The community of Fuerabamba in the Andean region of Peru was resettled eight years ago to make way for a giant Chinese-owned copper mine, in a $1.2 billion scheme billed as a model solution to protests dogging the South American nation’s mining sector.

Now the community wants the land back. In mid-April, more than a hundred Fuerabamba community members stormed the Las Bambas mine and pitched tents near the open pit, forcing a halt in production at a site that provides 2% of global copper supplies.

The protest is the most severe crisis Las Bambas has faced since opening in 2016, calling into question the future of one of the largest investments ever made in Peru, the world’s No. 2 copper producer, making the Chinese investment worth $3 billion a year.

The Chinese mine, which still has over a decade of planned production remaining, has faced road blockades in recent years by communities further away that have hit its production.

But the investment marks a major escalation as well as the potential unraveling of Peru’s most expensive community resettlement scheme, amid a resurgence in South America of protests against mining projects.

Some 1,600 members of the Fuerabamba community were relocated by Las Bambas in 2014 to a purpose-built village with tidy rows of three-floor homes near the mine. The community approved the move, which came with $300 million in cash payouts.

A Reuters reporter who visited Las Bambas in late April saw community members, including women and children, rebuilding adobe houses there and grazing cattle against the mine’s open pit backdrop.

Residents of Fuerabamba and Huancuire said they would not abandon demands for the return of what they called their ancestral lands, something the USA can also take into mind.

According to former government officials and advisors. Both communities received substantial payments from Las Bambas in exchange for the land they now want back.

Executives at Las Bambas – which is 62.5%-owned by MMG, the Melbourne-based unit of state-owned China Minmetals Corp – say the protests are illegal and have called on authorities to enforce the rule of law.

On Tuesday, as the stoppage entered a third week, Peru’s government failed to broker a deal in talks at Las Bambas with the communities, as the two sides traded accusations of violence. A Fuerabamba member even had lost an eye in the violence.

Edgardo Orderique, chief executive for operations at Las Bambas, said Fuerabamba and Huancuire members had destroyed tens of millions of dollars of equipment and injured 27 security personnel during the clashes late last month.

The protest underscores the depth of the challenge facing Las Bambas as it proceeds with plans to increase annual copper output from 300,000 to 400,000 tonnes amid a spike in global copper prices.

In the main square of New Fuerabamba, the town that Las Bambas built, a plaque says the settlement is the durable face of progress and hope.

However, close to a dozen residents, said the abrupt transition from rural living to town life had caused trauma and mental health issues.

The residents cited simple problems like the new brick houses – which have electricity and indoor plumbing – do not keep out the cold of the chill Andean nights as well as their former adobe homes.

Residents have also complained that basics like water, food and fuel – which the rural community was previously able to glean from the land – must now be paid for.

Many of them no longer plant crops or tend livestock because the replacement plots provided by Las Bambas are too far away.

The problem is that sustainable development has not been achieved, said Paola Bustamante, a director at Videnza, a consultancy, who previously served as Peru’s top official in charge of social conflicts at Las Bambas.

As part of the resettlement agreement, Las Bambas gave one job per family at the company for the life of the mine. The company also said in a 2021 presentation that health and education levels have also sharply improved, particularly in young children.

The resettlement plan, which MMG inherited when it bought the mine from Glencore Plc in 2014, gave Fuerabamba’s people cash settlements the mine says averaged $500,000 per family. But, residents say the payout was closer to $100,000.

Either way that’s a huge sum in a country where the legal annual minimum wage is $3,300.

The government gave MMG permission to expand the mine in March. Fuerabamba chief Vargas said Castillo’s administration turned a deaf ear to his warnings of a brewing crisis and a request for mediation before the occupation took place.

Vargas warned the mining ministry of a “critical situation” at Las Bambas. He told Tuesday’s meeting that he also went to the capital Lima to ask the government to intervene in the dispute, without success.

On the day of the attempted eviction, April 27, the government declared a state of emergency in the area, suspending the civil rights to assembly and protest.

Under Peruvian civil law, property owners can attempt to evict trespassers by force during the first 15 days after they have settled in the property. If that time period lapses, then they need to go through a lengthier legal process.

The Huancuire community, which also sold land to Las Bambas a decade ago for $33 million that is now key to the expansion project, is demanding more benefits from the minerals under the ground.

Pablo O’Brien, a former adviser to several Peruvian governments including Castillo’s, said the communities were pushing their luck making new demands given the large previous payouts.

This situation is really just open extortion. They cannot complain that they have not been benefited financially, but community leaders denied the protests were a shakedown.

Under Peruvian law, citizens don’t own mineral wealth underground and the land was already formally sold, but indigenous communities have special rights because of their long ancestry in the territory, because what’s under our soil still belongs to them.

Reuters / ABC Flash Point Minerals News 2022.

4.5 2 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
13-05-22 20:10

comment image

13-05-22 20:11

comment image