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"¡La gente inteligente, defiende el medio ambiente!" Thousands march for the right to water in Peru

Today, thousands of Peruvians are now participating in a "Grand National March for the Right to Water and Life." Many of the marchers are setting off from the lagoons of Cajamarca, or from the Amazonian jungle, or from the Southern Andes, marching hundreds of miles to arrive in the capital, Lima during the second week of February. The march seeks to broadly respond to a public policy in Peru of valuing a particular model of economic development over the health and wellbeing of communities adversely affected by that "development" — particularly when large resource-extraction projects threaten a community’s water supply.

The focal point for the march is the Conga project, a proposed gold mining operation in Cajamarca, which presents an emblematic example of many of the most salient issues to which the march seeks to respond. Here in our Peru office, we have been keeping a close eye on the development of the project and its opposition. The project was recently put on hold after public protests and a report prepared by the Ministry of the Environment called attention to the environmental risks associated with the proposal. Now, however, a new executive cabinet—formed in the aftermath of the political upheaval following the release of the Ministry of Environment’s report—seems likely to give the project the go-ahead in spite of a great deal of opposition from local civil society organizations and the regional government.

The march has quickly taken on a much broader appeal. It is serving as a rallying point for similar concerns and a growing social movement opposing development policies that leave communities impoverished and sick. Coordinated activities are being organized throughout the country, including by farmers in the north, by those living in the southern highlands, and by organizations of indigenous peoples protesting the encroachment and contamination caused by petroleum companies in the Amazon,

Most fundamentally, the march has become a key part of a growing social movement to change the discourse and public policy surrounding resource extraction in Peru. The marchers question the notion that resource extraction is “essential” for economic development, and demand that the public policies of the state reflect a greater appreciation for the importance of clean water and healthy communities. The marchers are pushing for policies that strengthen the rights to water and prior consultation, limit the use of certain chemicals in resource extraction, and in certain cases, designate some areas as “no-go zones” for mining projects. At the very least, the marchers are demanding a greater role for entities such as the Ministry of the Environment in ensuring that resource extraction does not threaten the rights to water and life of neighbor communities. At present, the entity responsible for reviewing anticipated environmental impacts is the Ministry of Energy and Mines—a ministry with the conflicting agenda of promoting mining within the country.

The march is already generating international attention and solidarity. To give just a few examples, protesters in Spain met President Humala on his recent trip to Europe with signs and chants rejecting his proposals for increased foreign investment in extractives. And on February 3, the Denver Justice and Peace Committee is organizing a march through the streets of Denver—home to Newmont Mining, the major shareholder of the Conga project—to increase attention to this pressing issue and show their solidarity.

At the very least, the march already appears to be shifting the discourse. With the massive outpouring of support and chants such as “Sin Oro se vive, sin Agua se Muere,” (You can live without gold, you die without water), the marchers are highlighting the political, moral, and social decisions that are now being made by the government, and in terms as clear as uncontaminated water.