By Alejandro Zegarra Pezo

PIURA, Peru, November 13, 2009 (ENS) – It is four in the morning on Sunday, November 1 in the paramo and cloud forest of Huancabamba, Piura Department in northern Peru. Harsh detonations and yellow refulgence break the calm of a chilly dawn in this presently occupied habitat of the nearly extinct mountain tapir.

Here, the mining encampment of Henry Hills is incongruously located high in the Peruvian Andes. The camp is about four hours by 4WD vehicle and 10 hours by foot from the quaint regional seat of Huancabamba and is owned by Rio Blanco-Copper, a subsidiary of the Chinese company Zijin, formerly Majaz subsidiary of Monterrico of England. Monterrico’s principal asset is the wholly owned Rio Blanco Copper Project.

Rio Blanco mining camp at Henry Hill, in the Peruvian Andes, where the attack took place. (Photo courtesy Monterrico)

An estimated 20 armed persons with their rifles and Molotov cocktails bombard this encampment where 14 employees peacefully sleep. With the precise aim of their rifles, the assailants easily bring down two young guards, Joel Martin Severino Zapata and Luis Guillermo Gomez Vilchez, as well as the administrator of the encampment, Eduardo Ramirez Montero. They die terrible deaths and one of them is carbonized by the fires set by these anonymous attackers.

Able to escape the flames that consumed 80 percent of the mining encampment, the other employees flee and hide out in the steepest and wildest mountains until they can finally escape and advise authorities.

The Henry Hills installation was named by former British miners in the area and is one of four installations started by Majaz to extract copper by open pit mining within this vital remnant paramo and cloud forest region of northern Peru. The Rio Blanco copper and molybdenum deposit is one of the largest undeveloped copper resources in the world.

This is located smack dab in the heart of the exceptional Cerro Negro region fed by Rio Blanco itself. Here remains one of the last and certainly the largest population of the nearly extinct endangered mountain tapir in Peru. It is estimated that only a few hundred remain in our nation.

Many endemic species also occur here, a large portion of which are endangered with extinction as judged by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Species Survival Commission and/or by Peruvian authorities as stated in Supreme Decree 034-2, 004.

A mountain tapir in Peru (Photo by Rennett Stowe)

Near the encampment is the small national Tabaconas Namballe Ecological Sanctuary of 29,500 hectares that protects endangered species such as the mountain tapir, Tapirus pinchaque, and spectacled bear, Tremarctos ornatus. Of hallmark importance also are the water resources of this highland area.

The deaths of these young miners are lamentable and could have been avoided had the mining company not persisted in occupying campesino community land. The communities here rejected the mining projects in a democratic referendum on September 2007 by more than 95 percent.

These same mining–resisting campesinos have been subject to persecution and even torture as well as assassinations for years, even within their own territories of Ayabaca and Huancabamba.

The campesino demands for justice concerning their illegal incarcerations, torturing’s, and killings have not been fairly heard by Peruvian authorities. In one case, over 30 campesinos were detained and tortured, accused of terrorism simply for trying to dialogue with the miners that were occupying their territories that contain forests and paramos.

In other words, the social will and ambience of this region has always been against mining, yet the mining companies always try to minimize and dismiss this resistance as having roots in ignorant, non-progressive classes of people.

On November 7, the President of the Council of Ministers Javier Velasquez announced that in view of the recent attack, the government of Peru would install a military base in the zone of the encampment. This would guarantee that the mining company, and other similar companies, could act with total impunity as concerns their infringements upon the communities of Yanta in Ayabaca and Segunda-Cajas in Huancabamba.

Mountain road near Huancabamba (Photo by Tom Kerem)

These are the communities whose land contains the greatest center of remaining occupied mountain tapir habitat along with a plethoric biodiversity and archeology, both unique in the world – but now at great risk of being obliterated from the face of the Earth.

It is not out of the question that the soldiers would be given an order to eliminate the mountain tapirs, since their presence as an endangered species in the zone could prohibit the open pit mining activities being planned.

We cannot afford to stall in our conservation efforts. The time is crucial to attain our objective in shortest duration, this being the Cerro Negro Nature Sanctuary.

For the mining companies and executive government officials of Peru, human lives mean little and wildlife much less. They only desire the minerals that lie beneath the soil of our magnificent paramos and cloud forests.

All the anciently evolved plants and animals, they willingly sacrifice in order to extract the monetarily valued metals, often found in very low concentrations, hence the massive processing of vast quantities of rock through open-pit mines.

Moneyed interests seek to impose their destructive mines on this headwaters area, but with the knowledge and will of the people, they will not succeed!

{Translated from the Spanish by Craig C. Downer, President, Andean Tapir Fund}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.