Peru town copes with being devoured by mine
April 18, 2010.
The Washington Post.com, by Andrew Whalen (AP)
CERRO DE PASCO, Peru — The mile-wide gash grows almost daily
with each dynamite blast, slowly devouring this bleak
provincial capital high in the Andes.
The half-century-old, open-pit zinc and lead mine belches
streamers of dust that coat homes. The soil is so
contaminated, indigenous Quechua communities on the city's
outskirts have quit growing potatoes and lettuce. Local taps
run for six hours on a good week; 80 percent of available
water goes to the mine.
As the government continues its aggressive push to extract
Peru's vast mineral and oil reserves, communities such as
Cerro de Pasco are caught in a conflict between
environmental contamination and jobs that is fueling violent
protests — some deadly — from the Andes to the Amazon.
Critics say the town of 70,000, one of Peru's first
industrial mining complexes, embodies 100 years of
unregulated extraction, toxic dumping and illegal land
"As my life has gone by, I've watched the mine swallow the
city," says Cerro de Pasco congresswoman Gloria Ramos, 54,
gazing across the void from a rocky outcrop above the
tangled streets and remnants of her hometown. "There has
been a great exodus, but the poor stay."
In late 2008, city officials gave the mine owner, Peru-based
Volcan Compania Minera S.A., permission to take another 28
acres (11.33 hectares) of the town, including the center
square and its colonial church, rebuilt in 1748 after an
earthquake. If not, the company threatened to close the
pit-mine, putting 4,000 jobs at risk.
About the same time, Peru's congress passed Ramos' bill to
condemn and relocate Cerro de Pasco, based on U.S. Centers
for Disease Control studies that found soil, homes and water
saturated with toxic levels of lead. Nine of 10 children
have elevated blood levels of one of 14 heavy metals,
including lead, cadmium, and arsenic, according to the CDC.
But more than a year later, President Alan Garcia's
government is nowhere near providing the $500 million the
regional governor says is needed. Officials say technical
studies will take three years and building a new town a
decade beyond that.
"It's affecting our health, especially that of our women and
children," Ramos said, "and we can't go on living with it
Mining accounts for 60 percent of Peru's exports and was the
motor behind the country's 6.7 percent annual growth from
2002 to 2008. Even with the global recession, the Peruvian
government expects $30 billion to be invested in new mining
projects by 2017, spearheaded by Chinese, Swiss and
British-based companies hungry for copper, gold, zinc and
In nearby La Oroya, the congress recently granted the
U.S.-owned Doe Run Peru smelter two-and-a-half more years to
reduce toxic emissions at its facilities, allowing the
company to miss a second deadline — but saving 3,500 jobs.
The company agreed to clean up the town, considered one of
the world's most polluted, when it bought the plant from the
state in 1997.
More than 100 other communities are fighting oil and mining
companies over contamination and use of land and water,
according to the government's ombudsman — up from just 14
when Garcia took office in 2006.
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