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From the start, the proposed Río Blanco mining project in the Piura highlands has raised concerns about environmental impacts in the communities of Ayabaca and Carmen de la Frontera. Such concerns are a principal reason the "no" vote won the non-binding referendum on September 16.
Although Minera Majaz has not yet submitted its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), there is reason to be concerned about the area's environmental future, especially if Río Blanco proves to be just one part of a mining "district," or group of mining operations.
Considering the risks
First, mining is an activity with high environmental risks, as a list of hundreds of environmental liabilities compiled by the Ministry of Energy and Mines reveals. While it is true that a given mining operation usually affects a local area in a concentrated and relatively small manner—according to the company, the total area to be directly affected by the Río Blanco project will be around 4,450 acres (1,800 hectares)—it is also true that aquifers can be severely affected many miles downstream.
The potential contamination of the Río Blanco has become one of the main causes of unease for the people in the area, given that the proposed mining project is located in the river's headwaters. The Río Blanco is a tributary of the Chinchipe River, which forms the most important valley in the neighboring province of San Ignacio, in the department of Cajamarca. According to the study "Mining and Development in Peru, with Special Reference to the Río Blanco Project, Piura," written by a multi-disciplinary team led by Anthony Bebbington, professor of the School of Environment and Development of the University of Manchester, the most serious environmental problems that the mine could generate are "the leaching of acidic mine waters (AMW) from the mining site, the heaps of tailings, and the piles of excavated material." According to the study, the high precipitation in the area (2,000 millimeters (6.5 feet) or more per year) "raises the possibility that rainwater could filter through the piles of tailings and excavated material, transporting contaminated metals to both surface and underground waters." The study indicates that another worrisome potential problem is AMW contamination of the water table, because the open-pit mine would probably be deeper than the groundwater in the area.
After analyzing the environmental variables and reviewing the technical proposal by Majaz, Bebbington and his team concluded that "it would be possible to handle the environmental impacts of the project as designed," provided that this is an isolated mining project. If Río Blanco became part of a large mining district, the situation would be different and the risks to the environment, and water resources in particular, would increase considerably.
At the same time, the team had reservations, given that the proposed mining technology "has never been used in an area with as much precipitation or a history of seismic activity" and hence "the possible combination of tailings/wet excavation material and seismic activity is a reason for serious concern."
Minera Majaz states in many of its official notices that using of state-of-the-art technology will protect the environment. However, simply complying with Peruvian laws, which are regrettably weak, is no guarantee of true protection from environmental contamination. Vito Verna, Director of the Indigenous Communities and Environment Program in the office of the Peruvian Ombudsman observes that "the Peruvian state apparatus lacks an integrated environmental policy. For example, each industrial sector has (or should have) its own maximum allowable pollution limits, and there should be national quality standard for water, soil and air. The system does not work because the ministries have not yet put these standards forward, and consequently the National Environmental Council (CONAM) cannot approve them."
As a result, Peru has approved standards only for air and non-ionizing radiation [such as emitted by radio waves, or microwaves], but not for water (the existing standard is obsolete) or soil. Although a mining operation is required by law to treat its waters before discharging them into a body of water, the maximum allowable limits are so lax that they could even be Class III—waters suitable for irrigation or livestock, but not to sustain aquatic life. Thus, in Peru, a mining operation could exterminate fish, amphibians, and other river wildlife without breaking the law.
But the potential environmental impact of the Río Blanco project does not end there. The project site, in addition to being at the headwaters of a river basin, is located in the heart of a vast area of high-altitude cloud forests—the last sizeable area of tropical rain forests remaining in the department of Piura. These forests have great value in themselves, owing to their diversity and the fact that they form an extension of the forests of Ecuador and Colombia, and thus contain flora and fauna rare in Peru. Yet their greatest value is the connection they provide between the Tabaconas Namballe National Sanctuary (SNTN) in neighboring San Ignacio, and protected areas extending to the Ecuador border. The Río Blanco forest creates a "biological corridor," serving populations of animals that require large areas to be viable, such as the spectacled bear and Andean tapir—two endangered species protected by law.
A large open-pit mining operation in the midst of these forests, and the resulting human activity, represent a threat to the very survival of this corridor. Without it, the spectacled bears and tapirs of the sanctuary, which would lack the space necessary to survive, would be condemned to extinction. A World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) study of the biodiversity of the sanctuary and its neighboring zones concluded that "the protection of a biological corridor between the SNTN in Peru and the Podocarpus National Park in Ecuador is critical for the preservation of the species that inhabit those areas."
The future role of mining in Piura
A final consideration: Minera Majaz is not the only company interested in conducting mining operations in the area. A glance through the government's Cadastral Mining Atlas reveals, in addition to the Río Blanco project, concessions of several thousand acres in Carmen de la Frontera. Many of these are adjacent to the Río Blanco project—forming, on the maps produced by the National Institute of Concessions and Mining Surveys (INACC), a solid block of mining concessions in the forests of the Yanta and Segunda y Cajas communities. In context, then, the Río Blanco project is just the first of many future mining operations, which, as a group, constitute a potential new mining district in Peru—and whose environmental impact would be considerably more serious and significant than any single project such as Río Blanco.
It is imperative that the Peruvian government consider all the environmental issues at play in the Río Blanco case, both as part of the dialog process following the referendum and when it evaluates the EIA that the company must soon deliver.