We Can Live Without Gold, We Can’t Live Without Water

28 Jul

Today, the 28th July, is the Peruvian National Holiday, and everything that reaches me via the news solely concerns the issues of legal and illegal gold mining in Perú. I feel that I can’t blog about anything else at the moment, because it’s my country, it’s happening not far away from me, and I know that you, my dear readers, are in countries far away – which is exactly why I feel it is my duty to bring Perú closer to you.

I spent the last few hours informing myself as best as I could about the mining projects. I will post the websites, podcasts and photos onto this post so that I may give you a basic overview of what is happening… and if you are interested, you can follow up on the links to inform yourselves.

The Peruvian president Ollanta Humala is under pressure because today, the 28th July, marks his first anniversary in office, and the Peruvian people feel he hasn’t kept his major campaign promise: to bring the profits of Peru’s natural resources back to the people.

current Peruvian president Ollanta Humala

The Two Issues:

1 – The Conga Mining Projectis a project expansion of Yanacocha, the biggest gold mine in South America, owned by the US-based Newmont Mining Corporation, which will take place near Cajamarca.

The problem with the Conga Project is that it will destroy water resources, and while Newmont is promising the people of Cajamarca artificial water resources, they are protesting that the destruction of the water resources will harm their agriculture and basically: their right to water, sanitation, etc. The people of Cajamarca are currently on a hunger strike, demanding that the Conga Project be cancelled. The debate of the Conga Project has lead to several ministers resigning, the president announcing a “state of emergency” and the death of several protesters.

Here is a very informative website (in English) by the campaigners against the Conga Project: http://congaeuropa.wordpress.com/la-campana/  It will tell you all you need to know about the mining project and the campaign against it. It’s a fantastic overview, please read!

If you want to support the campaign against the mining project, you can sign the petition here: http://www.avaaz.org/en/petition/Stop_the_Conga_mining_project_2/

I watched a video of the hunger strike in Cajamarca (follow this link to see it, in Spanish: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7zj5BToJJsw), and what moved me the most are the peoples’ hopes for international attention on their problems. Not just by the international press, but by you. I urge you to pass the links, the petition, on to everyone you think may be interested in knowing what is happening.

I also found some interesting art work online, campaigning against the Conga Project:


“You’re poor. If you sell your hills and your lagoon to me, you’ll have money.”

“When the money finishes, I’ll have neither hills nor lagoons.”

“Ignorant idiot!”


Just one picture from the many protest rallies that have occurred all over Peru, including Cusco. If you want to see more, simply google “Conga No Va” (Conga can’t proceed).

“Water belongs to the people and not to Yanacocha”

Having gold, oil, silver, coffee or even cotton is the worst thing that can happen to a country. Growing up in Nigeria, I saw how the abundance of oil brought the country to its knees. I lived there during the dictatorship of Sani Abacha and the disgraceful murder of poet, politician and activist Ken Saro Wiwa by the Nigerian dictatorship and the Shell oil company. If you want to know more, please follow this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Saro_Wiwa

If you want to know more about the pillages of Latin America, I highly recommend Open Veins of Latin America by Eduard Galeano. A fascinating look into the cause of social and cultural poverty in one of the most abundant continents on our planet. Sometimes a bit difficult to read, but very much worth it.


2 – Illegal Gold Mining

When I told my mother that upon returning to Perú, I was planning on travelling straight out to Cusco, she became very frightened. She told me that in the neighboring “departamento” of Madre de Dios, a frantic gold rush was leading to violence. Living in Cusco, I witnessed a few rallies against the Conga Project and mining in general, but life here has been stable and safe.

The BBC published a very good report on the “not so black and white” issues concerning illegal gold mining, which can be read here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-18524330

Additionally, reporter Rob Walker produced a more extensive podcast, which I highly recommend. Please follow the link and scroll down until you find the podcast entitled “Peru’s Gold Rush” (published 12th July 2012): http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/docarchive

an illegal mining system in Madre de Dios

On the one hand, we see illegal gold mining destroying the land, the environment and the unique animal habitat of the Amazonas.

The byproducts of cyanide and mercury are poisoning the water.

The mining camps use tons of mercury, which has polluted streams and entered the food chain. A study in 2009 by Luis Fernández of the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University found high levels of mercury in common fish. In some cases, a person who ate those fish even once a week would exceed World Health Organization recommended limits for consumption of mercury, which can cause neurological and developmental problems and is especially hazardous to developing fetuses.

Indigenous communities are at particular risk from mercury in fish, which are a dietary staple.

Corrupt officials in charge of stopping the illegal mining have found to own mines themselves. The police are destroying all machinery involved in the illegal mining, in a desperate attempt to get people to either stop, or sign up for registered legal mining. Such a registration will obviously include taxes – another reason for miners to want to remain clandestine.

But Peruvians streaming into the Amazon area in a frantic gold rush do so because their poverty condemns them to seek for desperate means of survival. One miner feeds 12 people. Once their machines are destroyed, they are condemned to live on the streets, which they protest in the regional capital Puerto Maldonado.

A friend of mine said today that she didn’t think the Amazon rainforest should “belong” to any specific country. Being the lungs of the world, she thinks its fate should be decided by an international council, such at the United Nations, and not be left to the political decisions of a country. An interesting idea.

We will see if president Ollanta Humala will address Cajamarca and Madre de Dios in his speech later today. In a country where water is more expensive than Coca Cola – and is owned by the Coca Cola company anyway -, where its availability will save lives, we have to ask ourselves: Which thirst will you quench, the thirst of the little, under-educated, isolated people somewhere in the Andes or the Amazon rainforest – or the thirst for a private economy?

“water, yes – gold, no”

One last thing: I hope tourists coming to Perú inform themselves not only about Machu Picchu and the Nasca Lines, but also about the socio-political state the country is in. Perú is in a highly interesting political place at the moment (to say the least) and, much like Spain in the Spanish Civil War, a spotlight on basic world issues. Not to mention that the “lungs of the world”, the Amazon rainforest, resides within these geographical boundaries and should therefore be of extreme interest to everyone!

Perú is beautiful – but so are its people, the cultures they are keeping alive, and the generations being born now. Water, such a basic thing, is so ridiculously scarce. When Helping Hands travelled to Cupi with clothes donations last month, we stayed in a house with no running water and our toilet was a furiously smelly hole in the ground. After three grubby days, we returned to our flat in Cusco, where our shower gives us regular electric shocks and all water is turned off around 8pm.

always the trusty bucket

During the day we collect water in buckets, in the blender, in large jugs. We buy water in bottles (owned by the Coca Cola Company).

can you see the Coca Cola Company sign on the water bottle?

But I imagined staying in Cupi without water for the rest of my life, and I considered the dental and health issues involved. All this makes you respect water to infinity. And if you don’t believe me, give this experiment a go: Don’t use your tap water to wash your hands, don’t flush your toilet, don’t shower for three days. If you must use water (to brush your teeth or do your dishes) buy it in a store. That’s a microcosm of what’s going on. And if you actually do this experiment, I beg of you: write to me and tell me how it went!

I leave you with a picture I have at home, which I love:

Water Is Precious

On this fine day, the 28th July, please think of Peru and of water.


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