Peru Water Marchers Protest Pollution and Environmental Degradation

Over 2,000 protesters participating in the so-called "National Water March" arrived peacefully in Lima, Peru, on Friday after leaving the northern mining city of Cajamarca on February 3 to travel 540 miles to the Peruvian capital.

The march marks the latest action in a long history of grassroots and popular opposition to the Conga Mine project that would pollute the natural environment and further erode the livelihoods of thousands of campesinos living in the immediate area of the mine. Several other major mines are active in Cajamarca, including Yanacocha, known locally for an infamous 2000 mercury spill that sickened over 1,200 campesinos.

Construction on the Conga mine has been stalled since November at the request of Peruvian President Ollanta Humala, who ordered a fresh round of environmental impact studies of the project prepared and released later this year. Protesters say the mine will destroy several natural lakes and contaminate the region's aquifer with metals and toxic chemicals. They are claiming the project is unconstitutional because it would violate a national law that prohibits mining in water tables and are demanding the government cancel the multi-billion dollar mining project, headed by the U.S.-based Newmont Mining Corporation.

Protestors in Lima gathered just blocks away from presidential palace in the city center at Plaza San Martin, named for national war hero Jose de San Martin, who led a revolt that culminated in Peru's independence from Spain on July 28, 1821. The peaceful march on the capital stood in stark contrast to protesters' earlier clashes with the police and military in Cajamarca in November, in which over 10,000 protesters took to the streets, destroying machinery and barricading roads. Police and military violently repressed the protesters, shooting and wounding at least 18 protesters. 

It was unclear on Friday how long protesters planned to camp in the plaza. But the leaders said the protest would continue until their demands are met. 

Marco Arana, president of the National Water March Organizational Committee, said, "We will not tire in defending our water.” He said the movement would continue to use peaceful means to pressure the government to cancel the mining project. A simultaneous demonstration of hundreds was held in Cajamarca in solidarity with protesters in Lima.

"Ollanta thinks that we are going to tire, but Cajamarcans are not going to tire of defending our water and we will let all Lima know it," Arana said.

Humala initially campaigned against the Conga project, but since taking office in July he has reversed his rhetoric on the mine. In a recent interview, Humala came out in support of the project, saying that Conga was like "a creature in gestation" that can no longer be "aborted."

Humala was elected to office riding a wave of national-popular sentiment with heavy support from Peru's campesino population in areas such as Cajamara. He risks alienating his political base by siding with the project, but also risks damaging Peru's economy by rejecting the mining project, which would bring jobs and much needed export revenue to the country's coffers. Whether popular uproar over the project will sway Humala's support for the Conga remains to be seen.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons