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Standing Up to Exploitation and Injustice

The Cajamarca Protest

by LORI BERENSON

Penal de Huacariz Cajamarca, Peru.

"The sleeping lion finally woke up," expressed a Cajamarcan lay worker who visited here in Huacariz Prison last Saturday, referring to the recent protests against the Yanacocha Mine Company. The mayor of one of Cajamarca’s provinces explained that "this struggle is necessary and just. It’s a struggle for life."

The people of Cajamarca paralyzed the area for over two weeks this September. A protest that began with the peasant community that lives in the Cerro Quilish (Quilish Hill) days earlier gave the warning signal. The Yanacocha Mining Company, whose principle shareholder is the North American gold mining giant, Newmont, was authorized by the Peruvian Ministry of Energy and Mines to carry out explorations in the Cerro Quilish, the water source for Cajamarca and nearby areas.

Seemingly seeking fame as an environmental hazard wrapped up in a gold mining company, Newmont’s Yanacocha mining efforts in others hills have already caused damage to Cajamarca over the last ten years. Locals complain of much more than just the death of trout and frogs, or the high chemical contamination of the water that is causing a series of health problems. The mercury spill in the Cajamarcan district of Choropampa a few years back was just one illustration of the carelessness with which the issue of environmental protection is dealt. This mine has also brought all of the ugliness of the developed world to the once quiet city, remembered for its dairy products, the Inca thermal baths, and for housing the memories of the beginning of the fall of the Inca Empire in the 1500s. Cajamarcans now complain of the increased crime rates, the proliferation of drugs on its once peaceful streets, and of the Yanacocha Mining Company’s few direct befits to locals. Those who work in the mine are mostly brought in from other regions of Peru, and the indirect benefits of providing services to the mine workers are far outweighed by the skyrocketing cost of living in Cajamarca, today among the highest, if not the highest, in all of Peru. However, the clearest signal that "something is wrong" is the annual statistical report on poverty that shows how Cajamarca has moved from fourth to second place in the rankings by department (the equivalent of state), a poverty level which has increased during the years in which Latin America´s number one gold producer has been functioning here.

The exploration of Cerro Quilish, especially when taking into account Newmont’s record worldwide in causing terrible health problems to the populations near their mines, is very threatening to the well-being of hundreds of thousands of people and to the future of this part of the country. This isn’t the first time that a foreign company has come in to take away Peru’s wealth and give it, in turn, poverty and lifeless lands. Other mining companies have done the same in other regions of Peru, as well as elsewhere in the world. It is a problem for dependent countries and their impoverished citizens when faced with capitalist monsters that want to increase their fortunes at any cost. Even when the destruction of water sources is condemned by the United Nations, the general feeling is that power can buy off anyone or anything, and history has shown this to be true. Globalized capitalism continues to divide up the world into pockets of resources, natural or human, to be used and disposed of at the whim of those who have power. Struggling against a monster of that size is not an easy feat; however, there are many who are willing to give it a try.

The peasant communities of the Cerro Quilish gave out the warning once again. The Peruvian Government’s authorization brought about the initial protests among those closest to the hill. Peasants from other provinces of Cajamarca joined them in solidarity, as did local unions, students and Cajamarcans in general, producing the largest protest ever seen here.

The result has been the temporary suspension of the exploration of the Cerro Quilish and the subsequent reduction of the work by the Yanacocha Mining Company as it awaits the "tests" that would somehow prove that the company is not affecting the environment. In itself, stopping the work at the mine, however temporarily it might be, is quite an achievement but, sadly, it seems as though the road to justice is quite a long one and this struggle will go on for the long haul. This is merely the beginning.

As much as I truly admire the determination of those who started and later joined these protests throughout the entire department of Cajamarca, I believe it’s not going to be enough. This is an issue that affects all of Peru, and the Third World in general. The cycle of regarding countries as resource warehouses began centuries ago, here and elsewhere, in colonies and dependent republics. But isn,t it a good time to change that cycle? It’s a difficult task for all people of good conscience, but a very necessary one.

My solidarity is with the peasant communities and all of those who initiated this struggle. I am convinced that many more of us will continue to join hands to promote life and true justice and oppose the destruction of the livelihood of a people, their water sources, and their future, in Cajamarca and elsewhere.

LORI BERENSON, a US citizen, has been incarcerated in Peru for nearly nine years. In 1995 she was convicted for treason against the fatherland of Peru for leadership of a subversive group by a hooded military court and given a life sentence. In 2000 the Supreme Military Council of Justice annulled the conviction and sentence based new evidence and remanded her case to a civilian court. In 2001 she was convicted of collaboration with a subversive organization but acquitted of all charges of leadership, membership or militancy with that group. She received a 20 year sentence. In 2002 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ruled unanimously that neither of her trials met international standards of due process and that there was no basis for conviction in the civilian trial. Peru refused to abide by the Commission’s ruling that Lori’s rights be completely restored and the Commission then took her case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in San Jose, Costa Rica. A decision is expected in the next few months. That decision is binding on Peru and its government said it would comply. For more on Berenson’s case visit FreeLori.org. Messages to Lori can be sent to: berenson@freelori.org