There’s Gold in Them Thar Hills

The hills outside Cajamarca are laced with gold. Tons of it – but don’t reach for your shovel and pan just yet, as this gold is not found in the kind of nuggets that set prospectors’ eyes ablaze. It’s ‘invisible gold,’ vast quantities of minuscule specks that require advanced and noxious mining techniques to be pried out of their earthly ore.

The Yanacocha mine, with a majority stake owned by Denver-based Newmont Mining Corporation, has quarried open pits in the countryside surrounding Cajamarca, becoming one of the most productive gold mines in the world. More than US$7 billion worth of the shiny stuff has been extracted so far. That, combined with plenty of new jobs and an influx of international engineers into Cajamarca, has meant a surge in wealth for the region – but for many locals, all that glitters is not gold.

In 2000, a large spill of toxic mercury raised doubts about Yanacocha’s priorities: gold over safety seemed to be the marching cry. The mine makes its profits by washing vast quantities of mountainside with cyanide solution, a hazardous technique that uses masses of water that local farmers also depend on. An internal environmental audit carried out by the company in 2004 verified villagers’ observations that water supplies were being contaminated and fish stocks were disappearing.

In the autumn of 2004, disillusioned campesinos (farmers) rallied against the opening of a new mine in the area of Quilish, and clashed violently with the police employed to protect the mine’s interests. After weeks of conflict, the company eventually gave in and has since reevaluated its priorities, and improved its safety and environmental record.

In an attempt to quell future mining protests, President Ollanta Humala’s administration passed the Prior Consultation Law in 2012, requiring mining companies to negotiate with local communities before initiating any new extraction projects. Nevertheless, trouble brewed that same year when Newmont’s proposed US$4.8 billion Conga gold and copper mine project set Cajamarca off again. Despite claims from Newmont that the project will create up to 7000 jobs in the region, inject US$50 billion into the local economy and not harm the region’s watersheds, locals weren’t buying it. Under the slogan ‘Conga No Va’ (roughly translated as ‘No to Conga!’), a far more serious general regional strike that lasted months brought days of daily marches and protests throughout Cajamarca, Celendín and the surrounding region, resulting in at least eight dead.

At the time of research the future of Conga remained in limbo with some residents supporting the project and many others, particularly in rural areas, passionately against it. Production at Yanacocha had dropped considerably to around 500,000 ounces a year by 2018, after peaking at 3.3 million ounces per year in 2005. Notwithstanding, Newmont has pledged to keep the mine running until at least 2027.