related to large-scale mining, the Peruvian government has increasingly resorted to declaring states of emergency. When a state of emergency is declared, local police are granted special powers in conflict areas and the presence of riot police and the army is increased. Simultaneously, civil liberties are restricted and freedom of assembly is suspended, and anti-mining leaders and local authorities are swiftly arrested, without notice or warrant, under accusations of having violating such restrictions (though they are usually later released).
The following two examples illustrate these practices. In both cases, a state of emergency was declared immediately after protests resulted in casualties, while dialogue among stakeholders was still ongoing.
- In July 2012, after weeks of confrontation between local communities and Newmont Mining Corporation, a US-based company, a 30-day state of emergency was declared in several provinces of northern Peru. On a day during the state of emergency, Marco Arana, a 49-year-old former priest and veteran of anti-mining protests, was seated in the main square of the city of Cajamarca, wearing a placard around his neck with the words “vida si, oro no” (“yes to life, no to gold”). Without provocation and apparently without warning, several riot police converged on Arana and beat him, then took him into custody, where, he claimed, he was beaten again. Arana was released within 24 hours
Here is a video of his arrest is on YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=8spwndB_M2M
- Another case occurred in May 2012 in the town of Espinar, located near Cusco, in southern Peru. After several weeks of protests against the extractive activities of Swiss-based Xtrata had turned violent, the government invoked a 30-day state of emergency. Three days later, riot police stormed the municipal building to arrest the Mayor of Espinar, Oscar Mollohuanca, as he was convening a community meeting on the issue. Mollohuanca was sentenced to “preventive custody” for five months by the provincial prosecutor, but was released after ten days.
The Peruvian Government, when accused of using force instead of dialogue to resolve anti-mining conflicts, has argued that it uses force because protesters are “violent radicals, extremists or terrorists” and because dialogue is not viable. While in some cases this may be accurate, it should not account for the use of real bullets against protesters, random acts of violence or convenient arrests of grass-roots leaders. Moreover, in situations of similar social tension, but unrelated to large-scale mining, such as clashes occurred between fishermen in Paita (northern Peru) and the police, in April 2012, the Peruvian Government has been able to successfully mediate solutions and to manage conflict with less violence. Grass-roots movements argue that this is not a simple coincidence, but a deliberate intention of the central government to criminalize anti-mining social protests.
Conflict resolution experts and mediators agree that dialogue and respect among stakeholders are necessary conditions for halting conflict. As a result, the use of states of emergency and the criminalization of protests significantly decrease the chances of reaching durable and peaceful agreements. They engender a sense of mistrust among stakeholders and fuel conflicts, with governments viewing protesters as criminals and with protesters accusing governments of backing the interests of mining corporations. The unintended consequences of these practices are often the failure to reach a sustainable common ground and the escalation of violence in conflict areas.