Human Journey

Peruvians Protest Gold Mine Construction

Peru map from "The World" iPad app from National Geographic

Peruvian President Ollanta Humala announced a state of emergency in parts of the country early in December in response to protests over the construction of a huge gold mine in Cajamarca, reported CNN; the state of emergency was lifted in mid-December. The protesters cite potential adverse environmental effects on water and agriculture. The U.S. Denver-based Newmont Mining Corp., which is to co-own the mine, had recently halted development on the project as the result of the protests, reported the BBC in late November.  The Conga project would be an extension of Yanacocha, Latin America’s largest gold mine.  Newmont plans to drain four Andean lakes, moving the water into reservoirs. The company details their environmental impact assessment study on their website. In 2005 FRONTLINE/World investigated the murky political history of the Yanacocha Mine and Newmont’s ownership stake in “Peru: The Curse of Inca Gold.”

Cyanide or mercury contamination are concerns for large and small gold mining operations. PBS NewsHour reported this week on mercury sickening the small-scale miners in southeastern Peru who use it to form an amalgam to separate the gold from dirt. They report that the gold rush has attracted 20,000 miners to the Madre de Dios region. Mercury pollution in Peru is nothing new.  In his 2009 National Geographic News story,”Mercury Pollution’s Oldest Traces Found in Peru“, John Roach reported on a study showing mercury traces that date back to 1400 B.C. Sediment studies done in Huancavelica show that the ancient traces resulted from a quest for vermilion, and later for silver. Geologist Colin Cooke, lead author of the study, says “We haven’t done any direct measurements of mercury in fish or blood-mercury levels in the residents or anything, but I would suspect it is probably one of the most polluted regions of the world.”

In The Real Price of Gold (National Geographic magazine, January 2009), Brook Larmer takes a look at the 21st-century gold rush which has exacted an environmental toll including toxic vapors and waste mercury poisoning local food chains. He describes the depletion of large deposits: “Most of the gold left to mine exists as traces buried in remote and fragile corners of the globe. It’s an invitation to destruction. But there is no shortage of miners, big and small, who are willing to accept.” Photos by Randy Olson show the often desperate lives of those staking a claim and the global fascination with gold that drives them.

  • Simkins

    The state of emergency referred to in the headline and opening graph of this story was lifted on December 16 which would make the headline and lead of this story curious on December 30. To not report the state of emergency was lifted after using it as an evocative headline seems a questionable practice. Indeed not only was the state of emergency lifted but the govt and protestors engaged in dialogue and agreed to bring in 3rd party independent environmental experts to look at the issues. It would help the credibility of your journalism immensely if the story was accurate and up to date with the latest information. As it stands now the missing information that results in a misleading lead paragraph throws the credibility and the agenda of the rest of the story into question. Better editing and latest facts please next time.

    • Anne Marie Houppert

      You are quite right, and my apologies. I have corrected to reflect the lifting of the state of emergency. Thank you for your comments.

  • Scott

    Anne, I think it would also help your article if you investigated and reported the actual process and elements that will be used in extracting the minerals at the proposed Conga project. I am not sure if you are aware but I understand the project will produce much more copper than gold. The contamination/poisoning you mention that is associated with the small-scale miners in southeastern Peru is a terrible thing but is in no way relavant to the Conga project other than to perpetuate mis-information by insinuating they will be using mercury in the extraction process which they will not. Your article would be better served if you compared the project to a more comparable project/mine and any issues that are relevant between them. To make it sound like the Conga project will be similar to situations of the small-scale miners in southeastern Peru is like saying that the National Geograhic’s journalism standards are somehow similar to a supermarket tabloid’s with cover stories often based on supernatural or paranormal themes and an approach to news that verges on the satirical. Please continue to investigate and report on the issue, I am interested in the topic.

  • daniel

    Draining of four lakes eh? And where is the waste water going after that? And whose traditional lakes are those that they are draining in a Country that is not theirs? And, what is happening with the mine now? “Had recently halted development in late November” and now what is happening? Follow up please….And Scott, where’s your information from? Could you supply some evidence/links to information to support your allegations of the copper over gold statement and your assertion that they’re not going to use mercury to separate the metals? I find it tragically amusing that the mining is in the Madre de Dios region as this means Mother of God, this raping of the Earth seems not very respectful of Creation and the beauty of all that is Holy, i.e. our Earth and it’s systems, which are also systems of the metals in the ground as well as the fossils(fuel) that we so disregardingly take from her as well, when we have no need for gold really other than to satiate greed of the few, and have so many other forms of energy that we could/should be using instead of the primitive forms of vehicles that we STILL use, let’s get going back in the direction of Eden instead of it’s opposite which is a hell here on Earth with no fresh water, no clean air, children with cancer, and dead dirt that you couldn’t grow a dandelion in, Amen.

  • daniel

    as well, Newmont is a Gold mining company Scott and that is what they are there for, maybe YOU should get your facts straight before you point fingee’s? I looked at the Newmont websites EIA, and as they state that the studies “were conducted by internationally recognized and respected firms. The public engagement process was transparent and open to anyone who wanted to provide input or raise concerns during a three-year period”, they don’t say who these “respected” firms are and therefore how are we to know what their interest are in the matter. That doesn’t seem like a transparent process to me! Also on this page and in their “fact sheet” they don’t mention how they are going to mine the gold or how toxic the whole process will be they just say in a sort of “we’re so great” way that the water will be provided for downstream use to farmers after they process this water, however that is? This sort of diversion self congratulating BS reminds me of the things the US presidents do to divert our attention away from the real greedy things they are doing at the cost of the land and therefore the people who live on it, like Obama’s silly statement in the State of the Onion address that billionaires should pay their secretaries the same as they pay in taxes! How about raising the minimum wage to $12/hr Obama(and Harper) so people don’t have to work three jobs just to feed their kids and pay the rent? Amen.

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