Mineralen voor de energietransitie: naar een koolstofarme samenleving zonder verliezers

Nieuw onderzoek toont limieten van ontginning voor de energietransitie

De Europese Commissie kondigde aan dat de Europese Green Deal het kompas zal zijn voor het economisch herstel na de COVID19-crisis, een belangrijke voorwaarde voor het behalen van de klimaatdoelstellingen. Maar de toepassingen voor hernieuwbare energie en elektrische vervoer die daarvoor nodig zijn, vragen grondstoffen en de ontginning daarvan zet in verschillende delen van de wereld – vaak in ontwikkelingslanden – druk op onder meer lokale gemeenschappen, watervoorraden en de biodiversiteit. Ontwikkelings- en milieuorganisaties 11.11.11, Broederlijk Delen, Bond Beter Leefmilieu, CATAPA, FairFin en Justice et Paix kaarten op basis van nieuw onderzoek aan dat de transitie naar een koolstofarme samenleving ook grondstofarm en met respect voor mensenrechten moet verlopen.

De organisaties lieten door de onafhankelijke onderzoeksbureaus VITO en Profundo berekenen wat de transitie naar 100% hernieuwbare energie en een mobiliteitsshift in België volgens verschillende scenario’s betekent voor de vraag naar grondstoffen. De vaststelling is dat er in alle scenario’s sprake is van een toename van de vraag naar cruciale energiemineralen, maar dat politieke en technologische keuzes een groot verschil kunnen maken om die vraag en dus de negatieve impact van ontginning te beperken. Het gevoerde beleid moet de samenleving in de richting sturen van een lager energie- en materiaalgebruik door maximaal in te zetten op circulaire strategieën, zoals een langere levensduur, deeleconomie, circulair ontwerp, meer hergebruik en recyclage.

Hoe dan ook zal er op korte termijn nog ontginning van grondstoffen als lithium en kobalt nodig zijn. Die ontginning leidt nu vaak tot schendingen van mensenrechten en milieuvervuiling, zoals het nieuwe dossier ook toont. Een eerlijk antwoord op de klimaatcrisis vraagt daarom ook regulering die garandeert dat ontginning gebeurt met respect voor mensenrechten en milieu en met toestemming van lokale gemeenschappen. De aankondiging van Europees Commissaris Reynders op 29 april dat hij volgend jaar bindende wetgeving inzake zorgplicht voor bedrijven zal invoeren, is dus een goede zaak. Een nieuwe verordening zou bedrijven verplichten om na te gaan dat hun activiteiten geen negatieve gevolgen hebben voor de mensenrechten en het milieu, en dat in de hele toeleveringsketen.

Lees het volledige rapport hieronder.

Ghost town Choropampa: Twenty Years after the Mercury Spill

Author: Maxime Degroote


Ghost town Choropampa: Twenty Years after the Mercury Spill


On June 2, 2000, a truck with a load from the Yanacocha mine lost about 150 kilograms of mercury in the small community of Choropampa in the province of Cajamarca, in northern Peru. Twenty years later, the village seems to be completely forgotten, while the inhabitants are still dying from the consequences of the disaster.

It’s June 2, 2000, around five in the afternoon. Loud voices can be heard on the street, shouting. “Everything in front of my shop is mine”, exclaims Julia Angelica. A sparkling, clear, silver-colored sort of liquid slides like some sort of jelly over the road that runs straight through the village. “Mommy, mommy, look”, you can hear elsewhere, “there is something shiny and sparkly on the street and everyone is collecting it. I am going as well!”

Children pop in the middle of the mysterious stuff, collect big, empty bottles of Coca Cola and Fanta and fill them with the shiny liquid. They play with it, throw it in the air and walk under it, rub it on their bodies, even consume it. Is it gold? How much would it be worth? The confusion reigns, but it must be worth something. Wealth for Choropampa.

Children passing out

Nothing turns out to be less true. Twenty years later, we are standing on that same spot, on the long road that connects the important mining city of Cajamarca with Lima, the capital of Peru. The road on which trucks of the Yanacocha mine pass on a daily basis, and where exactly twenty years ago today, such a truck from the transport company Ransa, contracted by Yanacocha, lost 151 kilos of mercury. No gold, but 151 kilos of shiny, sparkly, but deadly poisonous mercury, spread out over 27 kilometers of road between San Juan and Magdalena. The community of Choropampa, in the middle of that road, got hit the worst. Directly or indirectly, all three thousand inhabitants were exposed to it.

The mercury destroyed the whole community. It entered the ground, the water, the plants, the air. Water measurements show that the level of mercury in the water grows over time. The harvest is yielding less and less, and no one wants to buy or consume agricultural products from the region of Choropampa.

People who hadn´t had physical contact with the mercury, inhaled it. And still inhale it. When the weather is hot, the mercury that´s still in the soil evaporates and rises. Inhalation even turns out to be worse than touching it.

Inhaling mercury breaks the protective membrane of the brain and mainly causes problems with the nervous system. Salomón Saavedra from Choropampa confirms that. “When it’s hot, you often see children passing out on the street, on their way home from school. They pass out from all the mercury they inhale. They are taken to the health post, they recover a little, but they remain sick. They continue to have the same symptoms. Like all of us, for the rest of our lives.”

Also children born after the disaster have severe health issues. ©Maxime Degroote

Collective amnesia

Hours after the mercury spill, the health post in Choropampa filled with people with the same complaints. Nose bleedings, headaches, stomachaches, hives over the whole body. The list of symptoms grew over time. Vision loss, severe pains in the bones, joint pains, peeling of the skin, blood in the urine, irregular menstruations, menstruations that fail to occur, infertility, ectopic pregnancies, deformed children, and so on.

We find ourselves in the small living room of Juana Martínez. When we ask her whether she can tell us what happened the day of the disaster, she looks at us desperately. “I don’t know… I really don’t. We are losing our memory because of the mercury.”

Forgotten. Not only the authorities have forgotten about Choropampa, also the memory of the inhabitants themselves is failing them.

Around ten villagers have gathered in the small room to tell their stories. Others couldn’t walk the few blocks to Juana’s home, and we visit them in their own houses. The stories are similar.

Pretty poison

“It looked so pretty,” María Clementine Hoyo Zabreda remembers, “so pretty how it decorated the street. But it turned out to be poison. Look at my body.” She pulls up her skirts and shows her swollen legs. Different women follow her example. Hands, feet, spots everywhere and skin peeling off.

Vision loss is another serious consequence of the disaster. “The whole village needs to wear glasses. And change those glasses every year”, they say.

Melisa Castrejón Hoyos wasn’t in Choropampa when the mercury spill happened. She arrived to her home in Choropampa six days later, to hear poison had arrived to the community. Poison that was just sitting there in a glass bottle in her home. “I was so scared. I didn’t dare to come close. There I was, with my baby of barely two months old in my arms… Now my son is basically blind. He can’t read. He is studying, but I think that he won’t finish his studies, just as most of the rest of the youth of Choropampa.”


Santos Mirando does remember the day of the mercury spill very well. He ran out to scoop the mercury up with his bare hands. “I have the most terrible headaches. All the time. And all the doctors prescribe me is paracetamol. My wife is shaking so hard that often while she is cooking, she drops the plates. My seven-year-old daughter has severe pains in her bones and can´t see anymore. She hadn’t even been born when it happened. And we are poor. We can’t do anything. Nothing. Just wait.” Santos wipes the tears from his cheeks. “We will just have to push through the pain.”

Wait. That’s the only thing that rests the people of Choropampa, while slowly the villagers are dying. “My niece died from lupus,” says Helena Portilla, “and right after that my son died. He was only 23 years old. They gave him three months when he got to the hospital. Little afterwards also my daughter in law passed away. She felt bad around one, and at seven she had died.”

Many villagers fled the community and went to other cities to look for a healthier way of living, but no one can escape the death of Choropampa. Even children and youth born after the mercury spill have high levels of mercury in their blood and urine, and severe health issues.

Judith Guerrero Martín suffered a miscarriage. “I can’t get pregnant. Many women are at risk during pregnancies. There are women who lose their child after three, four months of pregnancy. Or their children are born deformed. When I lost my baby, my doctor told me that it was better this way. That it was an ectopic pregnancy, as many women have here. A friend of mine even died during her pregnancy.”

Sentenced to chair

The mayor of Choropampa brings us to a house a little further down the road. A new face, with the same look of desperation. She talks quietly and it’s hard to understand her words. Headaches, backaches, pain in her arms. For the last three years, she had barely been able to move. Three years in which she hasn’t been able to do anything. She can’t fold her hands, she can’t stretch her arms. She can’t wash herself, she can’t comb her hair. She is sentenced to her chair.

“My life is so sad”, says Modesta Pretel. “I can’t do anything anymore. I can’t work on the field. I can’t cook. I can’t knit. What the doctors say of my case? I have no idea. I can’t remember. I forget everything, like most of us. Even my daughter, who is born after the disaster, suffers from memory loss.”

Close to where the accident happened, we meet Imelda Guarniz Ruiz. She also suffers because of the impact of the mercury in her community. “I was a strong woman, and now? I can’t even walk anymore. My kidneys hurt. There is no solution. They give me ibuprofen and paracetamol. How is that going to help me? The people from the Yanacocha mine make fun of us. And I can´t do anything anymore. Before I sit down, I always have to find someone who will be able to help me stand up afterwards”, she says. She reinforces her words by calling her son to help her get up from the stairs she is sitting on.

Imelda Guarniz Ruiz has pain all over her body as a consequence of the mercury she ingested. ©Maxime Degroote

Four deaths a month

The complaints aren’t new, but they are getting more and more serious with the years. Around the time of the accident, about 100 people died. “Doctors from Germany and the United States told us that everything would be way worse in five, ten, fifteen years”, Juana Martínez says. And look at the situation now. “In the past we had one death every three, four years. Now we have three to four deaths every month.” The impact of the disaster is more visible than ever, twenty years after it happened.

It took a long time before the villagers heard how poisonous the mercury was. Two days after the accident, employees of Yanacocha arrived in Choropampa. The villagers remember how they arrived in special suits with protection goggles. It raised questions, but still no one had informed the local population about the risks of mercury. The workers only reported that they had come to buy the spilled mercury, and offered money in exchange for the collected mercury.

Children ran out on the streets again, looking for whatever was still left of the mercury. Five to ten soles they got, depending on how much mercury they could gather. “A circus had just arrived to our community,” mayor Ronald Mendoza Guarniz says, “and with five soles the children could do a lot. For a kilo, they would even give them up to 100 soles. Our children ran back and forth with their hands full of the shiny liquid.”

Yanacocha was able to recover only a third of the spilled mercury. The rest stayed behind in Choropampa, in the fields, in the houses, even in the bedrooms.

The dates on the crosses in the cemetery follow each other up faster and faster. ©Maxime Degroote

Hush money

The damage was done and very fast the irreversible consequences of the spill became clear. Choropampa got sick. And Choropampa protested. They wanted an analysis; they wanted to know what was wrong with them. Fifteen days after the spill, the contamination in the villagers was measured.

The analysis showed that the villagers had high levels of mercury in their blood and in their urine. But the results of the analysis disappeared. And twenty years later, they still haven’t been found.

While inhabitants of Choropampa all ended up in the hospital with similar complaints, Yanacocha returned to the community with lawyers.

Yanacocha offered money to the inhabitants of Choropampa. Any amount of money, depending on what the villager said yes to. 2500 soles (about 650 euros) for one person, 5000 (about 1300 euros) for another. Whatever they agreed on, to buy their silence.

After all, to receive the money, they had to sign a document. An extensive document with several clauses, clearly stating that Yanacocha is not to blame for what happened, that Yanacocha pays only to end the controversies about the disaster. And by signing, the villagers said goodbye to their rights to sue Yanacocha for what had happened or take any legal action against the mine.


Almost all of Choropampa signed. The majority of the people by leaving his or her fingerprint. At the time, 85 percent of Choropampa was illiterate and could neither read nor sign the document.

The villagers used the money to cover their medical costs. They ran out of money quickly, even before the true impact of the health issues reached the population. It wasn’t about a few temporary health issues. These were lifelong complaints that would only get worse over the years. But what choice did they have? Even the then Minister of Women and Human Development traveled all the way to Choropampa from Lima to advise the community against hiring lawyers to help them.

Choropampa was silenced. Nobody was allowed to speak. For years, the inhabitants of Choropampa have been silent under the weight of the documents. Twenty years later, while the number of deaths from the consequences of the disaster suddenly starts to increase rapidly, they give up their obligation to remain silent. If we die anyway, we might as well open our mouths; seems to be the motto.

No medication

Next to money, the inhabitants of Choropampa also received health insurance for five years from Yanacocha. Health insurance they can barely use in Choropampa.

Right next to where the mercury spill changed the lives of three thousand Cajamarquinos, we find the health post of Choropampa. On this health post, everyone agrees. “We have let go of the hope to receive help or medication. The only thing we still ask for, are tranquilizers and painkillers. Either way we can never be cured anymore.”

We knock on the door of the health post, but can’t be let inside. It´s better to come back in a day or two, they tell us. Then they will be able to show us the post.

The look on the mayor’s face says it all. “There is nothing to show. Nothing. The health post is empty. That is the problem that we have had for years. There is no medication in the health post, no help. They only check your pulse and give you some sort of sedative. But I’m sure if Yanacocha knows you’re here, with the cameras, they’ll come with a car full of medication. That’s why they need a two days’ notice to let you in.”

A day later, we suddenly receive a video from the health post from an anonymous source, filmed that same day. The racks are empty. There is no medication in Choropampa.

“We are dying,” Helena Portilla says, “this is no life for us. We have been forgotten. We are asking for justice from Yanacocha, but nothing happens. They came, poisoned us, and abandoned us.”

Also in other cities, the population of Choropampa seems to have difficulties to find help. “We lie. We tell them we are from Magdalena or Cajamarca. Nobody wants to help the people from Choropampa. We are nobody”, they say.

The place where exactly twenty years ago a truck of the Yanacocha mine lost 151 kilos of mercury. ©Maxime Degroote

Full cemetery 

The cemetery of Choropampa is filling extremely quickly. The dates of death on the crosses follow each other up faster and faster. Two per month, three per month, four…

Mayor Guarniz looks at us with a desperate look on his face. He is still young, was still a kid when the mercury spill happened. As was his wife. Seven days after the accident she ended in the hospital for the first time. Five years later, she came back with the same complaints. Two years later again. “And what now? Do I take her back within a year? And then every month?” Guarniz asks.

The previous mayor was only 28 when he died. They quickly brought him to Chiclayo, but he died almost immediately upon arrival. “And such quick deaths are the rule rather than the exception”, Guarniz says. “Today we feel good, tomorrow we might feel bad, and poof, straight to the cemetery. What are we still waiting for? We are completely left to our own devices.”

Only eighty inhabitants of Choropampa didn’t sign the document of Yanacocha twenty years ago. They are the only ones who can still take legal action against the company, although most lawsuits were filed quickly. Only three of them were reopened.

In twenty years Choropampa has lost all hope of help. “We have been deceived so much already,” says Julia Angelica Guarniz Luis, “twenty years have passed and still nothing has happened. We are going to die. Soon it will be done with Choropampa. All that´s left for us is wait until God says it is enough.”

Twenty years have passed and still there is no solution for Choropampa, the village in which the inhabitants continue to die and are more and more intoxicated with every breath they take. It is time for Choropampa to get justice.

Watch the documentary “Choropampa, Tierra de Nadie” here:

Jaarverslag 2019

Jaarverslag 2019

Benieuwd naar wat we vorig jaar allemaal uitgespookt hebben? Hier kan je CATAPA’s jaarverslag van 2019 downloaden, met onder andere een overzicht van onze activiteiten en projecten in Vlaanderen en Latijns-Amerika en onze vernieuwde missie- en visietekst!

Towards a fairer ICT supply chain – Bolivia’s Case

Towards a fairer ICT supply chain

Research and fact-finding mission in Oruro, Bolivia in the context of the project ‘Make ICT Fair’

Executive report also available in Spanish, Dutch and French.

Executive report 

With literature on metal supply chains beyond trade being very limited, CATAPA’s investigation on polymetal mining in Bolivia aimed at unraveling the subnational, national and transnational actors and processes involved in mining activities. Field research was carried out in the department of Oruro, Bolivia. The fact-finding mission provides elements to assess the local implications of the global ICT industry. This helps to shape a specific meaning of what “Making ICT Fair” would mean in each part of the supply chain by providing a framework to determine labour, community, environmental and legal issues involved in this targeted context.

In Oruro (Bolivia), the supply chain for tin, silver, lead and zinc – metals that are (amongst others) required by the electronics industry for the production of its devices – involves multiple actors. Before export, minerals here are extracted mainly by mining cooperatives (beside state mines and large and small-scale private mines) and sold to local trading companies, that are therefore the first suppliers within the international supply chain of these metals. Ore minerals are then concentrated. Tin is smelted by one of the two industrial smelters located in Oruro and then exported, mostly to the USA and The Netherlands. Silver, lead and zinc concentrates are directly exported to metallurgical plants in Asia (South Korea, China and Japan) and Europe (Belgium, The Netherlands and Spain).

Investigations were conducted from extraction, processing and smelting to export. Case studies provide concrete examples of six mining cooperatives, some local suppliers, the state smelter and the main international traders active in the area. This research revealed the consequences of the lack of mandatory social and environmental quality standards that could be imposed at the relevant scales to the companies when buying these metals; and the absence of traceability criteria that could create a link between the different actors and therefore a possible “social responsibility” of the buyers towards the local actors.

Mural painting on the walls of a former tin smelter in Oruro (Bolivia) © Silke Ronsse / CATAPA

Assessing the implications of mining in Oruro: 

The fact-finding mission aimed at collecting data on the impacts of mining in different stages of the supply chain. 


Poor health and safety conditions in the mines

The specificity of Oruro relates to the major role played by small-scale cooperatives in Bolivia’s local mining economy, as this type of mining involves a large amount of the region’s workforce. These cooperatives are indeed a system of “self exploitation” as they don’t have direct contact with the companies that are buying their minerals. If the cooperative framework implies a certain freedom for the workers (who are supposed to be associates of the cooperatives), it also leads to operations being conducted in a very traditional way, i.e often still relying on manual work, despite a relative increase in mechanization the last decenia. 

At the extraction stage, cooperative workers are subjected to irresponsible safety and health conditions, the most significant being the limited protection with respirators, which leads to a number of cases of silicosis (also known as the miners’ disease, caused by silica dust in the lungs). 

Cooperative miners working in the areas of the concentration process are impacted by the uncontrolled and careless use of toxic substances such as xanthate, cyanide and kerosene, which cause direct irritation of the eyes but also long-term effects for the nervous system and internal organs. Health and skin disorders are caused by working in direct contact with acids and heavy metals as well as excessive exposure to sun and dust.

Another major problem within local mining activities is the lack of long-term planning. As miners expand their mining explorations, the lack of information available can lead to dangerous situations whereby an area is accessed that had previously been marked as a “no-go-zone”.

Mining bin for load next to Morococala's mine entrance (Oruro, Bolivia) © Silke Ronsse / CATAPA

Endangering food sovereignty and biodiverse ecosystems 

Despite the laws for the protection of “Mother Earth” in Bolivia and the requirement (in most cases) of acquiring an environmental license prior to conducting mining extractions, all mining activities imply large environmental damages. The main impacts are mine byproducts like acid water, the mining waste dumped into open air and the discharge of the chemicals used in the concentration processes (a pH of 3 or lower is common for the water flows around mining areas). 

The mining exploitations have a serious impact on agriculture nearby and downstream. The environmental consequences often force farmers to become miners since their lands are too contaminated. It is hard to calculate all the impacts on the ecosystems stemming from the many mining sites and it is just as hard to remediate.

Women in a particularly precarious situation

Women in cooperative mining in Oruro are mostly elderly widows, having lost their husbands in mining or related activities, or single mothers with children. Their access to the cooperative membership is restricted because women are traditionally believed to bring bad luck inside the mines. Thus, they mainly work outside smashing discarded rocks or in other areas with less income possibilities.

The miners’ income depends on luck – either they find metal-rich minerals or they don’t. In the selling process, women are particularly tricked and paid an unfair price. Many women work informally, even outside the cooperative framework. They do not have health insurance or a pension fund. They are generally the main caregivers of their families, hence, women almost always carry the double burden of productive and reproductive work.

Woman leaching tin from waste rock in Machacamarca (Oruro, Bolivia) © Isabella Szukits / Südwind

Consequences for the generations to come

The environmental degradation caused by mining activities has an impact on agricultural activities, making it impossible in many areas to grow crops, raise cattle or fish. This has led to the migration of farming communities towards mining sites and cities.

The lack of capital in this cooperative model makes it difficult to sustainably manage the mining activities. The short-term perspective creates uncertainty regarding the incomes of the miners, especially in periods of low prices, but also due to the finiteness of the ore they extract.

Due to low metal prices, cooperatives may have difficulties investing in improving productivity of the mine through machinery, engineering and exploration for future ore veins. International commodity trading companies benefit from their oligarchic position by using strategies to unfairly reduce the price of minerals at the origin, a strategy which directly impacts the cooperatives – the weakest link of the chain in international trade. The cooperatives face losses as a result.

Main street of Japo (Oruro, Bolivia) © Silke Ronsse / CATAPA

Make ICT Fair in Oruro: a multi-scale framework


Complex situation for Bolivia to respect the human rights at stake

The investigations in Oruro have shown that there is a need to raise awareness on human rights violations in mining areas at State level in order to call for an improvement of their conditions. This is necessary to provide resources and controlling personnel in order to guarantee the enforcement of laws regarding the protection of “Mother Earth” and the different environmental regulations, but also for the monitoring of human rights regarding social, labour and safety standards. 

Bolivia has ratified different international human rights instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which obliges States to provide “just and favorable conditions of work” (Article 23) as well as “the right of everyone to a standard of living that is adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family (…) and the right to provisions in the event of unemployment in circumstances beyond his control” (Article 25 § 1).

The 1976 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) of the International Labour Organization (ILO) obliges States to guarantee “safe and healthy working conditions” (Article 7 ii b) as well as the “highest attainable standard of health” (Article 12 i).

The American Convention on Human Rights (also known as the Pact of San José) also provides protection for Bolivian miners, which foresees the right of “Just, equitable and satisfactory conditions of work” (Article 7) and “the right to health” (Article 10). 

Acid water outlet on surface from Japo's galleries (Oruro, Bolivia) © Silke Ronsse / CATAPA

Need for monitored fair and responsible criteria in the international trade

The international trade of Oruro’s zinc-silver-lead concentrates is dominated by a small group of international companies importing and reselling or smelting these minerals: Korea Zinc, Trafigura and Glencore. Even if these companies are not legally bound by the human rights treaties mentioned above, they are the core stakeholders within the chain and are responsible for these violations through a controlled fulfillment of the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD’s Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains.

Tracing the supply chain aims at shaping a more responsible framework for the relations between the global companies and their different suppliers, as part of a growing call for social responsibility of transnational corporations. This would mean, regarding the ICT supply chain, that extracted minerals which fail to meet minimal social and environmental standards can not be traded on the international market anymore.

The OECD Guide Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas specifically defines “Due Diligence” as an “on-going, proactive and reactive process through with companies can ensure that they respect human rights and help them ensure they observe international law”.

“Risks” are defined in relation to the potentially adverse impacts of a company’s operations, which result from the company’s own activity or its relationships with third parties, including suppliers and other entities in the supply chain. This very broad scope considers that International trading companies are bound to respect this due diligence obligation towards all parties involved in the supply chain, including the mining cooperatives.

Tin smelter Empresa Metalúrgica Vinto (Oruro, Bolivia) © Silke Ronsse / CATAPA

Call for international action

Making ICT fair would require that the international metal trading companies in Oruro follow the different steps of due diligence as requested in the Guide:

  • Identify the factual circumstances involved in the extraction, transport, handling, trading, processing, smelting, refining and alloying and manufacturing of products.
  • Identify and assess any actual or potential risks by evaluating the factual circumstances against standards set out in the company’s supply chain.
  • Prevent or mitigate the identified risks by adopting and implementing a risk management plan, which may result in a decision to continue trade throughout the course of risk mitigation efforts, temporarily suspend trade while pursuing ongoing risk mitigation, or disengage with a supplier either after failed attempts at mitigation or where the company deems mitigation not feasible or the risks unacceptable.

In order to achieve satisfactory results for the local actors, the different stakeholders in the supply chain should become partners in a new monitored framework, where public institutions must have a role to push and control the different initiatives.

Assessed cooperatives as well as local suppliers showed clear interests in a monitored system aiming to improve the management of the supply chain, which is a starting point to be optimistic about the development of a fair and responsible ICT sector, which would need to include:

  • Set up a fair price for the metals based on a fair minimum wage for the miners, not on the production costs of the smelters companies.
  • Enforcement of the national laws as well as the international standards regarding environmental management in order to avoid – at least- further infiltration of the heavy metals into the soil.
  • Investment in local multi-stakeholder frameworks to support local alternatives to mining in order to revitalize and diversify the damaged local economies.
  • Invest in training and monitoring capacities of the local workers.

Read the full report below.

Covid-19 in the Peruvian Amazon: Challenges for the most vulnerable communities of Loreto

Covid-19 in the Peruvian Amazon: Challenges for the most vulnerable communities of Loreto

Author: Mirna Fernández


If there is one thing which the Covid-19-outbreak has brought to the surface in a very clear way, it is the existing global inequalities. To which extent communities are able to withstand the crisis, depends a lot of their access to healthcare, sanitation and food systems.

The reality in the region of Loreto, located in the Peruvian Amazon, shows that this pandemic and its socioeconomic implications will pose severe threats to some of its most vulnerable communities.

An already collapsed Health Care System

When the first positive cases of the coronavirus were confirmed in Loreto, the hospitals were already close to collapsing. The Peruvian Health Minister, Victor Zamora, announced that Loreto was facing two “big problems” at the same time: Coronavirus and Dengue.

Before the arrival of Covid-19 the region of Loreto was victim of one of the worst episodes of a dengue epidemic in the history of the region. According to the National Center for Epidemiology, Prevention and Control of Diseases (CNE), only in the first 3 months of 2020, the number of cases of dengue in Peru reached 8 times the amount of cases compared to the same period last year. Loreto has reported the biggest number of cases, with 3,925 in total, which is 31 times higher than the same period last year. This was already a heavy burden for the weak regional health care system. In the hospitals, few beds were available for the many patients that needed to be covered by mosquito nets to prevent the spread of the disease to other patients in the hospitals.   

Patients with dengue with mosquito nets to avoid the spread of the disease. Photo © DIRESA Loreto

The Covid-19 outbreak disrupted Loreto, as the region doesn’t have enough beds ready to use in Intensive Care Units (ICU). The Regional Hospital of Loreto – the biggest and most equipped hospital of Loreto – has only 12 ICU beds for Covid-19 patients, of which 10 are already in use. The other hospitals in the region all together have only 9 extra ICU beds and all of them are in use already by non Covid-19 patients. This should cover a population of 884 000 inhabitants. Belgium, in comparison, has a population of 11.46 million inhabitants and 1864 ICU beds, of which 785 remain free for future patients needing Intensive Care. The fact that only 2 ICU beds remain free for the whole region of Loreto is a hard reality check.

While the pandemic is spreading in the region, everyday we hear reports from health personnel dropping out due to a lack of protective equipment. A hospital called ESSALUD had to close temporarily when 4 health workers were tested positive, and improvised health centres had to be put in place to continue the medical attention for its patients. The president of the Medical Federation of Loreto, María Huilca Chambi, pointed out the lack of biosecurity for the personnel taking the samples for Covid-19 testing. “We are putting our lives at risk”, she said.

Loreto is currently the region with the fourth highest amount of most positive cases in Peru, with 619 to date. This is the result of 2876 tests performed in the region since the beginning of the outbreak, according to the official government data. There is an obvious lack of tests, labs and equipment for the personnel’s health, which did not improve much since the beginning of the outbreak. This raises questions about the credibility and transparency of the local authorities.  

Increasing food prices

Loreto does not have a diversified agricultural production, due to the hard conditions that the Amazon ecosystem poses on peasants. With mainly poor, infertile soil where crops are often suffering from erosion due to heavy rains and from different plagues, only a limited variety of crops can survive. Therefore, the region needs to import massive amounts of food, especially vegetables, from other regions of Peru.

The transportation of imported food is especially complicated for Loreto. Its main city, Iquitos, which has about one million inhabitants, is the only major city in Peru that is not accessible by road. The imported food from other regions needs to arrive either by air or by ground transportation until Yurimaguas, and from there by boat for more than 3 days. The regional food supplies reach Iquitos by boat, coming from local communities settled on the river sides.  

Family agriculture produces 70% of the food supplies that are consumed in Peru. In many cases, this means that the surplus food production of small families is sent to other regions by means of passengers’ transport, which is now prohibited by the State of Emergency. The cargo transport of food supplies is allowed, and people working in the food supply sector are officially allowed to pass by regularly. However, to obtain the necessary permits with the National Police, you would need to provide certain certifications that many small producers don’t have.

Therefore, if prices of basic food in the region have increased, it is directly linked with the State of Emergency declared by the government of Peru and its transport restrictions. Basic fresh food items like eggs, potatoes, tomatoes, bananas and onions have doubled in price since the beginning of the lockdown.

Speculation is another cause of increasing food prices. There was a wave of panic among the inhabitants of the country, especially during the first days of the lockdown, so the markets and stores were wiped out of some products. The resulting demand in turn increases the prices. While the Peruvian government is trying to send positive messages to the population ensuring that there will not be a shortage of food supplies, the outcome is nonetheless that the prices of some products might take a while to stabilize after the panic-buying.

There are also very strict and inconvenient rules put in place during the State of Emergency regarding groceries shopping. In Iquitos, markets start business around 5 am and the police force the vendors to start closing by 9:30 am. The result is a major assembly of people trying to buy their food in the very early hours of the morning, which absolutely poses more risks for mass contagion.

Belen market early in the morning during the state of emergency. Photo ©Luis Rodriguez

Threats to Indigenous Peoples and Native Communities

There is no national action plan for Covid-19 focused on Indigenous Peoples, despite the demands from the largest national indigenous organization, Aidesep, and the regional organization of indigenous federations, Orpio. They demand the participation of indigenous peoples’ representatives in the planning and implementation of measures to avoid scenarios of mass contagion in the indigenous communities.

Indigenous peoples’ organizations from Loreto such as Fediquep, Feconacor, Opikafpe and Acodecospat have proposed sanitation protocols to be urgently implemented, but they are still waiting for a response from the government. Loreto compasses more than 24% of the Amazon indigenous population in Peru according to the latest national census. It is the region with the most indigenous communities in the country, which count about 1200. But in most of these communities, health posts have a shortage of supplies, even more so during this sanitary crisis.

There is only one lab in the region that can process the Covid-19 molecular tests: it is located in Iquitos. The Regional Health Director, Percy Minaya León, mentioned that his main concern is the population in remote areas and close to international borders, which includes indigenous and native communities. In these areas, the health care personnel that takes samples for example in Santa Rosa o Caballococha (near the borders with Colombia and Brasil), must travel by boat on the Amazon river for more than 12 hours and then go back to the lab in Iquitos with the samples for testing. There are not enough tests, nor enough personnel to cover these areas appropriately in terms of Covid-19 testing.

Out of fear of getting infected by the virus, several native communities took the decision to block all entrances to their territories in order to isolate themselves. They prefer not to receive any donation rather than exposing themselves to possible infection. However, not everybody is respecting their decision. There are unscrupulous merchants, hostile public officials, rapporteurs, illegal loggers and miners, uninformed military and police, and other outsiders who do not understand that their decision falls within their right to self-determination and is valid and well-founded. 

Communities block the access to their territories. Photo ©Agencia Andina

There are many basic needs which lack coverage for indigenous peoples in the Peruvian Amazon, now representing major obstacles for their wellbeing during this health crisis. According to the census for native communities conducted in 2017, only 9,8% of the indigenous population in the Amazon has access to the Internet, where they could consult the most recent prevention and protection measures. Moreover, only 25,8% of these communities have access to a public drinking water system, complicating washing hands to prevent infections.

To overcome this crisis, the national and regional governments have a huge amount of work to do, especially in these remote areas, to avoid the worst-case scenarios, in which the most vulnerable communities become infected on large scale. After the crisis it will be necessary to evaluate to which extent the government failed to meet the needs of the indigenous population during this pandemic.

You can also read more about the COVID-19 situation in Peru in our other blog post Caning, arrests and social issues: Ten days of quarantine in Peru.

©Pablo Rojas Madariaga / Danwatch

Lithium exploitation is drying out the world’s driest desert

Lithium exploitation is drying out the world’s driest desert 

*This article is a summary of a longer investigation project from Danwatch, published in collaboration with CATAPA and SETEM. More information at the end of the article.

The Acatama Desert in Chile, the world’s driest desert, is gradually losing its last water resources. Indigenous communities have been sounding the alarm for several years and are now being strengthened by scientific research and environmental organisations. Cause of this dehydration? Lithium mining.

Lithium is essential for the batteries in our phones, our computers and the explosive increase in the number of electric vehicles that are often seen as the key to a green energy transition. Chile, which has half of the world’s lithium reserves, has been declared the ‘Saudi Arabia of Lithium’ and almost all of its exports are currently extracted from the Atacama Desert, the driest place in the world. But extracting Atacama’s lithium means pumping up huge amounts of scarce water resources. Water resources that have enabled indigenous peoples and animals to survive in the desert for thousands of years. 

According to researchers, extraction is already causing lasting damage to the area’s fragile ecosystems. In the Atacama and elsewhere in Chile, indigenous communities are now protesting against current and future plans for lithium extraction. Many communities claim that they were never consulted before the mining projects, although the Chilean authorities are obliged to do so under international treaties ratified by the Chilean state. The Danish research centre Danwatch can document that companies like Samsung, Panasonic, Apple, Tesla and BMW get batteries from companies that use Chilean lithium.

With the country’s incomparable lithium reserves and the increasing importance of the metal for the energy sector, Chile has occasionally been awarded the label ‘Saudi Arabia of Lithium’. Nearly 40 percent of the global supply comes from Chile over the past 20 years and, as Danwatch can reveal, it ends up in some of the most popular electronics and electric cars. The metal is one of the most popular products of the Chilean energy sector. 

However, the Atacama’s indigenous communities were caught up in speed. Chile has signed ILO Convention 169, which obliges governments to consult indigenous people when major projects are carried out in their area. However, according to the people of Pai-Ote, they were not consulted before the lithium projects were presented in the media. “We found out from the press that an agreement had been made that allowed SQM to start lithium mining here. Nobody asked the Colla people if they wanted the mining on their territory,” says Ariel Leon, representative of the Colla community.

Chilean lithium can be extracted at low cost: miners pump lithium brine from a massive reservoir under the Atacama salt plain to huge puddles on the surface of the desert. The highest solar radiation in the world causes the water in the brine to evaporate quickly, causing the lithium to be scooped up together with other salts and minerals.

During this process, 95% of the extracted brine evaporates into the air. This accelerates the water scarcity in the Atacama, says Ingrid Garces, a professor of technology at the Chilean University of Antofagasta, who conducts research into salt pans. “In Chile, lithium mining is considered to be a normal form of mining, as if you were mining a hard rock. But this is not regular mining – it’s water extraction,” she says.

The two companies behind lithium mining in the Atacama, the Chilean Soc. Química & Minera de Chile (SQM) and the American Albemarle Corp. have permits to extract almost 2,000 litres of brine per second. In addition to the brine, lithium miners also extract significant amounts of fresh water along with the nearby copper mines. “The result is an impact on biodiversity in general. And that effect is already visible – the wetlands are drying out,” says Ingrid Garces.

Atacama’s indigenous communities have been sounding the alarm about water scarcity for years. According to the Atacama People’s Council, which represents 18 indigenous communities, rivers, lagoons and meadows have all declined in water over the past decade. However, the Chilean authorities have largely relied on the environmental impact assessments of the mining companies themselves. And, in general, these studies have not found any significant impact on water levels or the surrounding nature.

“For the locals, the change is very clear. They notice that there is less water for their animals, and they see how the rivers dry out. This anecdotal knowledge is not taken seriously by the companies or the state,” says Cristina Dorador, biologist and associate professor at the Chilean University of Antofagasta, who studies the microbial life in the Atacama.

In August 2019, an analysis of satellite images by the satellite analysis company SpaceKnow and the scientific journal Engineering & Technology came to a similar conclusion. Based on satellite images from the period 2015-2019, they saw a strong inverse relationship between the water level in the lithium ponds of SQM and the surrounding lagoons: “As the water level in the SQM ponds increased, the water level in the lagoons would drop”.

Ironically, the Atacama salt plain was once a large lake before it dried up thousands of years ago due to severe climate change. Scientists are studying the desert today as an example of what can happen to ecosystems elsewhere on the planet if global climate change becomes effective. But in an effort to mitigate rising temperatures with electric cars, industries are sucking away the little water left in the world’s driest desert with all the social and ecological impact as a consequence. 

Companies are often greenwashing. This greenwashing narrative is based on the claim that a substantial increase in metal mining is necessary to meet the material needs of renewable energy technologies and associated infrastructure. However, the renewable energy sector will under no circumstances consume the majority of the metals’ annual production. Nevertheless, this narrative let mining companies sacrificing new sites to explore

Danwatch, SETEM and CATAPA  did research to the impact of lithium exploitation in the framework of the European project: Make ICT Fair. This project wants to make the supply chain of electronics more visible and influence public buyers to ask their ICT suppliers, both mining companies and manufactures,  to improve environmental and labour condition. Lithium, as one of the most important metal in the transition to green economies, became the focus of this article.

Danwatch has been to Chile to investigate the country’s growing lithium extraction industry. In the process, they have interviewed numerous scientists, companies, politicians and the people who live closest to the extraction sites. They have reviewed the mining companies’ impact studies as well as the few independent research papers on the topic. They especially base the investigation on a 2019 study on lithium mining in Chile by researchers from Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability.
The investigation is supported by the EU-funded project Make ICT Fair and published in collaboration with SETEM and CATAPA.


Check all the articles from the investigation project below.

ARTICLE 1: Our demand for batteries is drying up the world’s most arid place.
ARTICLE 2: Much of the world’s lithium is being extracted from indigenous peoples’ territories against their will.
ARTICLE 3: Indigenous peoples face charges as they resist future lithium projects across Chile.

ARTICLE 4: There’s probably Chilean lithium behind the screen you’re reading this on.

ARTICLE 5: How much water is used to make the world’s batteries?

ARTICLE 6 / INTERVIEW: The mining companies only see water. But water is life for us.

Interview with 67-year old Clementino López, one of around 20,000 indigenous Likan Antai living in the Atacama Desert

ARTICLE 7 / VIDEO: Watch the surreal lithium extraction landscapes from above.

Watch the surreal lithium extraction landscapes from above

Written by Aäron De Fruyt and Charlotte Christiaens.
Photography: ©Pablo Rojas Madariaga / Danwatch

Art as a Form of Protest – Peru

Art as a Form of Protest – Peru

As all neighboring countries of Peru are stuck or have been stuck in violent protests recently, Peru seems calm. Cajamarca, known for its huge protests to stop the mining project of Conga, seems calm.

Those protests happened only about 7 years ago, in 2011 and 2012, and still have a special taste in everyone’s mouth. Everyone in Cajamarca today has lived them profoundly. Everyone has somehow been part of the cruel protests. But looking at Cajamarca now, it seems like the idea of protesting has died. It seems like people have quietly accepted legal and illegal mining activity in the region. For example, there seems to be no reaction to the new mining project Michiquillay of the company Southern Copper, which they hope to start using in 2022. And there is very little reaction to the contamination of the Valle de Condebamba, where vegetables most Cajamarquinos eat get produced and are severely contaminated with toxic metals.

Why is that? Why do people stay calm? Is it because there are too many protests in Peru? Because they got tired? Because of the number of social conflicts that never get resolved? Because of the 279 people that died defending human rights until 2018 in Peru? Because of the horrible criminalization of protests in Peru in all its forms – both direct attacks as methods like states of emergency? Because of the memory of the horrible protests in 2012?

All very good reasons to not take to the streets anymore. But the truth is – the protests have never really stopped. They have just taken different forms.

Silent protests

Calm, silent protests are happening everywhere. Protesting doesn’t mean aggression. Protesting means showing how things can be different, making people think, for example through art, photo exhibitions, music, whatever you feel like. Protesting can be as silent or as violent as you want it to be. It’s your fight.

So yes, people in Cajamarca – or in Peru – might be tired of protest marches. It’s easy to see that the protest marches for women rights are smaller every year. The three climate change actions we’ve organized this year shrunk every time, and in June, when bull fights came back to Cajamarca after years, we were just a small group screaming outside of the arena holding up cardboards and getting laughed at.

But almost no one came to see the bull fights. The stadium was empty, which made the government cancel the second day of fights. And isn’t that a sign that Cajamarca doesn’t want bull fights anymore? Isn’t just not showing up a form of protest too? Isn’t silent protest, protest too?

Cross boundaries

Protest is what you want it to be. And using art as a form of protest isn’t something new. In fact, it represents the way of protesting in Peru. In the world. And all through history.

It’s said that art as a form of protest or activism was first seen with Dada, an anti-war movement which openly outed critiques to the First World War. Picasso protested with paintings based on for example the Spanish Civil War. The Vietnam War formed a base for many works of art in the sixties, and also gender issues, feminism, immigrant problems, and so on, got addressed through art. And then we haven’t even mentioned Banksy yet with all his work on all kinds of global issues, or the Russian feminist punk-rock band Pussy Riot that dealt with themes as feminism, freedom of speech, LGBT+ rights, etcetera, through their music.

Art is political, and art can be a powerful weapon. Art can make you think about things you hadn’t thought about before. Art can make a political statement, can be some sort of critique on a political or social situation. Art often looks up boundaries, or crosses them.

Art and activism

Also during the awful protests against mining project Conga in 2011 and 2012, art was used. The Plaza de Armas in Cajamarca changed into an art gallery, there were concerts, people were singing and dancing on the street. The Marcha del Agua towards Lima was beautiful with everyone singing together. And that has never stopped. That’s still part of Peru’s – or Cajamarca’s – culture. Art is protest.

As Carlos, founder of an environmental organization in Cajamarca says: “Art has a great impact on people. People get conscious about the environment, and on top of that about the beauty of the art and the people.” Art has an incredibly creative power to move people emotionally, while activism sets a goal, shows us the social or political change we need to see in the world. Art moves a feeling, while activism creates an effect. And in order to make that change, in order to get that effect, we need some sort of stimulation. We need to be moved. Emotionally. Art and activism combined, can lead to many, many things.

On top of that, art used as a form of protest, outside of actual protest marches or political spaces, gets you a surprise effect. It makes people think about serious, maybe political, issues, without them maybe realizing it. It gets in your mind, and slowly, gets you to that effect activism wants to reach.

Changing minds

Murals for example, big paintings on walls, are widely used as a form of protest or activism in Cajamarca and in Peru. In the province of Celendín the streets are full of colourful walls. And also in Cajamarca the city is covered in painted walls, leaving powerful messages. Something we could already see in the beginning of the 20th century in Mexico.

And I have to admit, while painting one of those murals, thinking about the load of work waiting for me on my desk, I did think to myself that I could use my time better. That I could actually do something useful to help the environment, instead of just paint. That I shouldn’t waste my time painting a wall with a message probably no one would read. But was I wrong. All the people passing by that day stopped to check out our message. To see what it was about. And still very often, as I walk passed that wall, I see people talking about the painting. Maybe the mural didn’t gain the change immediately. But it is changing people’s minds, slowly, daily, firmly.

The same happened when we used a beautiful Cajamarcan tradition as a form of activism. On Corpus Christi, the whole Plaza de Armas gets covered in alfombras, or flower carpets. We focused on animal rights and protested against the bull fights with our carpet, whereas some others used it to address gender inequality, for example. And in between the beautiful art works, those pieces of art showing some sort of social or political issue, were the alfombras where most people stood around, discussing what they saw. Not what was actually there, but what they saw, what it meant to them, what they understood the message was. It made people rethink their own actions.

Happiness in protest

And that’s not all. Ecological fairs keep popping out of the ground like mushrooms, focusing on economic alternatives to mining and environmental issues, and that way making passengers-by think about the impact of mining activity without them realizing that’s what it’s about. Wakes are organized to mourn the death of our environment, combined with a beautiful piano concert, to focus on environmental issues in a different way. Theatres are held all through town showing the effects of gender inequality or climate change. Movie nights focusing on social themes are a big thing.

The lyrics to the typical cheerful carnival music of Cajamarca get changed to songs defending human rights and are being sung whenever the opportunity shows.

A few weeks ago a protest action was held at Cerro Quilish. Only about 30 people showed up, hiking to the top of the mountain from where you could look out over Yanacocha. But those 30 people brought up their giant speaker, singing and dancing their way up. And after the talk on top of the mountain, the volume of that same speaker was turned up a bit more.

People opened their bags, uncovering bowls of food, giving everyone a spoonful of whatever they had brought. Sharing. Dancing. Singing. Turning a protest into a beautiful moment together, showing their strength, their traditions, their bond. Showing they are one. Unstoppable. Finding happiness in protest.

Beautiful protests

There’s loads of centers that open their doors for all kind of social movement or activity, for free, supporting artists. There’s a cultural magazine made entirely by volunteers that also hold events every few weeks addressing for example topics as cultural identity, traditions, history. There’s movies or poetry in Quechua to make people rethink their roots and history. There’s dozens of bands in Cajamarca singing about animal rights or human rights or violence against women or any topic you can think of.

Lots of youth organizations take charge and organize fun activities for all ages such as actions on recycling with quiz questions and prices to win. Photo exhibitions focus on what nature should look like and shows the work of different human and environmental right defenders.

Of course, protesting is hard in Peru. And it’s sad that there’s still so much to protest about. But at least we know it will always be here, in its own way. And protesting can be so, so beautiful.

There’s resistance. There’s hope. In all its forms. Don’t underestimate the power of art. And don’t underestimate Cajamarca.

Armenia: Amulsar, the Mountain where Water is more Precious than Gold

On the 2nd of October, CATAPA had the honor of receiving Armenian activist Anna Shahnazaryan, from the Armenian Environmental Front. She is part of the Save Amulsar campaign, which for years has been opposing the Amulsar gold mine by Lydian International. The Amulsar mine is the second largest gold deposit in Armenia. Shahnazaryan travelled to Belgium to have conversations with EU lobby groups and managed to give a short presentation with CATAPA.

During this gathering, we also met Laura Luciani (author of this article), who is a PhD student at the Centre for EU Studies of Ghent University, where she researches human rights and civil society in the South Caucasus.

ORIGINAL ARTICLE in the East Journal in Italian, by Laura Luciani.

Armenia: Amulsar, the Mountain where Water is more Precious than Gold

In 1986, a group of 350 Armenian intellectuals wrote an open letter to Mikhail Gorbačëv to denounce the catastrophic consequences of pollution caused by heavy industries, whose repercussions had long been ignored by the Soviet authorities. Even though for over thirty years environmental protests have been taking place in an almost cyclical way in Armenia, and the damages caused by irresponsible industrial practices are constantly monitored, today citizens still have to take to the streets to prevent yet another ecological disaster.

For seven years, local communities and environmentalist groups have been opposing the construction of a gold mine in Amulsar – a mountainous area in the South of Armenia, located in the centre of the national water supply system. But in the last year, in the wake of the political changes that affected Armenia, this local protest has taken on a transnational dimension: now, the “post-Velvet-Revolution” government led by Nikol Pashinyan finds itself having to handle it with caution.

The project and its impact

Armenia is a country rich in mineral resources including copper, gold, but also lead, silver, zinc and other industrial minerals; these constitute more than half of the country’s exports. With a surface of less than 30,000 km2, Armenia counts today around 27 authorized mineral sites, of which 17 are active. However, the exploitation of these deposits has for decades been at the centre of controversies due to mismanagement and to these extractive projects’ extremely negative environmental effects.

In 2012, a mining company called Lydian Armenia (subsidiary of the offshore company Lydian International) signs a first deal with the Armenian government, at that time led by the Republican Party. In 2016, the company receives the final mine operation permit, even though the project is highly problematic. Amulsar, which is the 2nd largest gold deposit in Armenia, is in fact located only 6 km away from the spa town of Jermuk, famous for its thermal water: the inhabitants (who were not consulted about the project and its impact) fear that the proximity of the mine and the pollution resulting from it may discourage tourist flows to the town, thus affecting the community’s main source of income.

Scientists also indicate that the project could have ecological repercussions on a much larger scale: the Amulsar deposit is located within a seismic area, which increases the risk that acid drainage processes, accelerated by the excavations, leak in and contaminate the surrounding rivers (Arpa, Vorotan and Darb), with negative consequences for agriculture and livestock. Furthermore, contamination threatens to reach Lake Sevan – the largest freshwater reservoir of the country and an almost sacred place in Armenian popular culture. Last but not least, the project would alter the Amulsar ecosystem, which hosts different protected species including the Caucasian leopard (or Persian leopard) – of which only 10 specimen remain in Armenia.

A turning point 

After years of protest, in June 2018 the local communities decided to seize the window of opportunity opened by the “Velvet Revolution” that took place over one month earlier (thanks to an unprecedented wave of mass peaceful protests) to undertake direct action and block the streets leading to the mining site. The #SaveAmulsar campaign was born: for over a year and a half, local people supported by environmental activists have been supervising the entrance to the mine, doing shifts in checkpoints they built for this purpose, and managed to effectively stop the works in the construction site.

However, the citizens’ euphoria suffered a severe blow on 9 September this year: after opening an investigation and commissioning an independent assessment of the project’s environmental impact, prime minister Nikol Pashinyan unexpectedly gave the go-ahead for the digging in the Amulsar gold mine, asking protesters to clear the streets. As Anna Shahnazaryan, Armenian Environmental Front’s activist, explains in an interview for Kiosk (T.N. Italian radio programme), “the independent report, published in August, stated that Lydian’s estimations about the mine’s impact on water resources were incorrect, and that the project contained several evaluation errors – including intentional ones. Therefore, the environmental impact mitigation measures envisaged by Lydian were not adequate”.

Nevertheless, the Investigative Committee and the prime minister himself concluded that the company would be able to manage all the environmental risks. “For this reason, – Shahnazaryan continues – in the last two months the situation has become hectic: the prime minister took the side of Lydian and organized different meetings with the company’s representatives, while we activists took to the streets both in Amulsar and in Yerevan”.

“Post-revolutionary” Armenia and its problems

Experts suggest that Pashinyan is defending the private interests of Lydian Armenia and its investors (among which the USA, the United Kingdom and several international financial institutions) to prevent the company from having recourse to the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS). This is an international mechanism which allows a foreign investor to request arbitration by a corporate court if the “host-state” violates its rights: this decision could cost Armenia around two billion dollars, that is two thirds of its state budget.

However, there are also people who believe that Pashinyan’s ambiguous position is symptomatic of some criticalities of Armenia’s post-revolutionary government: first, the lack of an ideology going beyond the mere overthrow of the corrupt political system, which for ten years had been in the hands of former president Serzh Sarghsyan. According to Anna Shahnazaryan, “the current government uses many slogans, but behind the slogans there is little action. And one of these slogans is ‘we will not follow the economic path traced by the previous government, which focused on the mining industry, but we will try to develop new sectors such as tourism and the IT sector’”.

In reality, the “economic revolution” that Pashinyan wants to bring about in Armenia seems to be based on the same neo-liberal approach of the previous government, aimed at “opening up the country” to multinationals and foreign investors (with the 400 million dollars destined for Amulsar, Lydian would be the largest single investor in the history of independent Armenia). An understanding of “development” which disregards ecological considerations, human rights and the citizens’ well-being.

Another problem, Shahnazaryan points out, is that “with the revolution in Armenia people developed a certain idolatry of the current prime minister, who is considered the leader of the revolution. Many former activists who participated in the revolution and were then elected to Parliament have now expressed ‘unconditional support’ to Pashinyan’s position on Amulsar”. According to Shahnazaryan, this raised many doubts, even among those who were not necessarily opposed to the project, “because it is something that undermines the democratic structure of the country: the legislative body should not be ‘unconditionally supporting’ the person that it is in charge of supervising”.

#SaveAmulsar continues 

Last year, the Armenian Environmental Front launched a petition requesting municipal councils in Jermuk and other towns in the region to ban all mining activities and declare Jermuk an ‘ecological area’. Although the petition has collected 12,000 signatures so far, the government has recently appealed against this initiative. Lydian Armenia is also putting pressure on protesters through legal channels.

Meanwhile, activists are trying to internationalize the movement, with the aim of exposing the responsibilities of international financial institutions (in this case, the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development) and other project funders (notably, the Swedish government which channelled money to Amulsar through state export-credit funds) in the global phenomenon of extractivism – namely non-sustainable development practices based on the extraction of mineral resources at the expense of local communities’ interests and the environment on which they depend.

Anna Shahnazaryan is convinced that the government cannot give a definitive authorization to Lydian “because the citizens are firmly opposed to the project, and if Pashinyan decides to use violent methods this will only turn against him”. The stakes in Amulsar seem to be very high: they do not “only” touch upon the protection of the environment and natural resources, but also the legitimacy of Nikol Pashinyan and the future of democracy in Armenia.

Mining in Azuay: a David vs. Goliath story

Mining in Azuay: a David vs. Goliath story

Azuay, a province in the south of Ecuador with Cuenca as its historic and cultural provincial capital, has rapidly developed into an emblematic region in the fight against mining. 

In the canton of Girón, in the province of Azuay, a public consultation (Consulta Popular) was organized on the 24th of March 2019 about the large-scale mining project Loma Larga. An historic event, because it was the first local referendum in Ecuador on a mining activity. 

During the Consulta Popular in Girón, the inhabitants were asked whether they agreed with extracting gold in the Páramo of Kimsacocha, located in the Cajas National Park. A páramo is a fragile ecosystem in the Andes High Mountains that is vital for water supply in the region and in the country. 

The result of the referendum was convincing! 87% of the community preferred water to gold and said “si a la vida, no a la minería”. An important precedent in Ecuador, because after this victory, other provinces tried to follow suit. Imbabura and Carchi, two provinces in the north of Ecuador, recently submitted an application for a Consulta Popular, but unfortunately this has been rejected by the Ecuadorian Constitutional Court. 

Also in terms of political leadership, the importance of the province of Azuay should not be underestimated. In May 2019 the inhabitants elected Yaku Pérez Guartambel as the new prefect. Since then, he has led the autonomous government of the province of Azuay. 

Yaku Pérez is known for his strong statements against the mining sector and his ambition to legally clear the province of Azuay from metal mining, in particular by organizing referendum. Yaku Pérez quickly became a symbolic figure in the country. 

Yaku Pérez at the demonstration in Quito, 16 September 2019 © Iván Castaneira

A constitutional problem 

Following the victory of the referendum in the canton of Girón, Yaku Pérez called for a general referendum on mining activities in the province of Azuay. This question was submitted to the Constitutional Court, but after a hearing on the 17th of September 2019, this request has been rejected. 

Pérez clearly expressed his dissatisfaction with the nature of the hearing. According to him, the President of the Court must hold a public hearing before taking a decision, as is customary in constitutional matters. “We want a public hearing so that we can look the judges in the eye and speak from the heart. To demonstrate in a factual and legal way the need for a public consultation,” according to Pérez.

Demonstration in front of Constitutional Court in Quito, 17 September 2019 © Iván Castaneira

Moreover, there is a conflict of interests within the Court. One of the constitutional judges, Dr. Ramiro Avila Santamaria, was not allowed to take part in the hearing because of earlier statements against extractivism. Other judges, who clearly have ties with the mining sector, were allowed to participate. Judge Carmen Corral is a lawyer at Solines Asociados, a law firm that provides advice and support to mining companies. Another judge, Hilda Nugues, is a member of the mediation committee of the Guayaquil Chamber of Commerce, which has spoken out against the referendum. 

There is clearly a lot of pressure from the national government and the large multinationals. There is great concern about what happened in Girón and fear about the outcome of such referendum at provincial and national level.

'SOMOS AGUA', demonstrators from Azuay in Quito, 16 September 2019 © Iván Castaneira

Campaign against Yaku Pérez 

It was no coincidence that on the same day as the hearing, the pro-mining sector distributed a campaign on Twitter in which they attacked Yaku Pérez. 

They claimed that Pérez would have had mining concessions in the period 1999-2000 because his name was found in the mining register. 

Yaku Pérez disclaimed this argument. At the time, as a lawyer, he would have signed documents for the extraction of sand and stones for construction works in the province. This type of mining also is registered, but it doesn’t concern metal mining.

The battle continues 

Following the negative decision of the Constitutional Court, Pérez announced that he would step up the resistance and open a wider door by organizing a referendum at national level. 

The Ecuadorian Constitution recognizes the Consulta Popular as a legal citizens’ initiative. However, the mining industry and the Ecuadorian government argue that local consultations on mining cannot take place because the natural resources in the subsoil are a matter of national concern. 

'SOMOS AGUA', demonstrators from Azuay in Quito, 16 September 2019 © Iván Castaneira

Moreover, the constitution states that the powers of various policy bodies are not exclusive, but competitive. “You may be the owner of what is in the subsoil, but you have to pass over the soil,” says lawyer Verónica Potes, expert in environmental law and human rights. 

“It’s a battle of David vs. Goliath”, says Yaku Pérez, “There aren’t many of us, but we have the truth, the reason and the legitimacy to our advantage. We continue the resistance and if necessary, we will denounce this issue before the international courts.”