Peru’s President Ollanta Humala “has staked his political future on cashing up royalties from extractive industries, such as mining,” reportedly fuelling claims by his “fiercest detractors, including his own father Isaac, [that] mining honchos are the ones truly running the Peruvian government.
The recent news that over 100 people had been affected by a toxic spill from a copper mine in Peru’s Antamina province (above) added fuel to the debate over the safety and responsibility of mining, writes Christopher Sabatini, editor-in-chief of the Americas Quarterly.
For almost a year, a conflict has raged north of where the spill occurred in Cajamarca between a handful of community leaders and Colorado-based Newmont over the mining company’s plans to develop and expand the gold and copper Conga mines. Local community leaders, supported by international non-governmental organizations, claim that Newmont’s operations will pollute water sources, a charge disputed by the mining company and a number of studies it has commissioned. Public marches, road blockages and violence over the Conga mines have crippled the national government and forced President Ollanta Humala to make several cabinet changes.
In Peru and outside, the clash has been portrayed as emblematic of the escalating and inevitable tension between the global markets’ demand for natural resources and the environmental and political rights of the communities where those commodities are produced.
Both sides are right in seeing it as a sign of things to come. But framing it only as a conflict between companies and communities misses one of the crucial elements that underlie the conflict: how well local governments manage and direct the revenues generated by the mining-resource boom to address long-simmering social demands.
Ultimately, even assuming the environmental benevolence of natural resource extraction companies (OK, admittedly a huge assumption), the responsibility of providing the basic public, social services to the poor rural communities where natural resource extraction activities often take place is that of a national government. Unfortunately, in many of the countries where natural resource extraction investment has rushed in, the capacity of governments to fulfill these basic public functions has been – and is still – sorely lacking. The failure of governments to provide the foundation for socioeconomic demands of these communities means that these conflicts will simmer, and with it the tensions between company and community.
Peru provides a perfect example of state failures and the challenge of resolving the tension between global demands for resources and local demands for respect and the safety of their citizens.
The bulk of the new-found wealth hasn’t gone to social programs. Instead, it has funded massive, ridiculous Mussolini-esque public works: the refurbishment of town plazas, the improvement of (and often the construction of new) municipal buildings and, in the case of Chavín, the construction of a massive sports facility that includes an Olympic swimming pool that has yet to be filled (in the Peruvian highlands – not a region known for water sports). This is also not to mention the incredible stories of personal enrichment and corruption and the mysterious car accident that killed (or did it?) the former mayor of San Marcos.
But in all of this, governmental incompetence and corruption remain the primary drag on basic development needs – public investments in education, infrastructure and health care, for example.
The larger goals of development are public goods, delivered through governmental institutions. When national or local public offices lack the capacity, oversight and leadership to do more than just accomplish personal or short-term goals, it isn’t merely the fault of the private sector. But these knotty, long-term challenges are embedded in the sad history of exploitation of local governments and the degradation of the public and political sector in these countries. Overcoming them is a long-term problem that goes beyond the friction between companies and communities, one that will shape the capacity of countries and investors to continue to provide natural resources for global economic growth.
This is an edited extract from a report by Christopher Sabatini. RTWT
When it comes to such citizen grievances, “the effectiveness of mechanisms for redress varies significantly” across Peru, according to a recent World Bank report.
“On the local level, where community participation is encouraged and promoted, members can address issues as they arise with the implementing civil society organizations in efficient, transparent processes. However, the mechanisms for addressing problems with local and federal government partners have proven to be inaccessible and ineffective,” the report notes.
“Yet, in reality, the ability of citizens to even learn of these mechanisms depends entirely on whether civil society groups are present and active in a given region and have the capacity to disseminate such information.”
Peru’s labor movement is one of the few civil society organizations with a national presence. Consequently, it is in a position to help give voice to agricultural workers fighting a law that lowers wages and reduces job protections, the Solidarity Center reports:
Solidarity Center staff held regional and national workshops in which workers interviewed one another and recorded their personal testimonies. They then produced four radio spots featuring the workers. These spots, as part of a broader campaign that has included rallies and letter writing, were sent to more than 60 educational and community radio stations and union media outlets.
The Solidarity Center is one of the four core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.