Conservationists Risk Their Lives for Peru's Highland Headwaters

PIURA, Peru, February 23, 2005 (ENS) - Peruvian conservationist and guide Alejandro Zegarra-Pezo knows he is the target of assassins. For years, he has denounced open pit mining planned for northwestern Peru by Monterrico Metals of the UK, among others. Zegarra says mineral extraction would have a "devastating effect" on native plants and animals, especially the endangered mountain tapir. "These native species give life to the region and create a healthy water-absorbing ecosystem that assures water for all downslope communities," he says.

Zegarra has reason to watch his back. His wife was attacked several months ago. She survived but still suffers health problems as a result.

On February 12, Engineer Jorge Flores Cordoba was assassinated in the department capital city of Piura. He was stabbed 17 times, and his body was beheaded. A vocal opponent of open pit mining, Cordoba was the husband of a Piuran city director and wanted to become the mayor of Sapillica, a town in the Piuran Andes.


This waterfall in the Peruvian Andes and others like it will be affected by mining planned for the region. (Photo © Craig Downer)
"There have been many other assassinations of similar people, assassinated for the simple democratic act of verbally opposing and demonstrating against open pit mining exploitation in northern Peru," says Zegarra, who founded the conservationist organization Pro Norte Peru.

Many of those killed were the leaders of indigenous rural committees known as "ronderos," particularly from the region of Ayabaca-Huancabamba-Morropon.

"Though these assassinations are often blamed on narcotraffickers, in fact they are paid for by the international mining interests in collusion with Peruvian authorities who accuse the mining opponents of impeding regional progress," said Zegarra. "This I know for a fact."

The authorities who support open pit mining as an economic opportunity for the Piura region belong to the Aprista Peruano Party, the party of regional president, Dr. Jorge Trelles Lara and of the region's representative in the national Congress Jose Carlos Carrasco Tavara.

These politicians would like Zegarra to stop expressing his opposition to the planned mining. "Dr. Jose Carlos Carrasco Tavara accused me of being an obstacle to regional progress and an opponent of the government for giving my public talks against the mining takeover of northern Peru," the conservationist told ENS. "He said the U.S. is rich because it has exploited its mineral wealth and that I should ask for economic support from transnational mining companies."

"As of the present date, threats aimed at stopping my ecological activities have alarmingly increased," Zegarra said. "Particularly I am harassed and attempts are made to stop me from attending indigenous communal meetings in the Piuran Andes in areas being currently targeted for mineral exploitation by Monterrico Metals and other rich transnational mining companies whose officials have made tempting offers to me in order to silence my ecological voice."

"Since I have absolutely rejected their dirty bribes," said Zegarra, "today they are attempting to assassinate me!"

Over such impassioned local objection, more than 600 mining concessions coverning an area around 800,000 hectares have been recently authorized by national authorities in the state of Piura.

Initially the mining company known as Manhattan-Sechura, a subsidiary of Manhattan Minerals of Canada, intended to exploit copper in open pit mines at the headwaters of the Rio Blanco river within the Carmen de la Frontera district. Now another company has largely taken its place - Majaz - the local subsidiary of Monterrico Metals, a London based resource development company that operates exclusively in Peru.

Monterrico says it is "committed to community consultation and sustainable development." A publicly traded company, listed on the London Stock Exchange, it is currently involved in seven mining projects in all areas of Peru, including Rio Blanco.

In the Rio Blanco region on Peru's northern border with Ecuador, Monterrico now holds eight concessions covering an area of 6,472 hectares in uninhabited, forested terrain at an altitude of between 2,000 to 3,000 meters. Exploratory drilling is underway, and the company is in the process of doing a Bankable Feasibility Study due for completion in the first half of this year.


An exploratory crew from Monterrico Metals drills in a Rio Blanco mining concession. (Photo courtesy Monterrico Metals)
A pre-feasibility study concluded the copper and molybdenum in the eight Rio Blanco concessions would yield US$320 million before taxes at a discount rate of 10 percent using a copper price of 90 cents per pound. The rate of return to the company was projected at 33 percent, roughly US$107 million.

Those figures may increase as the company has announced its area of interest is expanding. "Geotechnical studies are continuing to plan for the first 10 years of production at the proposed open pit at Henry's Hill. This study has been extended because of the recent discovery of high grade ore outside the previously known limits of mineralization," said Monterrico CEO Chris Eager on January 25.

The company plans to conduct open pit mining and production of copper and molybdenum concentrates for a 32 year period. The operations would treat 20 million metric tons of ore per year in a flotation process, which involves the use of sulfuric acid to extract copper from the ore.

Mining waste and polluted runoff are high on opponents' list of concerns, in addition to destruction of the natural landscape and wildlife habitat to create the open pits. They believe that there is no sustainable way to develop an open pit mining operation in this ecosystem.

From the southeast flank of the mountain range where Monterrico's eight concessions are located, originate nine streams which give birth to Rio Blanco, or White River, known farther downstream as Rio Canchis. This river flows into the Rio Chinchipe near the district of Namballe, 40 kilometers from the mining zone, the location of the Tabaconas Namballe Ecological Sanctuary, home to endangered mountain tapirs.

From the northwest flank of the mining concession area, six streams originate which give rise to the Tomayacu, Ramos and Aranza rivers which flow to the Rio Quiroz in the district of Ayabaca.

Wild mountain tapirs still inhabit these headwaters cloud forests and treeless paramos, but they are already being ejected from their habitat by the first wave of miners.

Zegarra says, "Scared mountain tapirs are descending to unprotected zones, having been frightened by exploratory miners as well as hunter guides and their dogs. The commerce in mountain tapir hooves and feet has increased alarmingly. Also very alarming is that live-animal traffickers who desire young mountain tapirs are again present in Sullana."


Tapir hooves hang for sale in a Peruvian shop. (Photo © Craig Downer)
In Peru, mountain tapirs are desired for their feet, which are used in traditional medicine to treat epilepsy and other diseases. The principle cause of their death has been to supply tapir parts to traditional native medicine shops or directly to the "brujos," or native healers.

Zegarra confides, "I have located persons who for several years now are offering to purchase mountain tapir parts and to take young mountain tapirs out of the country in order to sell to a large zoo, still not identified." Such export would violate the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), to which Peru belongs. The mountain tapir is listed on CITES Appendix I, which prohibits international trade.

Ecologist Craig Downer is president of the Andean Tapir Fund and serves on the IUCN-World Conservation Union Species Survival Commission Tapir Specialist Group.

He says the ecological future of the entire region is at risk due to the mining concessions that have been granted in Piura and in watersheds across the country.

"The great value of the living sponge watershed is found in the form of mountain tapir habitat, intact cloud forests and paramos," says Downer, who observes that headwaters cloud forests like those claimed by mining companies in Peru are quickly disappearing worldwide.


Paramos are high mountain regions of grass and shrub land, found only in the Andes. (Photo © Craig Downer)
These unique forests, which draw water down from the clouds, have been reduced to 2.5 percent of the world's forests and are in danger of vanishing altogether. In addition, the highland waters that now supply agricultural and drinking water needs downstream will be forever altered by open pit mining, ecologists warn.

In the mountainous zone of Piura state, mining companies have claimed many riverside areas of the Rio Chipillico as well as its highland sources. The upper part of Rio Chipillico is known as Rio San Pedro and its waters fill the San Lorenzo reservoir, vital to many communities, says Downer.

Also affected by proposed mining projects are the course of the Rio Quiroz, whose waters fill the agriculturally crucial Poechos Reservoir, and the headwaters of the Huancabamba river.

"If the various mining companies that now threaten these hydrographic basins are allowed to have their way," Downer says, "scientists predict that an already incipient desertification shall become epidemic in proportion, threatening the very lifeblood, the water, of this region and resulting in future ecological and consequent economic collapse for the region."

Many rare and endangered endemic populations and even entire species could be wiped out regionally as a consequence. The mountain tapir is one of those species.

Already one of the world’s rarest and most endangered large herbivorous mammals, Downer estimates that only between 175 and 188 tapirs still remain in northern Peru. Tapirs still live in "isolated and increasingly beleaguered pockets" of Ecuador and Colombia, he says.


A young, wild female tapir in the highland forest of Peru (Photo © Craig Downer)
The mountain tapir is a vital seed disperser for a large percentage of Peru's native plants, says Downer, who authored the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s mountain tapir action plan in 1997. He has visited the mountain tapirs above Tapal Alto and followed their trails from their shelters in dwarf forest thickets to the lakes where they bathe and congregate.

The long range effects of the mining projects would damage these highland river sources throughout Piura state, and the damage would extend clear to the coast, Downer predicts. "Such damages would affect both fresh water and ocean fisheries and the livelihood of many thousands of people, whose traditional way of life would be disrupted," he says.

Northwestern Peru is famous for its extensive dry woodlands, which include vital carob trees used for feed and syrup. These woods are home to many distinctive rare and endemic species and, along with highland cloud forests and paramos, would be threatened by the proposed mining projects.

Mining plans in the headwaters region of Rio Huancabamba are alarming to ecologists as well for the same reasons - destruction of watersheds and the species that depend upon them for survival.

The Piuran provinces of Ayabaca and Huancabamba have declared their highlands to be nature sanctuaries and closed to mining, but national natural resource officials and Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo are backing the mining companies in their claims.

The mining opponents say copper and other mineral deposits are not exclusive to northern Peru and ore could be obtained from other less biodiverse and fragile areas where remnant cloud forests and paramos no longer remain.

The economy of northern Peru is growing without mining, they say, and is based on agriculture, livestock and native forests, all threatened by plans for mining in northern Peru today.

"Within a relatively brief quarter century," warns Zegarra, "these mining projects will destroy ecosystems that have been thousands and even millions of years in the making, eliminating our natural super pharmacy and extinguishing many species as yet unknown to science. No amount of money in the world can ever bring these species back, nor can mere money reverse the lethal effect of poisonous chemicals that would remain for generations to permeate the ecosystem, as has occurred in other parts of Peru as elsewhere."

"Here heavy metal poisoning is common among the people," the conservationist said. "Waste products of mining such as toxic leachates would continue to poison the soils and water and so plants and animals, including man, for centuries to come, leaving a sterile tombstone in place of the once lovely cloud forests, paramos and fruit growing agrarian valleys. Thus, our life here would end, if our apathy allows it to so end!"