By Ashley Holly McEachern
Its 5 a.m. and we are stranded at the bus station in Puno, Peru. Tourists and locals alike scurry about trying to hustle their way into Bolivia. The border between Bolivia and Peru has been closed for fourteen days and counting. One stranded traveller recounts his experience trying to cross the border, where security guards fought off the hundreds of people trying to break their way through the now barbed-wired border. Local people attempt to climb over the barricades. The sound of stones thrashing against the pavement provides a suitable background noise as one of the protest leaders excites the crowd and condemns the mine. “He was so emotional he had tears in his eyes” one lingering tourist tells me.
This is the scene of yet another Latin American protest against a Canadian mining project, but this time it is happening in South Americas´ top gold producing country. “It was chaos – there were massive crowds of people,” says a traveler who waited for hours while the protestors emerged on both the Bolivian and the Peruvian sides of the border. He describes an atmosphere far too familiar to those of us who have witnessed conflicts over mining elsewhere. Canada’s ugly past with the Peruvian people condemning Canadian mining projects was softened in 2008, when the Peru Canada Mineral Resources Reform Project was initiated. Judging by today’s protests, there is much work to be done on mining reform in Peru, both for international and national companies.
A local tells me more. ¨The mine that is being disputed is located near Lake by Bear Creek Corporation¨. Bear Creek is a Vancouver Based Company that is indeed perpetuating Canada´s bad reputation abroad. The local continues to explain that the protestors are fighting for environmental and social rights that mining projects so often disrespect. They are fighting against the long history whereby mining companies bask in wealth and profit while local communities see no benefits. They remind me of a popular Honduran slogan ¨No to mining, Yes to life¨. They are standing up against a major company in the name of protecting the environment, the rivers and the lands that they sow. However, at the same time, the mining association of Peru bellows the importance of the mining sector for Peru’s economy, and one local explains “I am for formal (internationally regulated) mines, but not informal (typically local and unregulated) mines. ¨ this divergence of opinions is not uncommon in the mining sector. But it is not just mining protests that are penetrating Peru these days, with an upcoming election and a condemnation of hydroelectric mines as well, the country is painted with protests.
Upon my own arrival in Puno the following Saturday, the frustration and chaos continues. It is now Monday and I have accepted my fate that the border remains an impassable scene of resistance. I detour for the town of Puno, only to be greeted by twenty riot police facing off with a growing crowd of fifty or more, yelling “open the door, let us in” at the regional government office. This particularly beautiful juxtaposition between middle class fancy-suited Peruvian bureaucrats and the working class folk is standing up against the corruption surfacing in the current election.
Peru is days away from a presidential election on June 5, and the Peruvian people are getting rowdy. The two contenders include a former coup and army officer, Ollanta Humala, who, for many, mirrors the socialist nature of Hugo Chavez, and Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of Alberto Fujimori. Alberto was the former President of Peru and is currently serving a twenty-five year prison sentence for bribery and death orders for Maoist rebels in the 1990s. Though both candidates proclaim that they will raise taxes for mining companies, speculation remains. A local restaurateur in Puno tells me ¨they are all corrupted¨, echoing the local media stories that Keikos main reason for running is to give pardon to her father.
Between protests against the electoral corruption, closed borders and highway blockades of over 10,000 people against mining and hydroelectric dam projects, indeed, Peru is being penetrated by protests. This is an interesting country to watch in the days to come, and since there seems to be no way out, we will all be watching.
Ashley McEachern is an energetic and critical freelance writer from Canada. Having completed a Masters in International Development with a specialization in Latin American politics, Ashley now focuses her energies on freelance writing projects throughout the Americas, having published with THIS magazine, the Tyee, CBC, rabble.ca and the NPSIA Paterson Review. She is currently reporting from Lima, Peru before heading to Colombia to follow the World Barista Championships.