I’m concerned that my earlier post about John Ruggie’s Just Business may have given the misleading impression that Newmont Mining’s troubles in Cajamarca had been resolved, or that the company’s publication of a study called Listening to the City of Cajamarca had softened local opposition to Newmont and its Minas Conga project — a $5 billion project to build one of Peru’s largest gold mines. Events of this past week were a reminder just how far apart the company and the campesinos remain, and just how much work it will take to bridge the distance between them.
Water remains the central issue in Cajamarca. Protests this week focused on the mining company’s so-called Water First plan. Water First involves draining Lake Perol, one of several alpine lakes in the region around Cajamarca, to build four reservoirs. Newmont and the Peruvian government promote Water First as a socially responsible effort to increase water capacity year round throughout the region, where water supply is now subject to seasonal variation. But Wilfredo Saavedra, President of the Environmental Defense Front of Cajamarca or Frente De Defensa Ambiental de Cajamarca, says Water First puts the needs of the mining company above the rights of local communities: “The mine needs water for its project and it’s going to give us polluted water,” he told Reuters. “We want them to leave us alone with our lakes, which are enough for us.”
By Tuesday, protesters were throwing stones at police and police responded by firing rubber bullets — or, if you follow the police account, one rubber bullet. Local groups plan to occupy Lake Perol starting June 17th. It seems things in Cajamarca are about to escalate again.
A popular assembly at Lake Perol in November, 2011. Photo credit: EFE/Paolo Aguilar
In the midst of these fresh troubles, and partly due to them, Zacks, an investment research firm, issued a note downgrading Newmont to the status of underperformer. “Newmont may continue to face headwinds due to increasing mining and non-mining costs. Moreover, its production may be affected further due to geopolitical risks.” The company’s troubles in Peru and elsewhere are starting to chip away at market reputation and shareholder value.
Newmont has tried to smooth things over. In response to the violence in Cajamarca, the company issued a statement calling for the protesters “to embrace good-faith dialogue”. That is not likely to happen anytime soon. Yesterday, Marco Arana Zegarra (who has come to know the mining company over the years) said Newmont was just “playing the victim.” Overcoming skepticism and establishing good-faith dialogue in Cajamarca is going to require much more than a short exercise in public relations.
For starters, Newmont will need to repair the damage done by Roque Benavides, CEO of Buenaventura, Newmont’s partner in the Minas Conga project. On Thursday, Benavides dismissed objections to the Water First plan, pointing out that the company has not yet begun draining Lake Perol and saying the current protests make “no sense.” This is worse than insulting: it’s saying that the protests are devoid of meaning, that they are nonsense. People’s concerns and worries, their anger and their fears, the lives and the established ways of life they are trying to protect, the myths, memories and meanings they associate with Lake Perol — all of that is meaningless and without value. Now there is gold to mine.
If “Water First” puts an Orwellian twist on the mining company’s plan to appropriate the water resources of the Cajamarca region, Benavides’ statement takes us to the other side of the looking glass, where it makes more “sense” to drain a mountain lake in order to mine gold than to live, as people have lived for centuries, around the lake, making use of its waters according to the seasons.
Benavides has been a bit of a loose cannon. He infamously said that he “hates” the idea of business having to gain social license and that “he does not understand” what social license means. The remark was widely criticized, not just because it seemed callous, but also because it is tantamount to saying that in Cajamarca, Newmont, Buenaventura and their cronies in government can do as they please. Where is the good faith in that?
It’s surprising, then, that in the current situation no one at Newmont has advised Benavides — or implored him — to remove himself from the conversation and refrain from making public remarks about the situation in Cajamarca. Good-faith dialogue is only possible if both parties have an equal chance to discover and create new, shared meaning, together. There can be no dialogue, and no good faith, if one party claims all rights to do as it wishes simply because it is mighty, and rejects the position of the other as pure nonsense, simply because it is meek.