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Thousands protest against Peru gold mine

By Franklin Briceno
Associated Press / November 24, 2011
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LIMA, Peru—At least 10,000 people in northern Peru joined protests on Thursday against a $4.8 billion open-pit gold mining project they fear will damage their water supply.

Hundreds entered the Conga mine's grounds and some threw rocks at a building storing PVC pipes, breaking windows, Associated Press video showed.

The owners of what is Peru's biggest mining investment, whose majority stakeholder is U.S.-based Newmont Mining Corp., said in a statement that the building was set ablaze.

They complained that police stood by idly and that the Cajamarca regional president, Gregorio Santos, led the trespassing protesters. The mine is located in the northern highland state of Cajamarca.

The protests have been slowly mounting since mid-October despite efforts of President Ollanta Humala's government to mediate the conflict. They complain he has reneged on campaign promises to protect their water.

"Humala, you've sold out the country!" protesters shouted on Thursday. Many gathered in the central square of the 350,000-resident regional capital, also called Cajamarca, in support of the strike.

Deputy Interior Minister Alberto Otarola told the AP in Lima, Peru's capital, that police in Cajamarca had not reported the incident.

Humala's four-month-old government backs Conga, an extension of the Yanacocha gold mine, Latin America's largest. Yanacocha began mining in 1993, but its productivity is tailing off.

The 8-square-mile (2,000-hectare) Conga mine is to begin production of gold and copper in 2015.

Its environmental impact statement was approved last year but protesters complain that the regulatory process is fundamentally flawed because the Mining Ministry is in charge and, unlike the Environment Ministry, is largely beholden to the industry.

Cabinet chief Salomon Lerner told reporters Thursday that the government wants to "resolve all doubts" about the Conga project. That includes, he says, "enriching" environmental impact and hydrology studies.

The project would displace four small lakes more than two miles (3,500 meters) above sea level with man-made reservoirs that mine officials say will actually increase water supplies for farmers.

But protesters soured by their experience with the Yanacocha mine are skeptical of such promises.

The regional president, Santos, told the AP on Wednesday that many Cajamarca city residents are upset because authorities had to upgrade their water treatment plant because of mining runoff.

Peru is the world's No. 2 producer of copper and No. 6 gold producer. Mining is the motor of its economy, accounting for 61 percent of exports.

Work at the mine, which employs 6,800 people, was halted as a precautionary measure on Wednesday, said Omar Jabara, a Newmont spokesman based at the company's Denver headquarters.

Protest leader Milton Sanchez said the protest would continue on Friday.

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Associated Press writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report from Bogota, Colombia.

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