- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 27, 2010

CERRO DE PASCO, Peru | The milewide 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 that 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 grabs.

“As my life has gone by, I’ve watched the mine swallow the city,” said Congresswoman Gloria Ramos of Cerro de Pasco, 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, Peruvian-based Volcan Compania Minera S.A., permission to take another 28 acres 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 and put 4,000 jobs at risk.

About the same time, Peru’s Congress passed Ms. Ramos’ bill to condemn and relocate Cerro de Pasco, based on U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 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,” Ms. Ramos said, “and we can’t go on living with it anymore.”

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 silver.

In nearby La Oroya, Congress recently granted the U.S.-owned Doe Run Peru smelter 2 1/2 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 — up from 14 when Mr. Garcia took office in 2006 — are fighting oil and mining companies over contamination and use of land and water, according to the government’s ombudsman.

In June, a government clash with Awajun Indians blockading a key highway in the Amazon left more than 33 people dead. Protesters were trying to stop Canadian gold miner Dorato Resources Inc. from exploring on Indian hunting grounds. They also were fighting federal decrees requiring Indians to grant oil and mining companies access to communal lands.

While critics accuse the Garcia government of forsaking environmental protection in pursuit of foreign investment, it did recently kick Dorato off Awajun lands to show it was serious about regulation. Six miners died in recent clashes over government efforts to restrict unregulated gold mining in large swaths of the Amazon.

But in cases like Cerro de Pasco, Mr. Garcia has largely sided with big mining companies, saying technological advances have rendered industrial mining contamination “a topic for last century.”

For four centuries, the silver, copper, zinc and lead unearthed in Cerro de Pasco — more than 14,300 feet high in the mountains — built the capital, Lima, and countless cities across Europe and North America.

Dubbed “The Royal City of Mines” by the Spanish, Cerro de Pasco drew miners from all over the world. At one time, the city had nine consulates catering to Yugoslavs, Austrians, Britons, Americans and more.

After sweeping the Spanish out of Pasco, the army swore in the first mayor of the Peruvian Republic on Dec. 7, 1820, in Chaupimarca plaza, the central district about to be devoured by the mine.

U.S.-owned Cerro de Pasco Corp. started to buy up the mines in 1902 and brought industrial mining, creating a boomtown. A half-century later in 1956, the company turned to strip mining and started gouging the pit, which has since swallowed more than half the original urban center.

“We’re proud to have given so much to our country, but our town has little to nothing to show for it,” said Dimas Pena, 50, who heads a group of shopkeepers and vendors organized against the mine’s expansion. “What has all this exploitation brought us? It’s going to send us off to live in the hills, where we don’t have water, light or any basic services.”

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