August 1, 2012
By Marianne Comfort, Institute Justice Team
It has been impressive to see how Mercy has coordinated a response on many fronts to the recent violence in Peru over the siting of a gold and copper mine in the Andes.
The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas’ Institute Justice Office in Washington, D.C., first learned through an email message about the killing and beating of protesters distraught over plans by U.S.-based Newmont Mining Corporation for a mega-mine called Conga. Area residents are concerned that the company’s proposed mine would destroy multiple lakes and threaten communities’ access to clean water, and they want the company and the Peruvian government to respect their right to free, prior and informed consent before the project moves forward. Two confrontations with police resulted in the shooting deaths of five protesters and left at least 21 people injured.
That initial email message urged us to sign onto a letter to the Peruvian ambassador to the U.S., Harold Forsyth. The letter — signed by 88 environmental, human rights and faith-based groups — demanded, among other things, an immediate halt to violent attacks against protesters and an investigation into the intimidation of mine opposition leaders, which included a beating of a priest-activist.
Soon after signing the letter, the Institute Justice Team was invited to a meeting of D.C.-based advocates with Ambassador Forsyth to elaborate on our concerns.
To prepare, I contacted Sisters of Mercy living in Peru to learn their perspective and to find out what they would like me to ask the ambassador. The response was clear: “Conga no va!” roughly translated as “No Conga!” or “Conga go home!” One explained that a big concern is the potential lack of access to water in an area that is the “bread basket” of northern Peru for potatoes and beans. That helped me to frame a question to the ambassador about what the government will do to ensure the people’s rights to water; he responded that it’s a “very technical question,” and that a report of independent experts said that “if certain principles are fulfilled by the authorities and the company, the interests of the people will be preserved.”
Before the meeting I also consulted with Mercy Investment Services, and learned that Pat Zerega, director of shareholder advocacy, had been engaging with Newmont on these issues, as well. In fact, just a few days earlier, she had participated in a phone call with company executives. She informed me that investors are calling on Newmont to improve its consultation process with the local community and to press Peru to sign the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human rights for governments and companies engaged in the extractive industry.
After the meeting, at which we expressed our concerns and the ambassador unsurprisingly defended his government while saying that he would look into the Voluntary Principles, I heard from Sister Aine O’Connor, the Mercy representative at the United Nations. She shared with me a letter she had signed, along with other congregations of women and men religious accredited at the U.N., to Peruvian President Ollanta Humala. The letter spelled out the same concerns about violence and human rights abuses, the same demands for a halt to all repression against people opposing the mine, and the same demand for the government to initiate a dialogue with local communities over the mine.
The incidents in Bambamarca, Celendín and Cajamarca, Peru, unfortunately are repetitions of similar scenes around the world where the interests of big mining corporations are pitted against the environment and the health and livelihood of area residents. The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas have been addressing mining concerns in other parts of Peru, in Panama and in the Philippines, in particular. We are collaborating with other congregations of Mercy Sisters around the world who are engaging with mining companies and governments in Australia, Canada and Ireland, to name just a few countries.
We hope and pray that Mercy interventions at all levels will bring peace to regions that are experiencing the impact of a global mining boom, and embolden governments to consider more thoroughly the real threat of environmental, health and cultural devastation before they approve extractive projects.