This special referendum has been organized by the mayors of three communities, along with members of the Frente de Desarrollo Sostenible del Norte del Perú (Front for Sustainable Development of Northern Peru). The question refers to the development of the Río Blanco mining project, led by the Majaz mining corporation, whose largest shareholder is the Chinese consortium Zijin.
The proposed mining project has caused social conflict in this area of Peru. The problems started when the communities denied the company their authorization for the use of their lands, which the firm needs under Peruvian Law No. 26505. The Peruvian Ombudsman office verified this, and communicated the decision to the Ministry of Energy and Mining, which disregarded it. After that there have been several violent conflicts between the security forces hired by the company and community members, two of whom died.
In recent weeks, the Zijin consortium has offered $40 million to the community of Yanta, and the same amount to the community of Segunda y Cajas, to be paid over the duration of the mining project. The latter community held an assembly and decided not to accept this proposal, which conditioned the disbursement to the approval of the mining project. The former will decide in the following days.
"This plebiscite is taking place because the population has asked for it," said Fernando Romero of Oxfam International. "The citizens of this zone want to express their opinion about an activity that would profoundly affect their lives. This action respects the right to express one's opinion, a very fundamental right," he added. "Oxfam International decided to support the referendum because it is a legal mechanism that does not pretend to go further than what the law recognizes as a matter for local governments, as it has no legal implications. We think it is crucial to collect the communities' opinion and establish a dialogue between the authorities, firms, and civil society." Romero emphasized that, according to Oxfam's experience, only by listening to the population can social conflicts be mitigated.
In the last few days some Peruvian authorities have publicly criticized the referendum. The National Election Board, the body that regulates elections, has declared it an illegal activity because local authorities are not supposed to hold referenda in which citizens decide about extractive industries. The Ministry of Energy and Mining has said that local authorities cannot make declarations on a national issue. President Alan García and the Prime Minister Jorge Del Castillo have publicly opposed the referendum.
Nevertheless, the office of the Peruvian Ombudsman has declared that the referendum is not an illegal activity because it is within the jurisdiction of the local authorities. The Ministry of Justice has made similar statements. The organizers have stated that the referendum lies within the responsibility of the local government, and that it is meant to reflect public opinion, which they want the authorities to consider when it is time to make decisions.
"We make a public call for this activity to be held in peace, for the different points of view to be heard, and for the authorities to give the necessary help and make sure there is adequate security for everyone," said Romero. "Oxfam is opposed to any type of violence or coercion and supports freedom of expression and participation for everyone involved. We expect this opportunity will be used to hear the population's opinion and find the best solution for the social conflict that has been brewing. The communities of these three districts have sought a way to express themselves in a peaceful way, and this is a will and a right that should be respected."