Rio Blanco: Massive copper project proposed for Cloud Forest

By mborum
Voters in Ayabaca, Peru, participate in a referendum on the proposed copper mine in 2007.

Share this story:

Description of community and mine

The proposed Rio Blanco mining project involves a concession of 6,473 hectares (about 16,000 acres), in the department of Piura. It is forecasted to produce about $1 billion worth of copper a year for the next 20 years. The concession was first established by the British company Monterrico Metals, and 90 percent of the company was later acquired by the Chinese firm Zijin Mining Group Ltd. Together these companies have formed Rio Blanco Copper SA.

The mine concession is in a forest region in the Huancabamba mountains, which comprise a fragile biological corridor for endangered species such as tapirs and bears, and feeds major rivers running to the coast and into the Amazon River. Communities in this area rely mainly on raising cattle and growing crops such as organic coffee, mango, avocado, and bananas for export. Many farmers also grow corn and other food crops to feed their families and sell on the local market. Peru's ministry of agriculture is working with farmers in this area to increase the amount of land available for agriculture and boost production. Their efforts are already being rewarded; in 2005 they increased production of organic bananas by more than 40 percent.

If this project goes forward it could open up additional areas of Piura to mining, and significantly change the entire department from one primarily oriented to farming, to an industrialized mining region.

Community response

There have been a number of conflicts related to this proposed mine. First, when the company began exploring for mineral deposits in the area in 2002, it did not comply with laws requiring community permission. A report by Peru's Ombudsman office in 2006 said the company failed to get permission of two thirds of citizens before beginning exploration in several communities. When citizens complained and did not receive a response, they held demonstrations in 2004 and 2005. In 2005 two people were killed and many were arrested.

In 2007 the local governments of three districts staged non-binding referenda to allow citizens to voice their opinion on allowing mining in their communities. Voter turnout was strong, and the majority voted against the proposed mine. The government of Peru criticized these polls, and accused the community leaders who organized them of terrorism. These charges were dropped late in 2008, but in January of 2009 the province of Piura re-opened the case and ordered the police to further investigate the charges of terrorism—even though there is no new evidence. This new investigation is being carried out by a special counter-terrorism police force.

Peru's National Human Rights Coordinator has accused the police and mine company security forces of illegally holding and torturing 28 protestors following a 2005 demonstration. In January 2009 the Human Rights Coordinator released a report on this incident, which includes graphic photos of bound prisoners, with plastic bags on their heads and wounds. The report is leading to law suits against the government and Rio Blanco Copper, as well as public expressions of horror from the highest levels of Peru's government.

Company response

In December 2008 Monterrico and Zijin announced that the government is granting them permission to operate a foreign-owned company within 50 kilometers of an international border, which is normally prohibited under Peruvian law. At that point the company intended to complete its environmental impact assessment and start operations in 2011, despite a formal rejection of mining in specific communities in the 2007 referendum. Oxfam staff working in Peru report that the company did not file the environmental impact assessment on the January 23, 2009 deadline.

Oxfam involvement

As part of its work to help communities voice their concerns about mining projects that directly affect them, and to more efficiently negotiate with government and the mining company, Oxfam America and other members of Oxfam International supported the referendum initiative in 2007, and several studies by internationally respected bodies on the likely social, environmental, and economic effect of a large-scale mining project in the area.

Oxfam America is calling on the government of Peru and Rio Blanco Copper to:

  • Respect community rights and the results of the 2007 referendum.
  • Investigate human rights violations against community members, clarify exactly what happened, identify those who are responsible, and bring them to justice.
  • Stop the persecution of community members under investigation for terrorism.
  • Acknowledge the company has operated illegally while exploring without community permission, and compensate the communities.