For Peru farmers, water and mining don't mix

The farmers who live downstream of what would become Peru's biggest open-pit gold mine oppose the project, known as Conga, for one simple reason: Water.

"Everything would dry up," says German Sangay, the mayor of Combayo, if Congas is not halted.

The project on 11.5 square miles (more than 3,000 hectares) of highlands in the northern state of Cajamarca would destroy four mountain lakes in order to extract more than 200 tons of gold.

The consortium that runs it, and whose majority owner is U.S.-based Newmont Mining Co., says it will build four reservoirs to replace the lakes.

But local elected officials including Sangay aren't persuaded. Combayo's nearly 4,000 peasant farmers draw on 30 different springs to grow corn and potatoes and raise cattle and sheep and fear Conga would taint and diminish them, he says.

Resistance to the project has been fierce, with five people killed early last month when police and troops opened fire on anti-mining protesters. The government called a state of emergency after the violence, suspending civil liberties.

Last week, Peru's prime minister said Conga would be suspended while the Yanacocha consortium deals with concerns over water.

A Newmont spokesman, meanwhile, said the $5 billion project was advancing "on a very measured basis," focused on the building of the new reservoirs and the mining camp. Further development will occur only with local and national support, said spokesman Omar Jabara.

The chief of Buenaventura, the Peruvian partner in Yanacocha, said the project's employees had been reduced by 4,500 employees to 1,500.

Many people in Cajamarca distrust Yanacocha, whose eponymous gold mine in the same region is Latin America's largest began operations in 1993 and is entering the end of its productive life.

Locals wary of the company were particularly upset with its handling of a 2000 spill of 307 pounds (152 kilograms) of mercury in a town called Choropampa. Hundreds of residents were sickened.

An Ipsos-Apyo poll this month of Cajamarca residents found 78 percent oppose the mine, with just 15 percent in favor. The poll had an error margin of 5 percentage points.


Associated Press writer Franklin Briceno contributed to this report from Lima, Peru.