Indigenous People of Peru Reject Talisman Oil Company

Canadian resource companies are under fire in Peru. On October 21, Cesar Zuniga, the president of the Achuar indigenous group FENAP, told a local radio: "We, as indigenous people, reject the Canadian company Talisman. We do not want them working in our territory. We want the Peruvian state to respect us, and the armed forces to stop helping the company."

The indigenous communities believe oil development causes ecological harm and leads to social conflict. "We do not want our forests, rivers and earth polluted, because this is our natural market… We have proof that pollution already exists, damage to nature and to indigenous people in the communities where petroleum activities are developed. For 37 years in the Achuar brother communities of the Corrientes River, petroleum has not brought any development to them; on the contrary they are sick and poverty stricken."

The Achuar say they will physically remove Talisman if the company does not stop working on their lands by November 15. "If they do not want to leave we will force them out." Reuters reported that the Calgary-based company "said it had no plans to pull out of Peru."

Already this year Canadian resource companies in Peru have been responsible for a number of socially damaging events; an oil and gas company entered an area inhabited by a nomadic tribe that has refused contact with the outside world; a mine destroyed pre-Columbian carvings; the government declared a state of emergency over fears that arsenic, lead and cadmium from a mine near Lima could pollute the capital’s main water supply. And in recent years Toronto-based Barrick Gold’s operations in the country have been engulfed in a number of violent protests, one of which left a couple of protesters dead.

"In Peru," notes McGill professor Daviken Stuenicki Gizbert, "40% of conflicts involving local communities are over mining. The majority of the mining sector in Peru is Canadian."

Before 1990, no Canadian mining company operated in Peru. Now, Canadian corporations dominate the country’s mining sector with a hundred mines. As an illustration of the size of Canadian mining investment in Peru, in late 2006 Scotia Bank announced plans to expand its banking in the country to do more business with mining clients. Driven by resource companies, Canadian direct investment in Peru is worth billions of dollars.

The highest profile mining conflict in Peru took place earlier this decade at Vancouver-based Manhattan minerals $US 240 million project in Tambo Grande, a small town in the north of the country. This open pit gold mine would have forced half of the town’s 16,000 residents to relocate while creating only a few hundred jobs.* Godofredo Garcia Baca, a leader of the anti-mining opposition movement, was shot and killed under suspicious circumstances.

A community referendum was held with the question: "Do you agree with the development of mining activities in the urban area; urban expansion area; agricultural zone and agricultural expansion zones in the district of Tambogrande?" More than 93% of 27,015 residents participated in the referendum and over 73% of the population responded "no" to the question.

The overwhelming success of the nonbinding referendum forced the company to put the project on hold. Still, Francisco Ojeda Irofrio, the president of the Front in Defense of Tambo Grande and Mayor of the municipal government of Tambo Grande, explains: "The company continues trying to buy us or scare us. They follow us, they record us, they infiltrate our meetings. They have a man there who worked for ten years with [disgraced former president Alberto] Fujimori, and before that was a leftist, burning cars and confronting the army, making a big mess. Now, in Tambo Grande, he hires local people to confront us."

Manhattan Minerals obtained its concession in Tambo Grande six months after participating in a Department of Natural Resources trade mission to Peru. Ottawa has supported many individual mining projects in the country. The federal government has also worked to provide the industry with a profitable investment climate.

In 2002, the Canadian International Development Agency [CIDA] began a $9.6 million Mineral Resources Reform Project, which provides technical assistance and technological support to the country’s Ministry of Energy and Mines. The official goal of the Mineral Resources Reform Project is "development of activities oriented to the consolidation of the institutional capacity of the sector, which means the services provided by the Ministry of Mines and Energy, and to contribute to the generation of greater confidence in the Ministry and its regional offices."

CIDA’s push to improve the prospects for Canadian miners through the Mineral Resources Reform Project warranted a visit earlier this year by the Conservative’s Minister of International Cooperation. "Ms. [Bev Oda]," Embassy Magazine reported in January, "arrived in Peru meeting with the Latin American nation’s energy and mines minister, as well as Canadian and Peruvian mining companies and NGOs to discuss mining sector reform."

Five months later the federal government signed a trade agreement with Peru largely designed to improve the prospects for Canadian investors. According to Foreign Affairs, "an investment chapter in the Canada-Peru FTA [free-trade agreement] locks in market access for Canadian investors in Peru and provides greater stability, transparency and protection for their investments."

In truth the FTA – with environmental and labor safeguards that are "even weaker than NAFTA’s" – subverts meaningful democracy. "The FTA with Peru," notes mining critic Dawn Paley, "eliminates the possibility that Peru would enact such a thing as the recent ‘Mining Mandate’ passed in Ecuador by the Constituent Assembly, which suspends all large scale mining activity (exploration) in Ecuador for 180 days while a new Mining Law is written." Above all else Ottawa wants to remove any future Peruvian government’s ability to raise taxes, change mining regulations or expropriate properties.

It’s time we challenge Ottawa’s support for predatory resource companies in Peru.

Yves Engler is currently finishing a book on Canadian foreign policy tentatively titled Uncle Sam’s Nephew: Tales of Canadian Imperialism. He is the author of two books: Canada in Haiti: Waging War on the Poor Majority (with Anthony Fenton) and Playing Left Wing: From Rink Rat to Student Radical.

*A correction to this article was made on December 15, 2008: In the initial version of this article, Export Development Canada (EDC) was incorrectly described as financing the “Manhattan Minerals” project in Tambo Grande, Peru. EDC was not involved in the project, and so the reference to EDC has been taken out of the article.