Mining or Undermining? The Trouble with the Altiplano’s Mineral Wealth

Mining is Peru’s numero uno source of income, and the Central Highlands accounts for a sizable chunk of it. But the affluence brought by the extraction of zinc, lead, silver, copper and gold – Peru ranks within the world’s top four exporters for each – also raises questions concerning the distribution of that wealth and the detrimental environmental impacts of the extraction. Peru’s major mining centers are some of the poorest and most polluted places in the country, if not on the entire continent.

Mining or mineral processing is the economic lifeblood of Cerro de Pasco (one of South America’s main zinc and lead mines) and La Oroya (the Central Highlands’ main ore-smelting center). Yet it could also be the ruin of these cities. Contamination rates are high: La Oroya constantly appears on 'most- polluted-places-in-the-world' lists. Though Doe Run, the company that owns the La Oroya smelter, has shut down production, there have been clamors from residents to restart operations, despite awareness of the risks.

Huelgas (strikes) over working and living conditions are reported regularly, but also poignantly in evidence are the conditions people are prepared to endure to keep their jobs in this industry. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Cerro de Pasco, where the pit owned by Volcan Compañia Minera is in the middle of the city (and is ironically referred to as Peru’s biggest Plaza de Armas). Nine out of 10 children in the town have above-average levels of minerals in their blood, according to research by the US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And with the mine using the majority of available water, running tap water is only available for limited hours. A significant percentage of the city’s population lives in poverty.

Still, there is an even more imminent danger from the mine: houses cluster around its rim, and subsidence from the ever-present hole outside the properties is a problem. In 2008, Volcan was allowed to buy a portion of the historic city center. With the pit poised to eat up the heart of Cerro de Pasco, the Peruvian congress passed a bill proposing an audacious and costly solution: relocating the entire city some 20km away. But this could take an estimated US$500 million and over a decade to execute. And time, for many residents, is running out. Soon, Cerro de Pasco might not be there at all: a victim, like many Peruvian mining towns, of its own success.