Those who stand to gain the most from mining are not those who will pay the biggest price
This article originally appeared in Canadian Dimension, written by MiningWatch Canada's Latin America Program Coordinator Viviana Herrera.
It’s been barely a year since Dina Boluarte assumed the presidency in Peru, but she is wasting no time making big changes to attract foreign investment and guarantee the expansion of industrial mining across the country.
Following the impeachment and arrest of former President Pedro Castillo on December 7, 2022, Boluarte—who was then serving as vice president—took the top job, even as widespread protests called for her resignation and a new general election.
The South American country is now in the midst of a major democratic crisis, having gone through five presidents in three years. Between December 2022 and February 2023, when police cracked down on protestors, more than 1,200 were injured and at least 49 killed, according to Amnesty International.
Boluarte has since consolidated power and ramped up efforts to attract foreign mining investment. The administration has also pursued reforms to change the way contested mining projects are approved in the country.
In November the government launched “Plan Unidos,” a multi-sector strategy for post-pandemic economic growth that aims to streamline mining permitting and designates the advancement of seven mining projects as economic priorities. In the same month, Boluarte issued an executive decree to speed up permitting for water use in mining—this in addition to several other reforms already in the works which, according to the minister of energy and mines, are aimed at “unblocking mining projects and attracting more investments.”
According to Red Muqui, a network of Peruvian organizations advocating for human rights and sustainable development, “The mining associations have launched an unprecedented communications campaign to ease the administrative aspects of mining—what the business sector refers to as ‘mining paperwork’—in order to fast track projects, amalgamate environmental agencies, eliminate requirements and reduce environmental oversight.” In a recent public statement the organization declared, “The industry is trying to mine wherever and however, as fast as possible, with a limited participation of [affected] people.”
More than 70 Canadian mining firms are currently active in Peru. Together, they command nearly $10 billion in assets, equivalent to 4.5 percent of Peru’s GDP in 2021. With the emergence of Boluarte’s more mining-friendly regime, these companies are seeing a big opportunity.
Even as Peru was in the midst of a spiraling political crisis in early 2023 and thousands of Peruvians faced police violence as they protested in the streets, representatives from the Canadian embassy were meeting with mining industry associations and Peruvian officials to promote increased Canadian mining investment in the country. The embassy has only intensified its public relations campaign in the year since Boluarte assumed power.
Louis Marcotte, Ambassador of Canada to Peru and Bolivia, has participated in interviews with local media to promote the industry and hail Peru as a strategic mining partner, while the embassy has deployed infographics and other materials on social media to describe how Canadian mining firms make life possible in Peru: from producing the metals that power electric cars to extracting the key ingredients in products ranging from household cleaners to video game consoles.
Boluarte’s Plan Unidos may be focused on the mining sector as a catalyst to revive the economy, but efforts to attract mining investment in the country are not new. Even before the pandemic, previous governments were promoting investment in lithium and copper extraction as a way to secure economic growth by capitalizing on the global energy transition.
Canada maintains that both countries stand to benefit from expanded extractive activities, emphasizing that while Peru possesses vast reserves of copper, lithium, zinc, and rare-earth minerals, Canadian companies have the knowledge in “climate-smart and sustainable mining” to get the resources out of the ground.
This year, Peru has once again been designated a “Mining Country Sponsor” at the annual trade show of the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada (PDAC)—the world’s premier mineral exploration and mining convention, held in downtown Toronto. Peru’s Ministry of Energy and Mines will use its platform at PDAC 2024, which brings together tens of thousands of industry representatives and government officials, to showcase the country’s latest and planned mining reforms, in an effort to make Peru a primary destination for Canadian mining capital.
But the spoils from Peru’s mining-friendly policies are not shared evenly. As is often the case throughout Latin America, the majority of the population—and the environment—are subordinated to the interests and profits of a transnational mining elite.
Experience shows mining doesn’t pay
The southern Peruvian province of Puno, near the border with Bolivia, is home to many mining operations, some in the exploration stage and others that have already begun production. During the nationwide protests in early 2023, Puno was the site of severe police repression, as Indigenous and campesino communities rallied to demand reforms to address the toxic environmental liabilities left behind by existing projects. They also called on the Boluarte government to respect their right to consent to future projects through community-driven, transparent, and fair processes.
Minimizing police violence and attempting to distance herself from the powerful displays of citizen organizing in Puno, Boluarte said at the time, “Puno is not Peru.” This prompted Red Muqui to ask the important question: “If Puno is not Peru, then to whom does the lithium belong? And who is responsible for addressing the associated social, environmental, economic, and health issues?”
More Canadian mines appear to be on the horizon for Puno. Vancouver-based Bear Creek Mining’s Corani silver property has been named in Plan Unidos as one of the government’s seven prioritized projects, even as it has failed to obtain the free, prior, and informed consent of affected Indigenous communities.
Two other Canadian-owned concessions in Puno are the Macusani and Falchani lithium-uranium projects, which extend around and on top of the Quelccaya Ice Cap, the second largest glaciated area in the tropics. As documented by the Environmental Justice Atlas and MiningWatch Canada, communities and local organizations in Puno have condemned the lack of transparency around both projects, the lack of regulatory frameworks to properly manage the mines, and potential risks to public health and the environment, including high levels of radioactivity and risks to the archaeological sites including cave paintings. There are also concerns about American Lithium Corp. (another Vancouver-based firm) and the Canadian and Peruvian governments using the energy transition to market these mines as “green” despite the fact that the concessions encroach on a fragile glacial ecosystem that serves as a key water source and climate regulator.
For Red Muqui, prioritizing the profits of transnational companies and speeding up major extractive projects runs counter to the real needs of the population in a moment of intersecting crises:
Given the scope of the issues we face in a post-pandemic context, food and the climate crisis should be central components to any serious discussion about our country[’s future]. The issue of water is another fundamental concern that must be addressed, given that not only will it become more scarce, conflicts around water access will become increasingly frequent. There is not a single mention of these issues in the plans put forward by the national or regional governments.
While the Boluarte administration prioritizes the growth of the mining sector, with the full-throated support of the Canadian embassy, organizations like Red Muqui are clear: in a time of increasing environmental pressure, those who stand to gain the most from mining are not those who will pay the biggest price.
Photo: Peru’s President Dina Boluarte speaks during a televised address. Photo courtesy Presidencia del Perú/X.
Viviana Herrera is the Latin America program coordinator at MiningWatch Canada.