TAMBOGRANDE, Peru In this lush region where Peru borders Ecuador, farmers grow papayas the size of basketballs and mangoes bigger than softballs. Beneath these fruits lie huge deposits of gold and other precious metals.
Farmers meet to vote against signing a contract with the Manhattan Minerals Corp. last month in the town of San Lorenzo in northern Peru.
SENGO PEREZ / KRT
Rather than dig up these riches, farmers are waging a fight sometimes violent and touched by murder and intrigue to prevent a Canadian company from excavating the fertile farmland of the San Lorenzo Valley for a huge open-pit mine.
On March 31, the leading voice against Vancouver-based Manhattan Minerals Corp.'s mining plans was mysteriously shot to death, a murder reminiscent of the 1988 killing of Francisco "Chico" Mendes, a Brazilian rubber tapper whose death spotlighted how corrupt landowners were destroying the Amazon rain forest.
The fight in northern Peru is not just about mining and agriculture, but over globalization and the rights of local communities when their governments turn to international investors in search of foreign-currency earnings.
Many versions of this struggle are playing out in poor countries around the world, and the fight in Tambogrande shows why free trade and globalization have become such a hard sell in some places.
"Twenty-five hundred rural communities in our country today are directly affected by mining activities" or are on lands mining companies own the rights to explore, said Alejandro Silva, a lawyer with the justice and peace division of the Roman Catholic Church's Piura diocese.
Mining exports last year brought Peru more than $3.2 billion, nearly half of its export earnings and a much-needed boost to a standstill economy. During the 1990s, President Alberto Fujimori drew praise from U.S. policy-makers for free-market reforms that included mining exploration rights, or concessions, throughout Peru.
In the Piura region of northern Peru alone, Silva noted, those concessions covered nearly one million acres. But unlike concessions for remote regions of the Andes, the Piura region has productive farms and no tradition of mining.
Farmers in the San Lorenzo Valley want it to stay that way, and think they should have a say. They export roughly $40 million in mangoes annually and generate domestic and foreign farm sales of $100 million each year. Farming also generates more jobs, though mining brings in more foreign income.
They fear Manhattan Minerals is the tip of the iceberg of large-scale regional mining backed by global lending institutions such as the International Finance Corp., the World Bank's finance arm. The Piura region was dry desert until World Bank investments in the 1950s helped build reservoirs and irrigation canals.
"We reject all these mining companies that come here to Tambogrande, because they will do the same as Manhattan. They will pollute and destroy the agriculture that sustains us," said Jose Hernandez Panta, 45, a schoolteacher in the town at the center of the controversy.
Manhattan Minerals' president in Peru, Roberto Obradovich, denies that the impact will be that severe. He said the company would deploy high-tech anti-pollution systems and, in exchange for moving an estimated 1,600 families in the town of 16,000 to 20,000 people, would pave roads, build new, better homes for the displaced, and schools and clinics.
Manhattan holds three exploration blocks in northern Peru, totaling nearly 215,000 acres. It has spent more than $55 million and expects to invest more than $300 million to develop mines in the Tambogrande area, noting on its Web site that the region represents "one of the most prospective base-metal districts anywhere in the world." The deposit is estimated to contain 1 million ounces of gold and 12.4 million ounces of silver, and to have huge potential for copper.
"The geological merits are very strong," said Glenn Brown, a mining analyst for Toronto's Haywood Securities Inc. "The problem is not below ground; it is above ground."
In February, the dispute turned violent as angry farmers torched Manhattan's field offices, damaged equipment and burned models of homes pledged to be built for displaced families.
On March 31, a masked gunman felled Godofredo Garcia with a single bullet to the heart while Garcia was traveling along a dirt road near his 200-acre farm. Garcia was an agronomist, president of the Peruvian Mango Growers Association and a leading voice against the mines. He led the Tambogrande Defense Front, a local organization opposed to the mines. His slaying has generated even more protest and a "Godofredo Lives" campaign in his honor.
With scant evidence, police have charged neighbor Melendez Zapata Atoche with Garcia's murder, saying robbery was the motive. Garcia's supporters question why a masked robber would kill the passenger instead of trying to incapacitate the driver. They also note that the gunman fired a perfect shot at Garcia's heart from 20 feet away and at a moving vehicle giving the appearance of a paid hit by a skilled marksman.
"We know well who killed him. We just don't have the proof in our hands," Manuel Calderon Chunga shouted during a raucous meeting June 22 of farmers from the village of San Lorenzo, which voted to have no dialogue at all with Manhattan Minerals.
Manhattan's Obradovich denied that the company was involved. "Unfortunately, it is a subject that they (farmers) have politicized," he said.
Peru's vice minister for mining, Humberto Montes, grumbled that Garcia's death is giving Peruvian mining a black eye. "In my opinion, they are trying to make a martyr," he said.
Police confirmed that despite Garcia's high-profile role against mining companies, they have not interviewed local or Lima-based executives of any mining company in connection with his death.
Local businessman Francisco Ojeda, who took charge of the Tambogrande Defense Front, said that on May 7, eight men briefly kidnapped his 17-year-old daughter, Ana, in the city of Piura and threatened her at knifepoint. They told her to relay the message, "Tell your father we are going to give it to him where it hurts most."
Ojeda said in an interview that he had beefed up security amid further threats. "But we won't give in; we're staying," he said.
Because of the growing violence, the Catholic Church agreed in May to play a neutral, mediating role.
But in an interview in late June, Monsignor Oscar Cantuarias, the archbishop for the Piura region, said he was unable to maintain his neutrality, given what he called a half-hearted company effort to assess the environmental impact of the mine.
"I was no longer in the middle, but instead am now in an opposing position," the influential archbishop said.
Manhattan's Obradovich said he hoped the archbishop would return to a neutral role, and added that locals would change their minds after the long-delayed environmental impact study was completed later this year.
Farmers and other mining opponents said there was nothing to talk about. Mining is simply not welcome.
The vice minister of mining, Montes, claimed there would be no mining without local support. But he has reminded local opponents that the government has the right to condemn the property in the interests of the state.
The government is not a neutral party: If Manhattan develops the Tambogrande block, it must form a company of which the state mining company, Minero Peru, would own 25 percent.
President-elect Alejandro Toledo, who takes office July 28, ultimately may decide whether Tambogrande and northern Peru stay with agriculture or have mining imposed.
"We cannot allow minerals to remain underground, dead, when Peru needs them," Toledo said. "We have to find a solution, proposing a relocation, a humane alternative to the people living there. It's a bitter issue the government will have to resolve."
Copyright © 2001 The Seattle Times Company