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Mining Extractivism in Indigenous Territories in Peru


For centuries, colonialism constructed an image of Peru as a mining country. This narrative has been sustained by a relevant participation of extractivism in the Peruvian economy, from economic activity to exports and foreign direct investment. Recently, mining in the Andean Region has been joined by illegal gold mining in the forests and Indigenous Territories of the Amazon. Indigenous Peoples are resisting the advance of organized crime through autonomy and territorial control.

 The long tradition of extractivisms in Peru has ensured that mining in its various forms (mega-mining, medium, informal, illegal and even artisanal) has been erected as a barrier that is difficult to challenge. The mere fact of questioning or opposing this national dogma not only can condemn you to ostracism, but also bring death.

Mining extractivism, i.e., the extraction of minerals in large volumes, is oriented towards exporting raw materials in an unprocessed (or minimally processed) form. This practice began with colonialism, when wealth was transformed into gold with an urgent quest to get it out of the mountains. The Cerro Rico del Potosí was the origin of the mineral revolution and of a capitalism based on the mineralization of the human condition. In this context, Peru occupied the political power that made this transformation possible, providing material and nature, but Indigenous labor that was then annihilated in the mines.

The history of mining colonialism is vast. The common factor is that impoverished rural people, Indigenous Peoples and native peoples have always lost. In this sense, during the last 30 years of neoliberalism, we find important milestones in the form of socio-environmental conflicts that have determined even the fate of the government of the day. But the most common milestones are observed in mining projects in Indigenous territories and areas populated by campesinos (impoverished, small-scale rural farmers). There were pyrrhic but hopeful victories that, despite positive institutional changes, are now crumbling.

Neocolonialism and New Mining Scenarios

Think of the case of La Oroya and its 15 years of liquidation due to Doe Run’s insolvency, or Tambogrande, in conflict with Manhattan Minerals from 2000 to 2009 after a historic popular consultation organized by the citizens themselves, which strengthened respect for the right to prior consultation.   (Manhattan Minerals today came back under the name of Algarrobo). Think of the Conga conflict that triggered a national mobilization that led to the fall of a Cabinet and agreements on institutional improvements. Today almost no one remembers Máxima Acuña or the five victims of the conflict.

One of the common points of these mining conflicts is the neocolonial questioning of the State’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples, whose solution for the government depends on improvements in institutional functioning (while always denying Indigenous Peoples agency). In that query, national or transnational mining companies showed their corporate social responsibility credentials and there was not much more to discuss. However, in fact, there was no social responsibility at all: the mining project was imposed with the violation of fundamental rights.

These major debates shifted to “new” scenarios: the advance of illegal or informal mining throughout the national territory; the concern of large mining companies not to be confused with the social and environmental disaster (especially in the Amazon); and the growth of organized crime around illegal extraction in territories not controlled by the State. Mining companies then began to enforce their demands with an iron fist, but no longer against the leaders of socio-environmental protests, but against organized crime to guarantee their investments.

The paradoxical part is that the phrase “Peru: mining country”, imposed by those with economic power and based on socioeconomic inequality, turned out to be the encouragement for thousands of impoverished people to become the new “mining entrepreneurs” over the last 20 years. These precarious workers would take this neoliberal illusion and embark on the devastation of nature, deepening the climatic, social as well as environmental crisis that is outlining our current failed State.

A Beggar Sitting on a Bench of Illegal Gold

Building a barrier in these times requires a macroeconomic foundation. In the last ten years, mining in Peru represented an average of 9% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), while contributing around 60% of exports and 20% of foreign direct investment capital. Undoubtedly, it is a robust economic activity given the extreme importance given to it both by the state machinery and its governing leaders.

It is also true that large-scale mining has always coexisted with illegal mining. Illegal mining contributes close to 30% of the total formal production (half of it comes from the Amazon) and this percentage is growing since, according to reports from the Financial Intelligence Unit (UIF), between 2013-2023 illegal mining has been the crime with the highest accumulated amount: 8,216 million dollars, a figure that even exceeds drug trafficking. This, without counting the markets and supply chains of illegal mining that are growing in the absence of the state.

The legal definition of illegal mining was established only in 2012, with the approval of Legislative Decree No. 1102, which incorporated the crimes of simple and aggravated illegal mining into the Criminal Code. The criminal type refers to the exploration and exploitation of mineral resources that do not have the authorization of the competent administrative entity and cause environmental damage or harm, will be punished with a penalty of 4 to 8 years. Subsequently, Legislative Decree No. 1105 defined illegal mining as that which “does not comply with the technical, administrative, environmental and social requirements of the law, or which is carried out in areas, places or spaces where it is prohibited”, such as lagoons, riverbanks, headwaters and buffer zones of protected natural areas.

Later, the opacity about what is informal and what is illegal has been delineated by a law instrumentalized by the political power (the members of Congress), which today represents the interests of illegal mining (as of February 2024 there are 17 bills in favor of illegal mining). The rules that were created for “exceptional” cases ended up becoming the rule and, 22 years after the formalization process began, it has been denaturalized by successively expanding the registration of informal miners in the so-called Integral Mining Formalization Registry (REINFO). In turn, the Penal Code has excluded from the crime of illegal mining anyone who is in a formalization process (a process which could be endless).

Mining in Andean Peoples’ Territories

When the Free, Prior and Informed Consultation Law was passed, the government of Ollanta Humala tried to exclude the campesino communities as beneficiaries of the law because the mining projects would be delayed and would truncate investment. Finally, as it was impossible to discuss the colonial titles given by the Spanish Crown to some campesino and Indigenous communities of the Andes and the Coast, the issue was dropped.

The truth is that 92% of the communities are in the Andean zone. The rest are located on the Coast (about 215) and the Amazon (about 286). The communities in the Andes alone own more than 26.5% of the national territory. This shows that in the long history of mining colonialism, mineral extraction cannot be dissociated from the mineralization of Indigenous bodies.

Currently, the Peruvian territory has a mining concession area of 23,032,385 hectares, which corresponds to 18% of the national surface. Of this area, at least 31.63% overlaps with the territories of campesino communities (communities have yet to be titled, while not all concessions are active). On the other hand, it is not known how many large-scale mining projects are being explored and exploited in Indigenous territories, how many of the territories of campesino communities have been invaded by third parties for illegal mining, or how many of these communities carry out legal or illegal mining activities.

Illegal Mining and Organized Crime in the Peruvian Amazon

According to MapBiomas, forest cover in the Peruvian Amazon totals 69,100,000 hectares and occupies 53.5% of the country’s total surface area. Within this framework, 16,000 hectares are in the territories of titled and demarcated native communities, representing 21.7% of the country’s forests. According to data from 2021, 9% of the Peruvian Amazon basin is under concession to small and medium mining, with the regions of Junín, Madre de Dios and Cusco having the highest concentration of concessions that partially or totally overlap 2,021 native communities. This is not counting the increasing invasions of Indigenous territories for illegal mining exploitation.

Although it has the lowest population density in the country, Madre de Dios is the region with the greatest impact of illegal and informal mining. The majority of the department’s population are Andean migrants, and the rest are the Amarakaeri, Arawak, Machiguenga and Mashko Piros peoples. The latter is still in voluntary isolation in one of the 25 most biodiverse areas on the planet. However, the forests of Madre de Dios hide a voracious beast in search of gold, annihilating trees and spewing pestilent sludge. Thousands of workers are condemned to feed the beast day and night, in exchange for a neoliberal promise that transforms green areas into mercury-soaked mud.

According to the Center for Amazonian Scientific Innovation, the depredation of the La Pampa forest, located in the buffer zone of the Tambopata National Reserve, extends over 20 kilometers long and five kilometers wide. In 32 years (1985-2017), gold mining is estimated to have deforested 95,750 hectares, the size of a country like Hong Kong. The impact of decades of gold mining activity without state intervention has been devastating and is the result of 14 years of a declaration of national interest for mining management in the Madre de Dios region.

Illegal mining has spread to practically all regions of Peru, at the same time that the presence of international criminal organizations such as the Red Command or the First Capital Command, in alliance with national gangs, are taking control of mining enclaves. Today, Peru is one of the most dangerous regions for environmental and territorial rights defenders: since the beginning of Covid-19, 32 murders have been reported in the Amazon, most of them leaders of Indigenous Peoples. The Aguaytia, San Alejandro and Sungaruyacu river basins, where the Kakataibo and Shipibo peoples live, is the region with the highest incidence of violence.

A Discouraging Panorama

This situation, accumulated over time, has led to an armed group attacking mines concessioned to Compañía Minera Poderosa in the province of Pataz in December 2023, resulting in the murder of ten workers and the wounding of 13 others. In fact, the first gold-producing region in Peru, whose companies hired security personnel to protect themselves from illegal mining, fed a criminal organization that seeks to control areas that were concessioned to the company.

The immediate future is discouraging, there is a serious decomposition of state institutions at all levels, corruption does not cease and the complicity of the state with illegal mining is evident. At the same time, the coexistence of private enterprise with illegal gold continues to feed the international market and supply chains, and cross-border criminality is destroying nature and the social fabric. Faced with this panorama of violence, Indigenous Peoples can only deepen their autonomy, their right to self-determination and the various forms of Indigenous Peoples self-government.

Luis A. Hallazi Méndez is a lawyer and political scientist, with a master's degree in Fundamental Rights (Universidad Carlos III de Madrid) and in Democracy and Good Governance (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid). He is also a university professor and researcher at the Instituto de Bien Común de Perú (IBC).

Cover Photo: Illegal mining in the Amazon. Photo: La República

Tags: Indigenous Debates



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