SULLANA, Piura, Peru, October 10, 2007 (ENS) - After a prolonged struggle by local inhabitants to preserve the integrity of the Piuran Andes against a mining takeover, on September 16 a popular referendum was organized in the three Piuran communities where Rio Blanco proposes to site an open pit mine. This was an opportunity for local citizens to express their true opinions and desires concerning the heap leach project to mine copper, molybdenum and other metals on a massive scale.
The referendum was organized in Ayabaca, the capitol of the Ayabaca municipality, in Pacaipampa in the Ayabaca municipality, and in Carmen de la Frontera in the Huancabamba municipality - all in Peru’s Piura state.
At stake here are the rights of local governments as well as the basic human rights to participate in government and private plans affecting their future.
Associated as the Rural Municipalities of Piura, the mayors of 12 municipalities agreed to support this democratic exercise, which was also legalized by the National Council on Human Rights, a branch of the Ministry of Justice of Peru.
Demonstration against the mining project on voting day. (Photos by Alejandro Zegarra-Pezo)
They later verified the referendum's legitimacy under diverse articles in Peru’s National Constitution as well as the Organic Law governing municipalities. Article 21.1 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights also confirms this right of referendum, as well as Articles 2 and 6 of the Interamerican Democratic Letter, the International Pact on Civil Rights, policies of the United Nations, and the American Convention on Human Rights.
National laws and international treaties protecting wildlife and their habitat, and especially endangered species, also substantiate the claims by local residents that these remnant wilderness areas must be preserved.
Composed of seven district municipalities in the Piuran Andes, the Andean Central Community also decisively supported this grassroots democratic referendum as did the People’s Ombudsman of Piura.
The People's Ombudsman had earlier denounced an ecologically damaging exploratory invasion committed by the Majaz mining company, the Peruvian branch of Monterrico Metals of England. This invasion occurred on land governed by the community of Yanta in Ayabaca municipality.
Thirty volunteers from the Civilian Association for Transparency of Peru agreed to observe the referendum as well as 12 invited foreign observers.
As part of the democratic process, conservationists such as Alejandro Zegarra-Pezo with support from the Andean Tapir Fund, prepared to present information to the voters concerning what mining would mean for the last remaining cloud forests and paramos in Piura. The information details the vital services these ecosystems provide, such as clean water, and their importance to endangered wildlife, particularly the mountain tapir. The presentation explains the threat posed by mining to these values and presences.
These conservationists were attacked by promining factions, including employees of the national and state government. Some government officials have waged a well-financed campaign to promote mining and to suppress those opposed to it, often denouncing them as communists, terrorists, or illiterate people.
Repeated attempts have also been made to bribe those opposed to mining.
The National Jury of Elections, JNE, and the National Council on the Environment, CONAM, among other Peruvian government organizations, took the extreme position of declaring the grassroots referendum on mining to be illegal and threatened the mayors of the Rural Municipalities of Piura with penal sentences for supporting the referendum.
Using illicit means, JNE, CONAM, and others, sought to prevent the popular referendum and, failing this, unsuccessfully tried to seize the voting results.
Big turnout on voting day reflects the level of opposition to the Rio Blanco mine.
Nonetheless, on Sunday, September 16, the referendum took place in an orderly fashion. Many of the campesinos had walked a day or more to exercise their right to vote. Social order was maintained by campesino “rondas,” appointed committees based on ancient communal tradition, from Ayabaca and Huancabamba.
The Majaz mining company sent hundreds of hired people to disrupt the vote. This disruption included incitement to physical violence through insults. The Majaz workers organized a big fiesta where alcoholic beverages were offered along with meat, turkey and all the trimmings among other gifts in order to distract and inebriate the voting public before the vote so they would not vote or so they would vote pro-mining.
In spite of these efforts, observed by Zegarra, the public referendum resulted in a resounding rejection of the mining project.
The communities on whose lands the Rio Blanco mining project is planned clearly opted for protecting their remaining vital watersheds and wilderness habitats.
With a substantial majority of eligible voters voting in all three communities, the count was about 95 percent opposed to mining in each of the three communities.
This vote may serve to protect the headwaters of vital rivers such as the Chinchipe and Quiroz that serve major reservoirs and agricultural areas, towns and cities.
These rivers also supply water to wilderness habitats for endangered species such as the mountain tapir, the spectacled bear, the white-winged guan, Peruvian cock-of-the-rock, condor, rare and endemic hummingbirds, rare orchids, Podocarpus conifers, amphibians, lizards, and insects, that have been descriptively listed in detail by the Andean Tapir Fund.
A sizeable portion of the habitat for many endemic plant and animal species associated with the singular Huancabamba Depression occurs in the area affected by the Rio Blanco mining project.
If this project were to go through, several other similar projects would be likely to follow, resulting in a devastation of this unique, intrinsically valuable evolutionary area.
Ancient temple ruins that are reported in Andean forests would also be affected by the mining project.
All who participated in this vote were threatened in many and various ways by the pro-mining factions, including the most extreme - by death, says Zegarra, whose life has been repeatedly threatened.
Nevertheless, at the polls, the voters chose life. They chose the preservation of what remains of the natural world in their home region and rejected the massive open-pit, heap leach Rio Blanco mining project.
Conservationists call this vote a significant turn of events in favor of nature and ecological sustainability, and a wise change of course for Peru.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.
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