The Peruvian town of Cajamarca and its neighboring communities have come to a complete halt as thousands of local residents have united in protest against a mining company’s plan to drain the communities’ principle source of water for the purposes of opening up a gold mine.

The mining company, Minera Yanacocha, is a gold and copper mining joint venture owned primarily by Newmont Mining Corporation of Denver, Colorado, with funding from the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private-investment arm of the World Bank Group.  It operates the largest open pit gold mine in Latin America, just 18 km outside of the town of Cajamarca, and is now looking to further expand that mine with a new project, called Conga.

It is the Conga project that is bringing the town of Cajamarca to a standstill. And rightly so.  The company’s plan for the project is to move all the water from nearby lagoons into separate reservoirs, claiming that such a task will neither threaten the communities’ access to water, nor cause irreparable damage to the environment.  Although the company prepared an Environmental Impact Assessment, and the Ministry of Energy and Mines approved it, the Minister for the Environment has thoroughly critiqued the report, finding that the project raises serious environmental objections and requires additional hydrogeological analysis.

The potentially affected communities are not buying the company’s environmental claims either.  They have already seen the destructive forces of Yanococha’s mining operations and the company’s powerful influence in national politics.  For the communities, there is a real fear that the new Conga Project is simply more of the same, and they are taking action to stop it.

Thousands of residents have gone on strike, and joined in massive and non-violent protests and vigils demanding that President Humala himself put a halt to the project.  All eyes have turned to Cajamarca as the first and defining test of President Humala’s commitment to sustainable development in the country.  Will he stand with the community and reject a potentially devastating mining project, or will he capitulate to the powerful economic interests pushing for resource extraction at nearly any cost?

The whole country is watching and waiting, with the question “water or gold?” on everyone’s mind.  Despite Humala’s contention that it is possible to achieve both at once, it is becoming a familiar pattern throughout Peru for communities to see their water sources dried up or polluted by the actions of mining companies, without ever seeing the promised benefits.  Here, the communities of Cajamarca are taking a stand, hoping to stop the project before it is too late.  President Humala campaigned on a promise that he would not trade water for gold, and the communities are demanding that he keep that promise.