Peru's Antamina to start formal talks with protesters to find 'common ground'

AQUIA, Peru, Nov 5 (Reuters) - The head of Antamina, Peru's largest copper producer, looked to defuse tensions with rural community protesters on Friday, addressing residents in a local meeting after a blockade forced the mining firm to suspend operations last week.

Victor Gobitz, head of Antamina, part-owned by Glencore Plc (GLEN.L) and BHP Billiton (BHP.AX), told residents at a town hall meeting in Aquia attended by Reuters that the two sides could find common ground, a sharp shift from an earlier critical tone.

Gobitz told reporters after the event that the two sides had agreed to start formal talks from Monday.

"With orderly dialogue we will find the formula for a development plan for the whole town of Aquia," Gobitz said at the meeting, held in the town's bull fighting arena. "We have to lead by example that we can find common ground."

The tone was a marked shift for Gobitz, who initially dismissed the protesters as violent and only representative of a minority of voices.

Protests against miners in Peru, the world's No. 2 copper producer, have escalated in recent weeks amid high expectations from rural communities emboldened by the socialist administration of center-left President Pedro Castillo.

Castillo, from a peasant farming background, came to power in July with massive support from mining regions, promising to increase taxes on miners to promote local development.

The community in Aquia, located some 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Antamina, had blocked a key road for the mine in late October, before agreeing to lift the blockade after government talks earlier this week. read more

Residents say the area receives little in terms of tax contributions from the mine, although the company has a copper pipeline and road running through the town.

"We are not throwing a social tantrum," said Adan Damian, the president of Aquia, in remarks in response to Gobitz. "I have mixed feelings that after protesting so much we are finally being listened to."

Gobitz said Antamina would withdraw criminal allegations against Aquia leaders and nearby residents made in the lead-up to the protests, and work to provide cellphone towers to the town. He shook hands with local leaders at the meeting.

In his remarks to reporters after the event, Gobitz declined to say how much copper production had been lost due to the protests, although he said Antamina had yet to restart at 100% capacity and it was unclear when that could be achieved.

The CEO reiterated his earlier assertion that some protest acts had been violent but said that the company was drawing a line under that.

"We are putting that behind us," he said.

Reporting by Marcelo Rochabrun; Editing by Adam Jourdan, Marguerita Choy and Steve Orlofsky

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