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The glitter of gold conceals ugly realities in Peru, one of the world’s largest gold producers. While the treasured commodity promises to bring jobs and economic development to extraction sites, its production involves exorbitant water consumption, leaves behind massive amounts of toxic waste, and has led to deadly social conflicts. Harassment and intimidation, propaganda, criminalization, and targeted assassinations of environmental activists characterize everyday life across the world’s mining regions.
Peru’s economy is heavily dependent on mineral extraction, which represents about two-thirds of its national export income. The world price of gold peaked at $1,800 an ounce in 2011 after a 12-year period of rapid growth—enticing the state and mining companies to increase investment and expand mining operations. As the mining business expanded, so did conflicts. Peru’s human rights commission recorded well over 200 active conflicts each year between 2008 and 2017—most of which were related to mining.
Beyond health and environmental risks, extractive projects are often also linked to corruption and underdevelopment. People around the mining sites I’ve studied contest the companies’ false promises, their deception, their arrogance, and the unequal distribution of the benefits and burdens of mining.
For these reasons and more, conflicts around mining often escalate into violence. However, most analyses of these situations tend to focus on explosive conflict events, rather than what leads to them. Particularly, the tactics that transnational companies use to stoke the fires of these conflicts are often left out. Activists involved in these conflicts want others to understand how corporate representatives gain support and suppress dissent among communities near mining projects, including through corporate social responsibility programs, media partnerships, and repression.
Corporate Social (Ir)responsibility
Extractive industries in Peru have pacified the public and specific groups who oppose mining projects through the adoption and promotion of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), which refers to the development of a philanthropic or charitable arm of a for-profit business. CSR is at once a public demand, a marketing strategy, and a byproduct of the diminished role of the state in the provision of public services.
CSR often takes the form of short-term philanthropy, such as handing out petty gifts to gain support for mining projects. CSR also appears as long-term investments in local development, for example through sponsoring scholarships or alternative industries like agriculture. Investment in development projects, like education, reforestation, and agricultural projects, is newer and less common than philanthropic gifts, but its results may be more enduring. The Johannesburg-based company Gold Fields, for example, has funded scholarships as well as dairy pasteurization training and infrastructure around its Cerro Corona mine in the Hualgayoc district of Cajamarca, Peru.
Like other corporate strategies, CSR has become more sophisticated over time. For example, around 2001, a Vancouver-based mining company, then called the Manhattan Minerals Corporation, offered kitchen and school supplies to crowds in downtown Tambogrande, according to local interviewees. More recently, the Toronto-based Barrick Gold set up a so-called “medical campaign” in towns around its Lagunas Norte mine, although one municipal official described this effort as nothing more than “a tent and two doctors pitched downtown for a week.” The U.S.-Peruvian joint venture La Zanja, owned by Newmont Mining, similarly sponsored an optometry campaign in 2011 and has offered basic medical services in nearby districts. Other companies have sponsored town fairs, given away free hot chocolate, and arranged other low-cost compensation activities. La Zanja has also sponsored local organizations, such as by providing t-shirts and hats, emblazoned with the company’s logo, to a local soccer club and an elders’ association.
In some cases, companies fund local development projects under the banner of CSR, which may involve reaching agreements with individuals or groups, including people who are outspoken company opponents and present a risk to the company, due to their institutional authority, their organizing power, or both. In addition to financing their preferred candidates’ electoral campaigns, companies have offered cash handouts, construction equipment, contracts for basic services like food and sanitation, and employment—to mining supporters as well as to their opponents and their family members.
Such increasingly sophisticated strategies are on display in the case of the La Zanja mine. Tensions there escalated since the project proposal and construction stage, between 1998 to 2004, when locals burned down the company’s compound. La Zanja left the area and laid low for a few years, but they were not deterred. In 2007, the company returned with a new strategy, involving heavy CSR including hiring sociologists, contracting local opponents into seasonal work, and funding a development-oriented NGO.
These tactics help explain the opposition’s slow demobilization and the company’s successful installation into the community by 2008. In a province where over 60% of the population was classified as impoverished in 2007, the company presented powerful incentives. According to one interviewee who wished to remain anonymous for safety reasons, the opposition was essentially bribed into silence. Many in town blamed the movement leaders, accusing them of being merely self-interested or corrupt.
Critics of CSR broadly agree that the practice is a voluntary and insufficient substitute for strict regulations and adequate corporate practices, such as respecting public referenda on the projects, addressing their environmental risks, or truly redistributing the benefits of mining activities to locals. In some of its most common forms, CSR entails companies working with local authorities to fund public infrastructure en lieu of paying some corporate taxes. For example, companies fund the construction of electrical lines and roads—which mining companies need anyway—as well as water reservoirs and treatment facilities, stadiums, parks, and look-out points. Gold Fields, La Zanja, and Barrick tout their contributions to these kinds of construction and infrastructure projects. Meanwhile, residents and local government authorities in mining areas complain that these gifts attract positive attention to distract from corporate tax evasion and environmental degradation.
The Two Faces of Corporate Media Tactics
Gold mining companies collaborate extensively with local and national media to contain opposition to mining projects. Peru’s mining companies work with sophisticated, industry-specific public relations firms and advertising contractors to build strong online presences, open their own news outlets, and build personal relationships with journalists and news editors. These partnerships serve both to promote the firms’ brand and to discredit their opponents.
On the one hand, they curry positive public opinion, highlight their excellent rapport with local communities, and exploit photo opportunities. On the other hand, their publications and statements smear and delegitimize any opposition by portraying it as ignorant, backwards, corrupt, violent and even terroristic, and as an unrepresentative radical fringe. In Peru, the use of criminalizing frames against “antiminers” and loose accusations of terrorism are particularly salient, given the country’s recent history of internal armed conflict. Words such as terrorism weigh heavily on those who survived the 20-year war, only partially resolved with a return to democracy in 2001.
These discourses have contributed to the pervasive perspective that mining represents an unquestionable path to development and widespread prosperity, that mining companies are socially responsible and environmentally sustainable, and that people who protest mining projects are either misinformed or purposely manipulating the public for self-gain. Such narratives are diffused through official rhetoric, established media, and even social media—for example, Facebook pages operated by mining companies, public relations firms, independent journalists, and other mining supporters—and they are latent in everyday conversations and public debates.
For example, in 2007, former Peruvian president Alan García published two essays that portrayed Indigenous populations—who were organizing a mass movement against extractive projects in their territories, at the time—as “prairie dogs” who were culturally backwards and opposed to “national” progress. In 2015, police detained and beat Antonio Coasaca Mamani, a farmer from Arequipa, for participating in a protest against the proposed Tía María copper mine, owned by the conglomerate Grupo México. During his capture at a protest, the Special Operations Division of the national police attempted to plant weapons on and incriminate Coasaca as a violent “antiminer,” and with the full complicity of the nationwide daily newspaper El Correo, as an investigation and videos of the event revealed. The state-sponsored attempt to frame Coasaca as violent, with the help of a national newspaper, is just one of countless examples of the state and mainstream media’s common practice of framing protest as illegitimate and dangerous.
Repression and Intimidation
The most coercive forms of quelling opposition to mining projects involve repressing and criminalizing opposition through state armed forces and the judicial system, and even intimidating them privately. Criminalizing dissent to protect extractive projects is well-documented in Latin America, where it is known to disproportionately harm women, Indigenous peoples, and Afro-descendent peoples. In each of the cases I studied, I heard countless stories of activists detained or otherwise processed through the court system, and about the distrust and trauma sowed by the armed forces, “always arriving to harm protesters and protect companies,” even during peaceful rallies, as a young activist in La Libertad told me. In Cajamarca alone—Peru’s top gold producing region alongside La Libertad—there were more than 300 protesters with open court cases as of mid-2016, according to Grufides, a regional human rights and environmental NGO.
Most companies often try to put down protests by working with the police, who they call for backup protection during demonstrations, assuming that the police will protect private property and restore order. Indeed, numerous companies have signed private protection contracts with the Peruvian National Police. On the other hand, a manager at the Cerro Corona mine claimed in our conversations that when his company called for police assistance, his supervisors instructed police chiefs to avoid using violence on peaceful protesters. Indeed, there has not been evidence of violence taking place at Cerro Corona. But this is not representative of the majority of cases. Mining companies are likely well aware of the widespread abuses committed by the state armed forces in the country. In assigning the work of quelling protest to the police, extractive companies are effectively transferring responsibility for any violent acts of repression that may occur.
Powerful and well-established mining corporations have ample influence over the state’s own actions, both through formal lobbying and in subtler ways. Yet companies tend to wash their hands from any responsibility when violence breaks out at mining-related protests with police presence.
Outside the realm of protests, dozens of activists I interviewed alleged that companies have also relied on private harassment and intimidation. Activists reported intimidation in the form of threatening phone calls, stalking, or surveillance by private security. Others spoke of physical damages to their homes or workplaces, or attacks on family members. A lawyer who leads the social movement against mining in La Libertad said he received threatening phone calls from a company manager, and claimed to local media that assailants showed up at his house and cut his sister’s face to intimidate him and dissuade his leadership. (He remains anonymous for safety precautions.)
An elected official I interviewed, who strongly opposes a large mining company in Cajamarca, said he could not even answer the phone anymore, given the frequency of the death threats he received, which he said have caused him psychological distress. Several mining company managers at one firm, who asked to remain anonymous, told me they had deeply infiltrated and “kept intelligence” about activist organizations. As one said to me, “In Tía María, protest leaders were recorded accepting bribes, then blackmailed and exposed by companies. The same thing happened here in town. We had to show their true face.” For most activists who reported these kinds of experiences, such tactics have strengthened their resolve to fight the companies. But others have seen the threats as a good reason to demobilize and keep quiet.
Activists have also blamed company actors of plotting the murders of environmental protesters in Piura and Cajamarca. Human rights activists claim that the frequent murder of environmental activists in Latin America cannot be considered coincidental or isolated. More than 270 people were killed in Peru’s social conflicts between 2006 and 2016, with about 70% of these conflicts related to extractive industries, according to the country’s human rights commission. However, in the majority of cases, deaths occurred at the hands of police and military forces, not private actors.
When I asked company representatives and police about assassinations of local leaders, many of them said execution orders are not corporate decisions, but that these actions are generally perpetrated by people with vested interests in silencing detractors. In some extreme cases, however, company managers and employees have directly armed their local supporters and their private security. For example, in the case of the Vale Do Rio Doce company’s Miski Mayo project in Cajamarca, the company formed and armed “defense groups.” The practice has also been documented in other parts of the Americas.
These methods serve to suppress conflict, as opposed to resolving or transforming it. Moreover, even forms of community engagement strategies that purport some benefit, such as CSR investments, usually go hand-in-hand with cooptation, repression, and delegitimation strategies. While such strategies allow companies and the state to keep conflict at bay, they merely create a smokescreen of peace. Ultimately, they postpone and may exacerbate the tensions that underlie company-community relations. This often can lead to a boiling point, when affected peoples can resort to increased militancy. As such, eruptions of violent conflicts are merely symptomatic of underlying everyday tensions.
Though the majority of residents I talked to in mining districts said they were offended by the arrogance and impunity of mining operations in their towns, most claimed that they are not anti-mining or anti-development. Rather, they wanted results from the promise of development: they wanted companies to tighten their environmental standards, expand community participation, and invest more in sustainable economic activities like agriculture. Moreover, they demanded that companies stop cheating the population with inflated-valued buildings or free hot chocolate.
If they want to do more than create a façade of peace, companies must provide communities with meaningful consultation. They should be required to gain informed consent by a democratic majority, as verified by the state and independent monitors. They should promote participatory monitoring opportunities for the communities that accede to their projects. And finally, they should be ready to pay their hosts: for example, through paying higher taxes aimed at promoting local wellbeing, sustainable resource management, and alternative development.
Michael Wilson Becerril is a 2017-2018 Peace Scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a recent Ph.D. graduate from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an incoming professor of Peace and Conflict at Colgate University.