Water and mining conflicts in the information age

My father was an olive farmer and very active on the valley olive farmer association in Peru. In the eighties, there was a tailings spill that affected river water and irrigated lands. Based on what they could understand of contamination and water chemistry, they had the initiative of taking water samples and present them to water authorities. The purpose was clear: show the contamination extend due to tailings spill and claim remediation schemes.

They reached to the water authority with the water chemistry results. In an office, in very short time, a public servant told them the water authority was not able to rule in this type of conflicts.

The farmers were deeply frustrated about the water authorities handling. However, this situation was not different from other water related issues in the eighties.

Water resources conflict management in the 90’s

The new era of modern mining in Peru brought big mining projects but the social conflict management was the same. As a general perspective, any social claim was conducted with these tools:

  • Buy congressmen opinion.
  • Corruption of regulatory officials.
  • Lobbyist.
  • Alienation of public media.
  • Trial of community leaders.
  • Any other right-wing technique.

This article does not intend to analyze the nature of social claims, a topic that is very complex and belongs to a high level social area of investigation. Here we are just discussing the “common tools” used to manage social conflicts.

When there was a water resource conflict that ended with a riot, march of highway blockage, the government sent the prime minister to negotiate, finally after negotiation there was a commitment of the government of increasing the wealth of the region and solving the water conflict. Communities ended up with several agreements, but no specific action for decades. Again, population was deeply frustrated with the water conflict management from the government.

Speeches

As a hydrogeologist/numerical modeler specialist in mining impact assessment on water resources (and second generation olive farmer), I write this post aiming to have a good perspective of current social conflicts management related to water resources in South America, specially in Peru.

When I asked some people in mining and consultant companies 5 years ago about the responsibility of the mining project on development of the communities, I hear this several times:

“The mining company pays all its taxes, therefore, it is the government the one that has to bring wealth to the people”.

I could assume this was true maybe in Finland or Norway, but in developing countries such as Peru, a medium wise person knows that government does not work this way. And the investment cash flow is translated on a leakage of wealth for the people.

Modern times

This is the information age, the age of Internet. Nature and charisma of water conflicts have changed dramatically.

Compared to the described situation of the 90’s, we can see some improvements on water legislation and labor of water authorities. But the major change on the conflict is basically information, we live nowadays in a global village where riots, arrests and blockages can be reported almost instantaneously.

We currently have many sources of information, many actors, lots of points of view, everybody streaming his/her opinion in real time. Think tanks do not come so easily from mass media, social networks have their role in linking and confronting points of view.

Peru is not anymore a banana republic were a mining project can be executed against the people, at least is a country were social issues became important on the project feasibility.

Solution for mining project development

I have always said that economical activities are very important for ecosystem, since they assure our existence and education, health and infrastructure for next generations. But we have to change the perspective of water conflict management.

We have to speak only one language to deal with conflicts. But more importantly is to tell the truth, and the truth is:

  • Every mining project involves environmental impact and water resources.
  • There are technologies to remediate, mitigate and compensate impacts.
  • Mining is important for the development of the country (till we begin some industrialization).
  • The people has to see development in their own context brought by the mining project.
  • People have to accept the good and bad impacts on mining before the start of any mining project.

Saul Montoya

Saul Montoya es Ingeniero Civil graduado de la Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú en Lima con estudios de postgrado en Manejo e Ingeniería de Recursos Hídricos (Programa WAREM) de la Universidad de Stuttgart con mención en Ingeniería de Aguas Subterráneas y Hidroinformática.

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