LIMA (Reuters) - Thousands of Peruvians marched in support of the country’s biggest-ever mining project on Tuesday, a day after the government implemented emergency powers to control an anti-mining protest in the South that turned deadly.
The rally in the northern region of Cajamarca in favor of Newmont Mining’s $4.8 billion Conga project praised the economic benefits of mining, a contrast to demonstrations in Cusco against Xstrata’s Tintaya mine in which two people were killed.
The rallies are a reminder of the politically polarized issue of mining in Peru, where 60 percent of rural citizens live below the poverty line and say they have not benefited from a decade-long commodities boom.
“This is a march for peace, for jobs and development that the entire town is invited to participate in,” Manuel Becerra Vilchez, a representative of the private Antonio Guillermo Urrelo University, told official news agency Andina.
Estimates range from several thousand to up to 10,000 participants in the protest.
The so-called Cajamarca Collective, led by pro-business locals like Vilchez, aims to rally support for Conga before other townspeople and local government officials opposed to Peru’s largest-ever mining project resume demonstrations on Thursday.
Work has been stalled on Conga since environmental demonstrations started in November. Newmont is expected to decide next month whether to move forward with the mine after the government and independent auditors said it must take more environmental precautions that will increase costs.
President Ollanta Humala, who has vowed to resolve social conflicts that threaten $50 billion in pledged private investments in the country, has said Newmont should keep two of four lakes it planned to destroy intact and build larger reservoirs to increase water supplies.
The violence stemming from anti-mining protests in the southern region of Cusco, however, threatens Humala’s carefully crafted image as a peacemaker who defends private investment while also protecting the rural poor, who largely voted for him.
At least 10 people have died in disputes over natural resources since Humala took office in July. Some 174 people died in similar protests during the five-year term of his predecessor, Alan Garcia.
Protesters say Xstrata’s Tintaya copper mine, which has not seen output affected by the demonstrations, has done little to help Cusco’s poor province of Espinar and causes pollution. At least 50 people, 30 of them police officers, have been injured in clashes.
Xstrata has said its voluntary contributions to the province, equal to 3 percent of its pre-tax profits, are already very generous and has pleaded for dialogue.
Humala on Monday enacted emergency measures to suspend freedom of assembly in Espinar, enabling police to detain protest leader Herbert Huaman on Tuesday.
Critics say Humala, a former military officer who also used emergency decrees to restore order in Cajamarca in December, has become too quick to rely on authoritarian tactics to restore order, further exacerbating tensions in rural communities.
“We aren’t going to stop the protests, they should stop the emergency measures first,” Huaman said on local television.
“President Humala, you have been a social crusader, but now you have forgotten, brother, come and converse with us and resolve this problem yourself,” he said.
Reporting by Caroline Stauffer; Editing by Terry Wade, Cynthia Osterman and Eric Beech