Hilda Huaman

March 11, 2009  |  Case Studies, Women & Mining

The decade 1990 to 2000 saw mining investment in Peru increase five-fold. Mining now comprises 6.6 % of GDP and makes up 57 percent of the country’s exports. The staggering growth of the mining industry has earned Peru a place among world-class producers. A 2005 World Bank report puts Peru as the world’s second largest producer of silver, third largest producer of zinc, and sixth largest producer of gold.

The United Kingdom has been one of the biggest investors in the growing mineral sector. In 2002 total investment in mineral exploration and production by UK companies totalled nearly US$800 million, over 47 percent of total foreign investment in the mineral sector.

But steady expansion of the mining industry requires an ever-increasing supply of land. Concessions for mineral exploration quadrupled from four million to 16 million acres between 1990 and 2000, according to the World Bank. Mining is so ubiquitous that in 1999 over 50 percent of rural communities were affected by mining.

Hilda grew up in the city of Espinar, where she was a respected community leader and member of several groups challenging the operations of the Tintaya mine. The mine, which in the early 80s started as a state-run operation, has had many owners. However members of the rural communities directly affected by the mine operations maintain that the mine was constructed without due consultation and that new projects (to increase its capacity) as well as tailings ponds have been added without due consideration to the social and environmental impact.

Distrust of local mechanisms to resolve disputes is exacerbated by the fact that on those occasions when complaints of poor waste management and severe environmental degradation that affects livestock have been investigated, the mine has always been exonerated of any wrong-doing. Feelings that mining corporations are allowed to do as they please are entrenched, and leaders report a lack of transparency and access to information, especially during spills of toxic materials when they are prevented from taking photos.

In 2003 in her capacity as secretary for human rights of the “Front for the Defence of Espinar Rights”, Hilda participated in discussions with BHP Billiton, which culminated in an agreement known as the “Convenio Marco” which, among other points established that BHP Billiton would redistribute up to 3% of its pre-tax profits to development projects.

Leaders of grass-roots groups report that after the agreement was signed they suffered persecution. This situation, coupled with complaints that BHP Billiton was not fulfilling agreements, was the reason for them drafting a new agreement and demanding that BHP Billiton sign it within two days. The refusal of BHP Billiton managers to meet with the organisers resulted in three days of public protest. There were some incidents of violence and destruction of property.

“Is it a crime to participate in a public protest?”

Local police detained and charged 73 people with disproportionately large offences, alleging $US10 million worth of damage and loss of revenue. The mine was closed for a month for fear of further vandalism.

Hilda feels victimised because although she was not among those who entered the offices of the company, she was singled out and accused of leading the protests, instigating criminal acts, violence towards authorities and obstructing their legal duties. “Is it a crime to participate in a public protest?” asks Hilda.

A criminal investigation was started against her and the 73 other protestors. Hilda reports that during hearings she “was asked to admit her responsibility given the evidence against her”.

The legal process dragged on for years. During this time Hilda reports that mine workers and representative of local authorities subjected her to surveillance and death threats. The media constantly reported on her activities, and one TV channel referred to her as a terrorist. The process has left her physically and emotionally exhausted. “Sometimes I was notified about an oral hearing only the day before, which meant that I had to leave my work and travel for hours, only to find that the hearing had been cancelled due to minor problems”.

Despite an appeal by the state prosecutor, in January 2009 all 73-community activists were absolved of their crimes for lack of evidence. However, the social conflict over the activities of the mine continues. Unable to cope with threats and surveillance, Hilda has moved to another town.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.