Señora Agripina has to get up early every morning to take her cattle to pasture. Thanks to a simple system, she has access to water in her house, which comes directly from a small spring nearby. Unfortunately, the spring water is so contaminated with heavy metals that it is harmful to health. Señora Agripina and other residents of the indigenous communities of Espinar Province – which belong to the sphere of influence of the mining company in Antapaccay – have been consuming this water for years.
From the Andes to our cars: copper mining in Espinar
Espinar Province is located in the south of Peru’s Cusco region, at an altitude of almost 4,000 meters. The areas in the Andean plateau belong to the indigenous communities of the Quechua people of the K’ana Nation, who make their living mainly from grazing and farming as well as trade.
Copper mining in Espinar started in the 1980s with the Tintaya mine, which was operated by a state-owned company. After the mine had been privatized in the 1990s, multinational companies such as BHP Billiton, Xstrata and, finally, Glencore, which acquired Xstrata in 2013, began large-scale mining at Tintaya and Antapaccay. In 2019, Swiss-based Glencore was able to extend its operation license for another twenty years, based on environmental studies. Today, this copper mine is one of the largest in the region, and Peru the third-largest exporter of copper concentrates in the world. Germany imports copper from Peru as a raw material for, among other things, the automotive industry, and now increasingly for energy infrastructure as well.
Copper mining, which adheres to only minimal environmental and social standards, has serious impacts on ecosystems and communities, particularly on the health of local communities. In order to meet increasing global demand, the mine has been expanded over the past thirty years. Glencore is the subject of numerous complaints and at the center of ongoing conflicts and severe social crises in Espinar. The complaints are not limited to Peru but are much the same throughout the region.
The consequences of copper mining: high levels of toxic metals in blood and urine
Numerous official surveys and observational studies of native communities have reached similar conclusions: There are high levels of toxic metals such as arsenic, cadmium and lead in the blood and urine of the local population. The Peruvian National Institutes of Health, for example, found various toxic metals in the bodies of multiple residents of the thirteen communities in the area affected by mining operations. 97.3 percent of the people tested had lead in their blood. In 2018, Amnesty International conducted an independent investigation, which found that all people tested had at least one of the heavy metals arsenic, cadmium or lead in their bodies at levels above the thresholds set by the WHO. 58 percent of those tested were found to have arsenic levels above the permissible limits, for example.
Local water sources disappear or are polluted
Further studies conducted by the Peruvian environmental ministry, the municipality of Espinar in 2013 and Amnesty International in 2018 also found that the water in Espinar is neither clean nor suitable for human consumption. The wells in communities within the area affected by mining are polluted with heavy metals and other substances. These wells represent the only source of water available to the population for direct consumption and economic activities. Several water sources have become unusable or disappeared altogether because water was diverted for the sake of open pit mining and mining infrastructure. Residents now depend on the delivery of water in tank trucks owned by the mining company. Official studies link the mining activities to the pollution of the local water sources. However, due to pressure from powerful corporations and the lack of technology and capacities in Peru, no causality studies could be performed. These would have shed light on the extent to which Glencore’s Tintaya-Antapaccay mine is to be blamed for these consequences.
In view of the seriousness of the situation and the demands of the population, the Peruvian government has made efforts over the past ten years to mitigate the damage. The environmental ministry drew up plans and took measures to provide medical treatment to the affected residents and to clean up the water sources. The health ministry and local administrations developed additional strategies (in 2016 and 2019) and even declared a health emergency in the province (in 2019). Yet little or nothing has happened to date. The water sources have not been rehabilitated and the affected communities receive only sporadic and insufficient medical care. Health facilities in the affected area have neither the human resources nor the capacity to deal with a problem of this magnitude.
Further expansions of the mining activities – without prior consultation
Despite the health emergency described above as well as severe human rights violations, mining continues unabated and is even expanding to new locations. As part of the expansion plans, Glencore has launched its new Coroccohuayco project. Including this expansion, the mine would have extraction rights to more than 23,000 hectares in the territory of 13 farming communities of the indigenous K’ana people.
This expansion of mining activities still requires the purchase of land from local communities. The municipality of Pacopata, for example, would lose 86 percent of its territory. Glencore nonetheless refuses to conduct an analysis on the impact on the collective rights of indigenous communities and to prepare a resettlement plan that complies with the Convention on Indigenous Peoples (ILO Convention 169). According to the convention, the population must be consulted beforehand and may only be resettled with its free, prior and informed consent.
Neither government nor corporation faces up to its responsibility
Espinar shows that national institutions in mining areas are unable to deal with the impact that large-scale industrial mining has on the environment and on human rights. And so the mining operation continues to expand to meet global demand, without either the government or the mining company taking responsibility and taking adequate precautions for the resulting health consequences. At the local level in Espinar, the negative impacts of mining clearly outweigh the benefits and endanger the lives of hundreds of children as well as men and women like Señora Agripina. Against the backdrop of growing demand and a global race for critical metals on the cusp of a long-awaited energy transition, the challenges will only become greater. There will be more mining projects, and they will have negative consequences and lead to conflicts. Right now, new rules for companies along their supply chains are being negotiated in the EU. A European supply chain act could provide an opportunity to address these challenges at the regulatory level, reduce social and environmental impacts and provide more access to legal remedies for those affected. Global demand must prioritize the protection of human rights and compliance with high social and environmental standards. Only in this way will we achieve a truly sustainable and just transition for everyone.
Vanessa Schaeffer Manrique is an environmental lawyer and part of the Peruvian NGO CooperAcción and the Red Muqui network of civil society organizations. Since 2022, she has been working as an expert for relations between the Global South and the Global North at the Archdiocese of Freiburg and as a consultant for mining, governance and human rights.
Mattes Tempelmann is a geographer who lived in Peru from 2014 to 2021, where he worked as a Comundo/Agiamondo specialist for the Red Muqui network. He has been advising partner organizations in Latin America on mining, ecology and human rights for Misereor since 2021.
For more information on the situation of Señora Agripina as well as the situation in the communities in Espinar in general, please see: Testimonials / Espinar kann nicht warten (kampagne-bergbau-peru.de, a campaign for an effective European supply chain act, in German)