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The town at the end of the world

By Anna Kramer
Community leader Melchora Surco in front of the Tintaya Copper Mine in Espinar, Peru. Photo: Percy Ramirez/Oxfam America

In rural Peru, villagers say, pollution from a mine ruined one community’s water supply. Are others next?

Alto Huancane is falling down. A few houses in this rural Peruvian village have already collapsed, roofs and all, onto the soft, spongy earth. Others are keeling over, shedding bricks like loose teeth. Nearby, pools of water well up through the grass, edged with a strange yellow froth. In the high-octane glow of an Andean sunset, the broken houses and silent streets have a sorrowful, abandoned feeling—as though this town had survived the end of the world.

In a way, it has.

“Before, it was beautiful where we lived,” said Melchora Surco, 57, vice president of Alto Huancane. “Now the water isn’t safe for people, or even for animals.”

Surco said that pollution began seeping into the town in 2003, contaminating rivers and rotting foundations. “It went into the ground, into the water supply,” she said. “The grass that used to be dry became moist. … The houses started to fall.”

Many residents believe the pollution comes from the Tintaya Mine, a gigantic, multi-billion-dollar copper mining operation located only a few kilometers away. Surco said leaders from Alto Huancane have met with representatives from two different companies that operated the mine. Both promised to help, but have not yet taken any action. Ideally, she said, villagers would like assistance to help them relocate, since they can no longer earn a living from farming or raising livestock.

“We don’t want to live here, because there is no life here,” said Surco. “We want a solution, but we don’t know where we should go. We’re waiting on the company’s will.”

Giant mines next to small farms

On the October day we met her, Surco and other village leaders were in the regional capital, Espinar, attending a government workshop on monitoring of water pollution and other environmental issues. They hoped officials would visit Alto Huancane and document the pollution there to help them further their case. (In an unrelated case, Xstrata Tintaya was fined $84,000 earlier this year after a Peruvian environmental agency found the company responsible for dangerously elevated copper levels in local pastureland.)

Though several large mines operate in Espinar, the industry has so far brought few benefits to this highland region.

“Poverty [in Peru] has gone down overall during the country’s resource boom, but remains stubbornly high in rural areas where the mining and oil extraction takes place,” wrote Oxfam’s Keith Slack in a recent blog post. “Outside of … Espinar [city], you can see people living in mud-brick houses and using rudimentary farming implements. A modern, multinational mining operation operates nearby. Poverty in this region is above 60 percent. How can this be, amidst all this mining money?”

It’s a hard question to answer, and one that has even led to violent conflicts between community members and mining companies. For nearly a decade, Oxfam and local partner organizations have been working with communities in Espinar—including Alto Huancane—to support a dialogue process among local people, mining companies, and governments, bringing these different groups together to discuss issues like land ownership, human rights, economic development, and the environment.

Competing for Peru’s water

The effects of mining on Peru’s water supply as a whole are also unclear. Though the country officially has abundant fresh water in its 159 river basins, a recent article in the Peruvian newspaper La Republica noted that authorities haven’t provided current information about how much of that water is still available, especially in Andean and Amazon regions, where mining projects are concentrated.

Geographies of Conflict, a new report by Oxfam America, maps the area of Peruvian river basins allocated to mining concessions and found it has increased dramatically since the early 2000s. (A concession is a legal claim on natural resources that gives a company permission to operate.)

“The maps reveal extensive overlaps between [mining] concessions and water resources, overlaps that are growing steadily larger,” write the authors of the report. “Increasingly in the years ahead, different land users are likely to compete for access to the same land and water resources.”

And when that competition happens, hopefully communities like Alto Huancane won’t be on the losing side.

Oxfam is working to with people around the world to protect the rights of communities affected by oil, gas, and mining.

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