Social protests flare up at Peru mine

Government declares state of emergency after four die in battle with police

A protestor slings a rock at police at the Tintaya mine.
A protestor slings a rock at police at the Tintaya mine.F. HURTADO (EFE)

Peru's government on Monday declared a 30-day state of emergency in a southern highlands province where miners and their supporters battled police over a Swiss-owned copper mine they claim is causing serious environmental damage.

At least four people were reported dead and more than 70 were injured in disturbances that broke out on Monday.

Armed with slings and guns, miners and local residents tried to take over the Tintaya mine, which is located in the Cuzco province of Espinar. The protestors claim that the copper mine, which belongs to the Swiss affiliate Xtrata, is contaminating the nearby Salado and Cañipia rivers, both local water supplies that have caused sickness in animals.

The miners have been blocking the entrance to the mine for a week and local protest leaders have called for an indefinite strike.

Óscar Váldes, who serves as one of Peru's two prime ministers, explained that the police had to use force after the protestors, who he called "extremists," attacked the authorities.

Demonstrators took a local prosecutor and held him hostage for hours before releasing him. "They forced me out of my car and threatened to burn me alive," Héctor Herrera Mendoza, told the Lima daily El Comercio on Wednesday.

Demonstrators took a local prosecutor and held him hostage for hours

Herrera had announced beforehand that he opened an investigation into Espinar Mayor Óscar Mollohuanca and other protest leaders for calling an indefinite strike throughout the region.

"I don't know what to call it, but I am in a 'reserved situation' [in hiding] now, and I cannot go to the government house. I want guarantees, conditions and due process so that I can answer any charges, because the protest leaders are not being afforded these rights," Mollohuanca declared. Some 1,200 officers converged on the Tintaya mine after an attempt by a group of government ministers from Lima to meet with the miners failed on Saturday. The authorities, who flew to Cuzco, decided that it wasn't safe for them to travel to Espinar because tensions were high.

Mining extraction makes up 60 percent of Peru's exports and rakes in a third of the country's revenue. President Ollanta Humala has come under fire for not taking a harder stance against foreign mining companies who use unsafe extraction methods.

One of the biggest mining controversies facing Humala, who was elected in 2011, is the so-called Congo project - a $4.8-billion gold and copper mine near Cajamarca, a city in northern Peru, which is run by the Yanacocha firm and backed by US investors. Yanacocha has already spent $800 million on its operations. It estimates that it will mine between 580,000 and 680,000 ounces of gold and 155 million to 235 million pounds of copper annually.

The Peruvian government stands to get some $3 billion in taxes just from the Congo alone. But because of environmental concerns, there is fierce opposition to the project. Last December the government also had to impose a state of emergency in Cajamarca when protests broke out.

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