Political Earth:

Mining and the social politics that shape the Peruvian landscape

By Jackie Salzinger

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]magine you are walking across land that you own. Perhaps you are a farmer, and perhaps this land has been in your family’s and community’s names for centuries, surviving successive imperial conquest by the Incans and by Spaniards. Nonetheless, a stronger historical force may lurk deeper beneath the literal surface on which you stand. The issue of mining in Peru, after all, requires first and foremost the understanding of the very dirt beneath your feet.

As in just about any place, the surface of the Peruvian landscape belongs to various landowners, such as a farmer in the Cusco region concerned primarily for their crops, or an indigenous community in the Amazon with its own existential customs and land uses. But beyond the topsoil, beyond where any individual shovel alone will penetrate, the interior earth bears the ownership of a greater, more abstract entity — the Peruvian state itself. Beneath the land that one can actually see lies vast mineral wealth, the financial potential of which dwarfs the collective earnings the communities on top might make in a lifetime. This natural resource wealth belongs not to the superficial owners of the land, but to the Peruvian national state.

This government, of course, supposedly represents all Peruvian citizens: from the Amazon to the Andes to the coastal areas and the capital. Whether everyone is actually represented, however, is a different story, and the capital city of Lima is a bearer of power in more ways than one. This is the story of Peruvian mining conflicts – the soil of the campesinos moving one way, and the earthy interior depths silently tearing away in the opposite, globalizing direction.

Earthen Wealth

Mining in Peru has nearly always existed, and has far predated the dedication of Lima as Peru’s capital. Gold, silver, copper, iron — rare minerals abound all across the country’s diverse set of landscapes, and pre-conquest civilizations were extracting minerals long before the Spanish arrived. “The difference [now] is the scale,” explains Mari Burneo. As an anthropologist at the Institute of Peruvian Studies, she specializes in institutional change in rural areas, especially with regards to land rights. From her perspective, one shared among many of her scholarly colleagues, the entrance of Peruvian minerals into international markets, in this growing era of “globalization,” has wrought a dramatic change in the mining sector, both in scale and in kind. Despite the fact that surface-level mineral deposits have been largely exhausted by past extraction, the international prices of rare minerals remain high enough to justify much more invasive extraction that reaches deeper into the belly of the earth. Mining companies must go greater and greater lengths (i.e. greater costs) to reap their rewards. Both the companies and the countrymen, whose economy they shape, await what all hope will be major payouts.

The mining activity in the country certainly adds up, when looked at quantitatively. Globally, Peru is 2nd in silver production, 2nd in copper reserves, and 6th in gold production. The mining sector comprises 12% of Peru’s Gross Domestic Product and an even more dramatic 57% of the country’s exports. Billions of dollars of both Peruvian and foreign money has been invested into the mining business. For example, one piece of business intel that recently made international headlines was the $5.85 billion dollar acquisition of the Las Bambas copper, which changed hands from an Anglo-Swiss company to an Australia-Chinese firm in 2014.

Despite the multinational nature of these kinds of deals, which in some sense seem to bypass the participation of Peruvians themselves, the country is said to win economically through the state’s sales of national “concessions,” which provide mining companies political access to the earthy deposits in the first place, even if individuals and local communities still own the layer of land on top of the extractable material. Since the turn of the millennium, Peruvian state authorities have credited Peruvian citizens’ increased financial well-being (best represented perhaps by the 300% increase in GDP per capita since 2000, according to the World Bank) to the payoffs from this sector of the economy. Nonetheless, the billions of dollars that go into these profitable business ventures give pause to the average citizen, and many Peruvians are left wondering whether they have been cut out of the profitable piece of the mining pie. Rafael Roca, a former consultant for the industry who lived and worked at the site of remote mines for years, put it this way: “it is incredible that that amount of money can be invested in places where people don’t have TVs.”


By The Numbers

Mining is 12% of GDP,
57% of exports,
and is credited by some for a 300% increase in GDP per capita over 15 years.


The palatable and compelling notion that mining companies market to Peruvian skeptics, however, is that TVs are coming – so long as the mines move forward. Just as it is impossible in Peru to talk about mining without talking about economic development, the reverse has become true – one cannot envision economic development without incorporating large-scale mining. Some companies certainly do seem to follow through on these promises of widespread social benefit; they work well to compensate the rural communities they are embedded in, with jobs, cash, and other benefits. Other ventures, however, operate according to a system of perverse incentives and perverted politics, which generally tip the tables in favor of over-active mining operations across the country. In mining towns, local community members’ voices are often rendered mute in the decision-making process by their marginal positions in society. Those who are indigenous, rural, and economically disadvantaged too often find themselves without political recourse for the serious concerns that a person must necessarily have if they and their families are newfound neighbors to an industrial mining operation.


The Right to Water and Life

There are a lot of ways that a mine can impact the areas surrounding it, both human and environmental – and by no means is that a dichotomy. As a potential driver of employment, and therefore communal economic benefit, mines bring certain benefits to the communities in which they work. Critics report that this positive potential is, however, overstated, given the specialized, technical expertise usually required to be hired by an industrial mining operation, one that would require years of education and practice that many rurally-based communities do not generally provide. Furthermore, the composition of a mining community leads to dramatic upheavals of the local balance of power, with the influx of specialized experts and armed company guards changing the social layout of a place.

The most fraught and most analyzed consequence of a mine, however, is that which is studied by the “Environmental Impact Assessment,” a step which every mining project must undertake during its exploratory phase, in order to receive approval from the government. Whereas mines may be concerned with other, money-laden dimensions of the periodic table, the communities they operate in have other concerns in the foreground, primarily H2O. “The central theme is the future of water,” explains Javier Jahncke, Executive Secretary of the Muqui Network, a coordinating body linking dozens of environmental justice organizations in Peru. Mining operations require a staggering amount of water to process the minerals and by-products being pulled deep from the earth’s crust. Communities, however, must compete for this resource in order to drink and irrigate their crops. As a result, competing needs for water sources are often the root of conflict between mines and communities. Should the company hold all the decision-making power, the threat is vast, and it extends even beyond the communities in which industrialized operations are visible and obvious. As environmental advocates such as Jahncke point out, in Peru nowadays, “we are all consuming heavy metals.” With cancer is on the rise nationally, there are concerns that even city-dwellers in the coastal capital of Lima are not immune to mining’s effects. These grave concerns are not held just by elite environmental experts, either, as illustrated by the way 2012’s March for the Right to Water and Life made its way forcefully across the countryside, gathering supporters from all over Peru and from all walks of life.

By law, companies have to negotiate with community representatives (and in some cases each individual landowner) to secure the right to begin actual operations in a given area. As environmental consultant Eduardo Bryce put it, local landowners, with their superficial land rights, “have the key to the top of the trunk” of the treasure buried within. These land use negotiations can be an arduous political process for a firm, but they are worth undertaking for the company, given the huge profits underfoot. “They work like the CIA,” reported one former consultant, describing how companies keep tabs on who in the area is “with” them and who is not.

In an ideal world, one might suppose that a third party could successfully bridge the knowledge and power gaps between local communities and corporate mining officials. But are governmental institutions, the most likely candidates for such defense of public goods, keeping pace with the political spread of this sector?


Meanwhile in Lima

The Peruvian Ministry for Energy and Mining (MINEM) has been around since 1968. The Ministry of the Environment (MINAM) was established in 2008. As might be expected, these two governmental bodies are seen to be “in permanent tension,” as was phrased for me by Lenin Valencia of the Peruvian Society for Environmental Rights. It is hard not to see this competition, however, as taking place on rather unequal ground, essentially between a political toddler and a seasoned agency operating within a longer political history. Valencia’s observation of this intra-governmental tension, and its inherent contradictions, was echoed by nearly everyone I spoke to in Peru with regards to governance in the mining sector, and although political bodies exist that, in name, serve to regulate the mining sector, the employees of these agencies themselves question at what point they will achieve effective regulatory influence.

“The study is trash.”
Micaela Gonzalez of OEFA (the Body of Environmental Evaluation and Audit) describing her frustration with the impotence of certain Environmental Impact Assessments.


At the Andean Center for Education and Development, Hamilton Auccapure and his coworkers work day in and day out to mend the cracks in this institutional apparatus, advocating for the fundamental rights of rural and indigenous communities affected by mines in the lucrative Andean mountains. He and his cohort work with an awareness of the severe imbalance of knowledge concerning the facts of any given mining project. In their eyes, often the biggest problems arise when, even in cases where the community is brought into the decision-making process, the Peruvian state and a mining company simply “do not inform” the public of key facts to consider. Land might not get valued properly when sales are conducted, and community members may not be adequately notified if earlier versions of the Environmental Impact Assessment ultimately undergo later, substantive modifications.

The incentives to publicize this information are simply not there in the current institutional set-up. Some people treat this nominative notion of “public oversight” as a total farce, since step one of any mining operation is to win a costly battle for an incredibly expensive – but ultimately lucrative – concession from the government. Such concessions are so costly that a firm, beholden to external stakeholders, must stop at almost nothing to move the project forward to make back the investment. Furthermore, the certified consultants who are hired by companies to write the required Environmental Impact Assessment are often not paid unless the study leads to approval, incentivizing these “third parties” to underestimate potential pitfalls so the project gets fast-tracked in government agencies.

If you ask folks who are on the ground in these mining towns – which are hundreds of miles of winding dirt roads away from the official state ministries in the capital – it does not seem that the government is necessarily the answer to these deep-seated conflicts of interest. The Peruvian state is seen as too “corrupt” (a word that came up in every single interview for this article) and also “absent” from what actually goes on in these remote areas.

I was told by multiple informants about one recent incident that many Peruvians saw as the zeitgeist of this contemporary political dynamic between the national government and rural, indigenous localities. The crisis is referred to simply as “Bagua,” the Amazonian town where things went down. Given its remoteness from traditional media centers, the exact nature of events is somewhat murky, but in 2009, a deadly clash between indigenous people in the Amazon and Peruvian state police took place over concessions the government sold to a company in another, similar extractive industry, oil. The events came to be described by many onlookers as a matter of indigenous backwardness, with the killing of peace-making authorities being attributed to “savages.” An incident such as this lurks in the subtext of national conversations about land rights and extractive industries today, and it is just one of many moments of political perception that shape public beliefs about whose voices matter in decision-making about Peru’s economic future.


Dogs and Political Discourse

Similar to the way that superficial land rights are trumped by deeper layers of Peruvian soil, Peruvian mining politics are not only about the ministries that supposedly govern them; these politics speak to far deeper power structures that usually go unspoken in typical conversations about the sector today. Sometimes, however, discursive moments peel back the layers of Peruvian politics, such as when former President Alan Garcia gave his famous “perro del hortelano” speech in 2007. Literally translating to “dog in a manger,” the idiom captures the belief held by Garcia and many others that poor, rural Peruvians are biting the hand that feeds them when they challenge the general advance of mining. The “perro del hortelano” perspective sees an irreconcilable paradox in the politics of those who call for increased communal well-being while threatening the very means of development that would get Peru there, i.e. mines.

What this charged phrase ultimately demonstrates is the deep social forces beneath the surface-level debate about mining: racism, and the elite, concentrated power that is the capital city of Lima. Whatever the reality is on the ground in a mining town, Lima tells itself its own stories. “Limeñens live in a bubble,” I heard often during my time in both Lima and Cusco. “They live with their backs to the mountains and the jungle,” said one Lima resident, capturing both the literal location of Lima on the coast and its social dispositions that prioritize urbanity and globalization. According to Mari Burneo at the Institute for Peruvian Studies, the “urban middle classes” in Lima often operate within a social narrative which says that rural and indigenous communities are “ignorant savages” and even “terrorists.” Ximena Warnaars at Earth Rights International tells it this way: “If you don’t want the mine, you’re against development, and if you’re against development, you’re against the state, and if you’re against the state, that means you’re a terrorist.”

In a country still walking its first few democratic steps after catastrophic civil war in the 1980s, the word “terrorist” hits on a particularly sensitive nerve in Peruvian social politics, making this accusation a dangerous and expedient rhetorical tool in the arsenal of pro-mining political interests in the country. When protests against mining projects turn violent, as they have, the word “terrorist” quickly slips into media analysis and governmental response. The word becomes generalized to all those who stand against mining in any sort, who carry any ideological similarities to these instigators of violence, and protest is thereby criminalized. Even as government fails to fairly settle negotiations between companies and communities, harsh government crackdown against mining critics becomes justified in the popular imagination. Stalemate.


Digging Ourselves Out of this Hole

Everyone in Peru wants development, in some form or another, and most people I talked to made it clear that there is a distinction between being critical of mining practices and being ideologically “anti-mining.” OEFA’s Micaela Gonzalez, a young Limeña looking ahead to the future of her country, wondered aloud to me whether the political status quo is the only possible way. Sure, the companies leave toxic tailings and environmental destruction, she says, “but they could leave opportunities, too.” Individuals such as Gonzalez continue working within government ministries and non-governmental organizations to correct for past failings, laboring tirelessly towards a brighter future for Peru with regards to these issues.


“If you don’t want the mine, you’re against development, and if you’re against development, you’re against the state, and if you’re against the state, that means you’re a terrorist.”


That said, the light at the surface seems pretty far away from the foundational layers that must be moved through first. The political might of Lima (which alone contains a third of Peru’s population, and the tight grasp that the toxic political posturing about “anti-mining” protestors has over Peruvian media, make for a desperate situation indeed. I ended every interview for this article with the question of what hope my source had for the future, what change they thought might be the lynchpin in improving this state of affairs. One Limeña shared her vision with me bluntly: “I wish there would be a huge mine in Lima. Make it beneath the national cathedral, or in Miraflores or San Isidro” (the upper middle class neighborhoods of the city). In her eyes, if all Peruvians understood the feeling of the earth collapsing in around them, perhaps then they could succeed at reaching across to one another. Without such shared experience, there remain the differences between city and countryside, indigenous and Spanish, media and reality, surface and depth. Division, and then, extraction.   

Read more:

National Geographic: “High in the Andes, A Mine Eats a 400-Year-Old City”

Reuters: “Displaced by mining, Peru villagers spurn shiny new town”https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/12/151202-Cerro-de-Pasco-Peru-Volcan-mine-e

ats-city-environment/Forbes: “Political Risk Analysis: How Will Peru’s Economy Perform In 2017?”

Mining.com: “Peru’s environmental deregulation to spur more mining-related protests: analysts”


Jackie Salzinger is a senior Anthropology major in Timothy Dwight College. You can contact her at .