I first met Peruvian lawyer Mirtha Vasquez in 2012 as a student in the International Human Rights Clinic at Santa Clara University. We were conducting a fact-finding trip to Cajamarca, Peru, to interview people about the contentious Conga gold and copper mine project being developed by Colorado-based Newmont Mining, through its joint venture Minera Yanacocha. A lawyer for the Peruvian civil society organization Grufides, Mirtha represents many people affected by the mine project. Her clients include Father Marco Arana, an activist and former priest who has been beaten by police and targeted in a complex spying plot by Newmont’s private security company, and Maxima Acuña, a farmer who has been harassed, intimidated, beaten, and sued for simply wanting to remain on her family’s land. Mirtha herself has been denied access to her clients and has been a victim of police violence. As my former classmate put it, “she is a bad-ass.”
There is a long history of tension between community members who oppose the proposed Conga mine (because of the irreparable damage it will cause) and Newmont, whose Minera Yanacocha is funded by the IFC, the World Bank Group’s private lending arm. Both the Peruvian National Police – hired and paid by Newmont – and Newmont’s private security continue to use violence and intimidation against the opposition.
The national government has even enacted laws to repress protest by targeting protestors as terrorists, making protesting (or suspicion of planning to protest) serious crimes with exaggerated punishments. At the same time, laws protect the police from liability for any injuries or deaths at their hands during protests. Newmont has powerful friends in Peru.
Last month I was in the company of Mirtha once again as she traveled to the U.S. to attend Newmont’s annual shareholder meeting. She planned to speak directly to the CEO and other executives about the company’s aggressive approach to social engagement near the Conga mine. Along with EarthRights International and Earthworks, Mirtha delivered over 150,000 signatures in support of Maxima Acuña, gathered in an online petition by SumofUs.
The shareholder meeting was a strange experience, where we voiced concerns for the people affected by Newmont’s operations alongside shareholders concerned about profit margins and the price of gold. We first met with high-level executives from Newmont, who immediately assured us that dialogue with affected communities continues to be a priority. Mirtha fearlessly described the problems in Newmont’s management, discussed the decrease in dialogue, and the increase in lawsuits by the company. She also lamented the excessive use of force by the police and the environmental impacts from the existing Yanacocha mine that still have not been addressed.
The mood turned sour when Mirtha brought up the community members’ right to protest. Newmont became very defensive and repeated the assertion that protest does not solve anything, and that the citizens had a responsibility not to protest if they wanted dialogue. They added that while the citizens have a right to protest, Newmont has a right to defend its assets. Unfortunately, however, this defense of assets has all too often resulted in physical injury or death.
After talking with Newmont’s executives, we entered the shareholder meeting holding proxies from Newmont’s shareholders. We asked about Newmont’s contract with the Peruvian National Police, who have often used excessive force. We asked about what Newmont’s human rights trainings look like, since their reporting on it is almost non-existent. We cited the injury to our client Elmer Campos, a nonviolent protestor who was shot in the back and is now paralyzed.
Rather than provide any real answer, the Newmont executives at the shareholder meeting often responded dismissively and gave vague assurances that the company trying to improve their human rights practices. In sad irony, at almost the exact same time as Mirtha was speaking to Newmont leadership, police and security forces – paid by Newmont – were blocking access to Maxima’s home in Peru. It took a court order for them to leave and let her family through.
Only two days later, I attended a training as part of a business and human rights conference. As it turned out, both of the speakers worked for Newmont. Ostensibly about corporate social responsibility, the workshops were sprinkled with jabs at the social unrest in Cajamarca.
The speakers gave a hypothetical example of a difficult situation for a company to deal with, clearly based on Cajamarca. They used local names and references, laughing between them at references to Gregorio Santos, the mayor of Cajamarca, who many believe was falsely accused and imprisoned right before the elections due to his opposition to the Conga project; and to Marco Arana, who has suffered both physical violence and criminal charges due to his advocacy work. They made light of the situation involving indigenous people, which is a very pressing issue that to this day affects the protections afforded to many people living in the area of the Conga mine.
At the end of the presentation, I asked for an explanation of the laughter, and was met with a half-hearted response.
To make light of a serious situation, where peoples’ homes, livelihoods, health, physical security, and even lives themselves are being threatened by the actions of Newmont – where people have already been harassed, beaten, and even killed – is in very poor taste. Especially when speaking at a conference on business and human rights.
This was compounded by the recurring commentary implying that civil society is actually bad for communities. Not one positive aspect of civil society participation was discussed. Rather, the takeaway seemed to be that mining companies serve communities better than NGOs. After hearing from Mirtha everything that was happening on the ground in Peru, and knowing her history of advocacy, this was particularly hard to stomach. To put the comments of the speaker into the context of the Conga project, and to say that Newmont was doing more good for the community members than the human rights and community groups were, was beyond comprehension.
One moment of satisfaction, however, was when one of the speakers chimed in with annoyance at how NGOs show up at company AGMs. I couldn’t help but smile. Was it my imagination, or at that moment did our eyes meet in recognition?
Overall, it was a bittersweet reunion with Mirtha. It is always an honor to be able to stand next to someone who is steadfast in her commitment. But the fact that so little has changed, three years later, suggests that Newmont – and its self-professed experts on corporate social responsibility – really doesn’t take any of this seriously.