Last month, the Peruvian National Police attacked a group of 600 earth rights defenders protesting at the Las Bambas copper mine. Activists from the Fuerabamba community, which was displaced to make way for the mine, turned out to denounce the environmental harms associated with the project and to ask the state to compensate them for the land they lost to it. They were met with lethal force, pellets, and tear gas. The police injured dozens of defenders, a community member may lose her eyesight, and one journalist–Raúl Cabrera–was arrested. Meanwhile, the government of Peru declared a state of emergency.
The real emergency here is the violation of the rights of environmental and human rights defenders–in Peru and worldwide. From Line 3 in Minnesota to Myanmar, activists are criminalized, harassed, attacked, intimidated, and sometimes even killed simply for defending their communities, resources, lives, and livelihoods. Sometimes, their stories–like those of Berta Caseras and Maxima Maxima Acuña Atalaya–make international headlines, and we learn their names. All too often, their experiences are swept under the rug, and they join the legions of defenders whose stories go untold and whose legacies are overlooked. But when activists in one community are attacked and criminalized for rising up, it sets the stage for repression of and violence against those in other communities defending their rights.
The Las Bambas copper mine started operating in 2016. After changing hands several times, it is now owned by the Chinese firm MMG Limited Consortium. Native communities who live in the shadow of the mine were not consulted before it was approved and the process for the Environmental Impact Assessment was riddled with flaws. The mine has intensified traffic–around 250 trucks now drive in and out of the area every day, kicking up dust, and polluting the air with noise and noxious fumes as they come and go.
Fed up with how the mine has degraded their quality of life and their environment, communities have pushed back. Since 2015, police have responded with violence and intimidation. Their actions are part of a broader trend in Peru where police services are used to enrich the interests of private companies.
A 2019 report from EarthRights reveals that extractive companies signed 138 contracts with Peruvian police forces between 1995 and 2018. Many are still in effect. These contracts violate international human rights agreements and represent a chilling alliance between private companies and the government branches that should be protecting the public interest. Using public services to support business interests parallels similar trends around privatizing water systems and other aspects of our infrastructure. Both have become disturbingly more common as civic spaces worldwide retreat and democratic values erode.
EarthRights denounces the actions of the police and the Peruvian government at the Las Bambas mine. We urge the government of Peru to follow international human rights standards and end the state of emergency, which does nothing to protect the people of Peru. The experiences of those met with police violence and intimidation at the Las Bambas blockade remind us that human rights will never fully be protected until governments realize that their obligations are to the people–not to abusive businesses.