“Compañero, that river that catches your eye, is the Lead River, it is its official name … 30 years ago it was called the Green River”, said the agrarian leaders of Moquegua, province of southern Peru, almost at the Chilean border.
In Latin America, we find ourselves with repercussions of the effects of environmental pollution due to mining activity almost daily. In our region, we remember again and again this anecdote that marks the devastating effects of an industry that condemns thousands of small farmers to marginalization and puts the health of millions of inhabitants at risk.
When the Tía María mining conflict regularly erupts in the Arequipa region, or when we see the devastating effects in Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, or Mexico, we need to continue investigating the scope, reasons and consequences that this criminal activity has for hundreds of thousands of workers every day, as we have done for years in the ECOSOCIALIST NETWORK.
That is why today we dedicate these lines to inform about the background of Southern Copper and Grupo México (GM), of which it is a subsidiary. The Peruvian Government has decided to grant this company the license to build the mine in Arequipa once again, while this company is coincidentally appearing in the news in Mexico for having contaminated the sea.
The day after Southern announced that the Ministry of Energy and Mines of Peru (Minem) gave it the green light to exploit the Tía María and La Tapada copper deposits, GM spilled 3,000 liters of sulfuric acid in the Sea of Cortez, “an area of enormous biological wealth”, reports the newspaper El País. The spill was considered an “environmental crime” by the expert in water of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Elena Burns. “They are substances that poison marine fauna,” she said.
This new spill occurs a few years after the biggest natural disaster in the history of Mexico: the spill of 40.000 cubic meters of toxic metals in the Sonora River, GM’s responsibility.
On August 6, 2014, Buenavista del Cobre, a GM company, spilled 40 thousand cubic meters of copper sulfate in the Bacanuchi and Sonora rivers in Mexico. The Permanent Commission that was formed considered this a case of ecocide, since the spill has also affected livestock and agricultural activities in the area. The Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection of Mexico has estimated that the cost of the spill is $ 1.8 billion. Greenpeace considered that the environmental damage in the area is irreversible.
And who owns this company? Its website indicates that the president of the GM is the Mexican Germán Larrea Mota-Velasco, a mysterious man, since he is the second richest in his country, but almost invisible to public opinion.
In September 2014, Forbes Mexico dedicated an article to him, due to his appearance in public with former President Enrique Peña Nieto. According to Forbes, Larrea’s fortune is $ 15.7 billion. And when they wanted to interview him to answer questions about his companies, he disappeared. In 2015, the weekly Proceso de Mexico published an article titled “Grupo México exports to Peru… strikes, death, pollution and corruption”, in which it gave an account of the socio-environmental conflict in Arequipa.
Going back to Peru
Let us refer to the origins. Southern Copper Corporation Peru was created in 1952 and has always acted in the south of the country with the Toquepala and Cuajone mines.
“When Southern started operations in the fifties, it severely polluted the coast due to its smelting processes and the creation of tailings. At least the Ilo Valley was contaminated due to its toxic emissions.”
For example, due to its mining activity from 1960 to 1996, the company dumped 785 million tons of mining tailings in the Tacneña bay of Ite. In 2015, the municipality of this district reported mining pollution in the wetland area and demanded that Southern remedy the damage. The company had promised to execute a “land drainage and recovery”, but never complied.
In the province of Ilo (the port of Moquegua), an over-index of sulfur dioxide pollution in the Southern smelter was reported as early as 2013 with a level higher than 190 ug/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter) in the zone (the maximum permissible limit is 80 ug/m3). Last March, the mining company announced the construction of a new foundry in Ilo and said that this was not conditioned by Tía María.
In the Torata-Mariscal Nieto district, farmers protested against the company, which they accused of contaminating water and air as a result of extractive activities in Cuajone. Local leader Samuel Coayla said Southern was making fun of his demands.
In January 2015, the Environmental Prosecutor’s Office requested two and a half years of imprisonment and the payment of a civil reparation of 1 million dollars for the executive president of Southern Peru, Mexican Oscar González Rocha, for the alleged crime of environmental pollution in the sea of Ilo.
On the other hand, in Apurímac, for the “Los Chancas” project, Southern built roads, destroyed crop fields and installed motor pumps to bring water to the drilling machinery, which contaminated the water that irrigated the natural pastures. In 2001, the suspension of exploration work was requested. However, the authorities did not take this into account and there have been several clashes between community members and workers of the company. The last one recorded was on October 2014, when citizens reacted when the mining company moved equipment and heavy machinery to the mine camp.
The leaders denounced that the problem is the attitude of the company, which seems accustomed to imposing and then seeking “dialogue”.
“It is not the first time that Southern Peru wants to impose its criteria. We have been confronted by that same attitude, which we reject, for 14 years,” said Eulogio Perez, an Abancay activist.
These and other facts explain why from the north to the south of our America, companies like Southern generate so much rejection among the population.
Of course, Southern, or any of the similar companies, could not have developed without the complicity of the different governments that time and again insist on such highly profitable projects for companies. Capitalism shows one of its ugliest faces once again, profit at the cost of condemning millions. Again, it will be only the communities, democratically choosing the productive models of development, who with the support of state planning will be able to solve this iron dilemma in which life and the future of several generations are played, for the Lead River to be green once again.