Las Bambas directly employs roughly 2,000 workers in the area. Hundreds of additional workers are hired by mine subcontractors.
The impact of one of the world's largest copper mines on indigenous communities of the Peruvian Andes.
A dead horse lays by a dirt road on the way to one of the 38 indigenous communities that surround Las Bambas, the largest mining project in the history of Peru. Las Bambas is far from everything. “The monster is over there, behind that mountain”. A 24-year old woman is referring to the mine, el monstruo –a gigantic source of copper 12,000 feet above sea level in one of the most desolate regions of the Peruvian Andes. Its first shipment of copper arrived at China’s Nanjing harbor on Sunday March 20, 2016, signaling the start of a multinational business that has generated billions of dollars in revenue since, and significantly boosted Peru’s GDP.
Challhuahuacho, the city by Las Bambas, is covered in the dust created by the daily transit of about 250 trucks from the mine. The stories of indigenous peoples in the area are also covered in dust. We conducted over 40 in-depth interviews with village leaders, farmers, health workers, journalists and academics in the area. Fourteen months later, after repeated efforts, we were granted a two-hour interview at a coffee shop in Washington, DC, with a top executive at MMG, the Chinese company that owns Las Bambas: “One of our main challenges is to make things more open, more transparent.”
All our sources are exposed, in an atmosphere of secrecy and fear.
To date, scientific evidence about the impact of the mine has not been published. However, there is a trail of clues. There are malnourished children, sick people, poor schools and shattered health posts, run-down villages without electricity or running water, dead cattle, and thin dirty rivers where trout no longer swim. The people who have lived there for generations feel abandoned by the government and lied to by the mine. They claim that their rights are violated with impunity. Locals do not care for the global geopolitics of energy, or China’s thirst for copper. They just know one thing: “Our days are numbered”. The words of a village leader summarize our findings.
Our sources are all exposed. In the absence of any other data, except a few scattered dispatches from press agencies on violent clashes between local protesters and the police, our sources are the story: voices that are never heard, in an atmosphere of secrecy and fear.
We did obtain copies of the six latest environmental impact studies conducted by the Peruvian government, safely locked away at the Ministry of Environment in Lima: 31 gigabytes distributed in seven DVDs –information so dense and obscure that it would require an army of scientists to decipher it. To our knowledge, these documents have never been published. And, after multiple attempts, the division of Corporate Affairs at MMG headquarters did not provide what we were looking for: a succinct summary of environmental impact that “the CEO of MMG would understand”.
Some will say the monster is not real. But we did see the beast.
Some will say the monster is not real –that it’s in the imagination of the villagers who provide testimony in these pages. But, in the midst of building the story, we did see the beast. We experienced fear. We were intimidated and spied on while conducting our work in Challhuahuacho in January 2017, and were ultimately scared away by the Peruvian national police –who is mandated by the government to protect Las Bambas. A police officer in uniform, accompanied by investigators in civilian clothes, confiscated the ID of our Peruvian logistics manager after our team had finished an interview at the only independent radio station in the area: “If you want to recover your ID, tell your boss to come to the police station this afternoon”. Before meeting the police, we sent half the team, together with all our equipment and memory cards, on its way to Cusco, about eight hours away across tough roads. At the police station, Chief Encalada insisted: “Do you have any environmentalist in your team?” We recovered the ID and fled the city. But we returned to the area in April that year to finish the job –taking precautions resembling the ones taken in conflict zones.
Like other mining areas in the region, Challhuahuacho is a version of the Wild West where journalists are often not welcome. Defying secrecy and fear, this work is an attempt to demystify the monster, in the words of its protagonists.
“I am not invited to the negotiation over the sale of my land.”
Susana, 62, is a farmer from Huamacopampa, a small village a few miles from Las Bambas. Her family has lived on the same land for generations, yet she is denied access to talks over the sale of her home. “I am not invited to the negotiations over the sale of my home and land. The government and the mining company negotiate, and I can only take whatever they offer. I am a simple farmer, and I cannot afford legal representation. Once the land is gone I worry for the future of the younger generation. We will lose our possessions, but they will lose our way of life.”
“People need to learn the truth about Las Bambas.”
Carlos, 15, is a student and citizen reporter whose family owns the only independent radio station in Challhuahuacho. Journalism is a dangerous profession in this mining town. Since covering the violence against protesters around Las Bambas, he and his family have received anonymous death threats. “Two years ago, I witnessed a protest. It was horrifying. The police shot and killed six people. I was scared, but I still took photographs and video. My goal was to tell the truth because most of the media are biased, and they report that our people are violent. But our people are not violent; they are defending their rights. People need to learn the truth about Las Bambas.”
Ten years ago Challhuahuacho, 12,000 feet above sea level, was a remote small village of adobe homes with straw roofs in the poorest province of the Peruvian Andes. Today it is a dusty city of unfinished brick buildings and unpaved roads, home to the largest mining project in the history of Peru.
The municipal budget in 2018 was 16M USD, compared to 250,000 USD five years before. This growth is not visible on the street. The mayor is in preventive jail, accused of money laundering.
“My life has been destroyed.”
Fortunata, 52, is a weaver that lives in the village of Huarccoyo, about ten miles from Las Bambas. She can no longer support her family through her craft after the mine purchased the land around her farm, and she lost the space that she needed to herd her animals. “My life has been destroyed. My family were weavers for generations and we used to sell our goods as far as Cusco. Without the space we need to herd our animals, my family and I have no source of income now. I regret the day that Las Bambas came into my village.”
“They’ve polluted our air, soil and water.”
Dolores and Ebert are siblings who lived a healthy and quiet life until Las Bambas opened a few miles from their village. “We have suffered big disruptions in our community as outsiders arrived and brought with them alcoholism and other problems. They’ve polluted our air, soil and water, and now we fear for the safety of our children and our animals. Our family has been suffering respiratory infections, gastrointestinal illness, and skin rashes. An official from the Ministry of Water once tested our water supply and found it had increased levels of metals, which disproportionately affects the very young and very old.”
Indigenous communities around Las Bambas say that pollution is killing their animals.
In villages like Chuicuni Bajo, by the mine, water is scarce. Neighbors complain it is contaminated, affecting their health and farms.
“Las Bambas bribes everyone.”
Leoncio is the president of Paranami, a village of 800 people by Las Bambas. Leoncio says that the mine and the municipality are actively seeking to take over the community’s land. “There is corruption in the government. Las Bambas bribes everyone, including the mayor and other officials. These officials let Las Bambas threaten us. They tell us that they won’t give projects to our community unless we sell our land.”
“All they’ve done is to exploit are land.”
Beatriz, 27, is a farmer and weaver living in Ccasa, a village that is located across the mountain from Las Bambas. “We used to have water, but now there isn’t enough to drink, cook with or do the washing. I haven’t had consistent water for two years. The water used to be clean, but it is dirty now. I try to save rain water in big pots for cooking. I don’t have meat to cook because the water dried up and the cows, horses and sheep died. I’m terrified for my children. I don’t have any faith in the mine resolving the contamination. All they’ve done is exploit our land.”
This is Nueva Fuerabamba, a small artificial city built to relocate 500 indigenous families that sold their land to Las Bambas. Unlike the traditional communities around, Nueva Fuerabamba has electricity, water, a school and a health center. Unable to adapt, many relocated families have abandoned their new homes.
Challhuahuacho has transformed into a community of transient male workers from other parts of the country. Local people are rarely hired by the mine or its contractors.
Challhuahuacho is closely watched by police and security agents. The central government declared a state of emergency in the area that continues today.
“Any time there is an accident or a shooting, they cover it up.”
Rumaldo, 40, walking on crutches on his way home. He worked at Las Bambas for five years before being shot during one of the protests at the mine on September 28, 2015. “I was leaving work while there was a protest going on, and I was shot twice by the authorities, in the leg and in the stomach. Neither Las Bambas nor the Peruvian government have helped me. The president of my community signed a document requesting that I receive medical and financial support, but the mine hasn’t responded. There are many accidents at the mine, and any time there is an accident or a shooting, they cover it up. The mine discriminates against the few indigenous workers they have. Now I am disabled and I can’t work or take care of my family.”
“There are no jobs for us at the mine.”
Pascual, 48, is a grounds keeper at the municipal garden in the village of Tambulla. He is proud that his son works at Las Bambas. “My son is an engineer at the mine and is earning more than he ever has. It wasn’t easy to get the job. There are no jobs for us at the mine. Many young villagers are unemployed, and the mine would not hire anyone over 40. The mine’s management assured us that they will initiate educational projects for children and will create jobs for adults. All they have done, however, is build a greenhouse in the village, which employs the villagers for one month at a time on a rotation basis. This is not sufficient.”
Las Bambas requires 250 trucks a day to move extracted materials through dusty roads, creating environmental challenges and social turmoil.
Access to basic education and health services is a distant dream for the 38 Quechua farming communities in the area. A person with a serious health issue needs to travel 8 hours by car to a hospital in Cusco.
“We feel that our days are numbered.”
Maria, 47, in a red jacket, hiking from her village to Las Bambas. She is the president of Chuicuni Bajo, a village of 200 residents adjacent to the mine. There are utility poles that run from her village to the mine, but Chuicuni Bajo has no electricity. Maria has received death threats for speaking out about the environmental rights of her community. She says there have been several attempts to burn down her village. “We were sold. Our water is contaminated. Our animals are dying. We have no jobs. We feel that our days are numbered. Two years ago, 70 police officers showed up in riot gear to form a line across our community. They dug holes for fence posts to permanently divide us from our traditional grazing land near the mine. Our women tirelessly tried to stop the construction of the fence. It is now an electric fence with razor wire. If we try to cross, the mine police will catch you or shoot at you.”
This is the fence that separates the mine from indigenous settlements.
“They can easily take advantage of us.”
Wilber, 35, coordinates meetings between mining companies and his neighbors at the village of Choccoyo. “We don’t understand the value of copper and gold, so they can easily take advantage of us. The central government and the municipality are pressuring us to sell our land to a mining company. When people first sold their land to Las Bambas, they had never before received so much money and they spent it quickly. Now they have been relocated and they have nothing.”
Local communities come together to talk about their rights in an attempt to become stronger and combat the social effects of the mine, which have included increased alcoholism and suicides.
The local police is authorized to use force against outsiders and protesters. Protests against Las Bambas intensified again in August 2018.
“They kill us without fear.”
Nicolosa, 68, during a community meeting about Las Bambas with leaders of nearby villages. “They send mine workers dressed like police officers to our village to instill fear in us. They shoot at us and kill us without fear. Now we have widows. The government and the media say that we’re terrorists. We aren’t that educated but we are human, so we realize the abuse that is happening. They think that, because we wear traditional clothing, we are stupid.”
“We must take a stand.”
Benancia, 55, and her daughter Felicitas, 32, at home in the village of Luhuani, a few miles from the mine. “We are sick. Since the mine came something is always wrong with us and the animals. Once a month our leaders organize our community into separate groups that travel to Challhuahuacho to protest. Some of us are fearful because they have heard about the violence and deaths that have resulted from protesting. But our village is in danger and we must take a stand. We are struggling to survive. Our old way of life is over now, and our main plea to Las Bambas is for employment.”
“All the children are getting sick.”
Sonia, 24, can see the mine from her home. She says that her son, pictured, gets sick often with diarrhea and has rashes along his back and legs. “All the children in the village are getting sick. We don’t know what to do to help them. Dust from the mine covers everything. Orange clouds fill the skies. I hear explosions. Every night it feels like we are having an earthquake. My child wakes up from the shaking and runs to our bed. We all want to leave the village, but we have nowhere to go.”
The Peruvian Health Ministry estimates that half of the children below 5 in the area suffer from chronic malnutrition and anemia.
Las Bambas has a social development program devoted to employment, reforestation, and education. Locals perceive these programs fall short of their needs.
“We have zero tolerance for corruption.”
Melanie Stutsel, an executive based at MMG headquarters in Melbourne, Australia, perusing books at the Kramerbooks store in Washington, DC. Stutsel is the General Manager of Safety, Environment and Social Performance at MMG –the Chinese company that owns Las Bambas. “In my weekly reports to the executive committee, I cannot remember the last time I reported noncompliance on an environmental issue. We know that more needs to be done. We take all claims seriously, especially environmental ones that affect locals’ livelihood”. Stutsel explains that taxes and royalties have increased the local government’s budget significantly since Las Bambas started operating. “The government doesn’t have the capability to deal with this amount of money. But we have zero tolerance for corruption. We have not found any validity in any bribery or corruption allegations against Las Bambas.”
“Indigenous peoples don’t have the resources to fight.”
Tarcilla Rivera, 68, visiting an exhibit on Peruvian indigenous heritage at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. Rivera, a Peruvian activist based in Lima, is one of the 16 expert members of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues of the United Nations, a consultative body that meets once a year in New York. “Mining companies have created foundations and public relations branches to neutralize the opposition. They build a farm or a school here and there to silence complaints and divide communities. All the while, indigenous peoples who demand justice don’t have the resources to fight. This is the case of Las Bambas. The central government’s priority is to protect the mining companies in exchange for money. Protecting indigenous rights and the environment is not a priority in Peru”.
“The government is closing its eyes.”
Amilcar Romero, 32, President of Ankawa International, a Peruvian human rights organization, taking a water sample near Las Bambas for an environmental study. “Challhuahuacho is an area where informality, illegality and corruption become one. For example, the local police are bribed by the mine. The same happens with other important officials in Lima who are bought or influenced by Las Bambas. I’ve been informed that the environmental impact studies presented by Las Bambas to the central government were retouched. The government is closing its eyes. Anybody who’s tried to do things right here has immediately lost his job, or been taken to court for strange reasons. Even academics who present data to bring light to the situation are intimidated by authorities, or even detained. In other words, criticizing the mine has become equivalent to criticizing the state.”
This project was produced by DAWNING. It is an independent effort, self-funded, non-partisan and non-ideological, in the tradition of social science and journalism in the public service.
Project Director: Raul Roman
Executive Editor: Nick Parisse
Editor: Rafe H Andrews
Creative Director: Joey Rosa
Research Manager: Amilcar Romero
Fieldwork Logistics Manager: Rafael Huanca
Research Assistants: Lizzy Skokan and Tushar Thakkar
Photographs, Interviews and Transcripts:
Amilcar Romero, Juanjo Fernandez, Jackie Plaza, Daniel In, Phil Penta, Brian Wilhemi, Paco Panchon, Luz Martinez, Yuliya Gossnell, Theresa Polly, Maria Espinoza, Lizzy Skokan, Nick Parisse, Joey Rosa, and Raul Roman.