(Adds context on mining conflicts, minister’s comments on Tia Maria construction permit and possible payments to opponents)
LIMA, Dec 21 (Reuters) - Peru’s government said on Monday that copper output in the world’s third biggest producer should rise 65.5 percent in 2016 to about 2.5 million tonnes after MMG Ltd’s massive Las Bambas project starts operations in February.
Ongoing talks with leaders in communities where protests against Las Bambas turned deadly in September have been positive and have not held up the $7.4 billion project, Energy and Mines Minister Rosa Maria Ortiz said.
The Las Bambas mine, in the highland region Apurimac, should produce between 250,000 and 300,000 tonnes of copper in 2016, Ortiz said.
Peru is expected to produce a growing share of copper supplies in years ahead, but community conflicts in the Andean country threaten to clog its $56 billion mining project pipeline.
Las Bambas would be the first mining project in Peru in recent years to start operations after the protests against it turned deadly.
Newmont Mining Corp’s $4.8 billion gold and copper Conga project was derailed by unrest in 2011, and Southern Copper Corp put its $1.4 billion Tia Maria project on hold in May after three protesters died.
Continued strong opposition to Tia Maria, in the southern region of Arequipa, will likely keep the government from issuing a construction permit for the copper mine in what remains of President Ollanta Humala’s term ending in late July, Ortiz said.
“It looks improbable to me. I can’t say yes or no but it looks improbable,” Ortiz said at a press conference.
Ortiz said Southern Copper has not done enough to build support among locals, especially farmers, who are worried about the project’s environmental impact.
“The company launched an aggressive campaign to build support for the project, but where? In Lima!” Ortiz said. “What’s been missing is to do the same thing but where the project is going to be developed,”
Southern Copper said in September that a door-to-door campaign near the project had been easing opposition.
Ortiz said evidence that Southern Copper might have paid Tia Maria opponents to call off protests was worrisome.
A public prosecutor told Reuters last month that she suspected the company had paid protest leaders to ease opposition, but that payments would not be illegal because they were not to public officials.
“It might not be criminal bribery, but ethically and morally it’s inappropriate,” Ortiz said. “We’re waiting for the results of the proceedings.”
Reporting by Mitra Taj; Editing by Paul Simao, Chizu Nomiyama and Leslie Adler