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EVERYDAY POISON

The slow encirclement of extractivist violence in Peru.

  • Essay
  • Jan 12 2023
  • Thais Luksic Machiavello
    (Lima, 1998) has a Master's degree in Anthropology from FLACSO-Ecuador. She lives between Lima and Pucallpa, investigating the intersections between planetary urbanization, Amazonia, indigenous peoples and green capitalism.

Peru is a mining country. Historically, governments have promoted large-scale extraction and export of minerals and hydrocarbons as the main route to the elusive summit of modern Western civilization: development. During the 1990s, when the structural reforms promoted by the IMF and the World Bank reopened the borders to large transnational capital, the deposits were handed over, as they say here, on a silver platter. In a few years, more than 20% of the national territory was transformed into mining concessions; more than 50% of the Amazon into oil fields. These activities, today directly dependent on the ups and downs of the international market and the guidelines imposed by global governance bodies, have generated profoundly unequal patterns of geographic development: usually, for those who live near large mines, oil wells, gas fields and refineries -indigenous people, peasants, shepherds and fishermen- the benefits have been few and the cost very high. Examples abound. 

In 2000, a truck carrying by-products from Yanacocha, Latin America's largest gold mine, spilled 151 kg of mercury across three Andean villages. The river of liquid metal that ran through the streets of Choropampa, San Juan and Magdalena first attracted children. Fascinated by the substance, they touched it, smelled it, tasted it. 

When a catastrophe occurs abruptly, it warns of the profoundly harmful impact of large extractive projects. Visually striking ruptures, leaks and spills draw the attention of the press and the public. Focusing on these sudden crises, which are quickly forgotten, evades the sustained and daily nature of extractivist violence. Yes, these are serious events, but they are not isolated: they are part of a broader dynamic of slow and persistent violence that has been accumulating for centuries, like toxic metals in blood, water and soil. This often goes unnoticed. 

The mining company under-reported the magnitude of the spill and failed to warn about the toxicity of the mercury. Unaware of the danger, many adults picked up mercury with their hands and took it home, thinking it would have some monetary value. Nine days later, Yanacocha hired them to do the cleanup, without protective equipment, for 4 euros per day. Unknowingly, armed with brooms and shovels, the villagers spread the toxic fumes throughout the town. Less than 40% was recovered. Shortly soon after, the first signs of poisoning began. Mysterious headaches and bone pains, sudden nosebleeds and skin rashes multiplied. One nurse went into a coma. The national press attributed the situation to an outbreak of rubella, and mining company representatives assured that the clean-up had been successful and the symptoms would disappear.

Day by day the primary-export model deepens the same circumstances that legitimize its continuity, in a circular dynamic. Through a slow and constant disabling of the social and ecological conditions that sustain other economies and ways of organizing life, it continues to systematically impoverish and marginalize those populations it promises to favor. It is not only that for every large oil spill there are hundreds of micro-spills; that, even without overflowing, the mining tailings ponds slowly leak their contents. The chronic situation of precariousness produced by the extractive model is not due to technical shortcomings or irresponsible practices. What it reproduces are a series of asymmetrical relations and subordination links whose origins can be traced back to the 16th century, to the establishment of the colonial-metropolis relations that sustained the early expansion of global capitalism. These relations, which today take various forms and are reproduced on multiple scales, are the origin of those situations of marginalization and impoverishment that today continue to make possible a delirious degree of state indolence and corporate impunity. 

With the complicity of the State, Yanacocha resorted to the old strategy of divide and conquer. It offered extrajudicial compensation - 250 to 1200 euros - which depended on the selective recognition of those affected. The negotiations were individual, although it was a collective health problem. About 700 people, many of them illiterate, signed agreements in which they waived future claims. Particularly vulnerable because of the conditions of extreme poverty that persist in the region after more than 100 years of mining, desperate to pay for immediate medical care, they agreed. Others traveled to Denver, USA, where they agreed, also out of court, to reparations of between US$7,000 and US$80,000 per person. The others have not received any compensation to date. Disabled the possibility of resisting and demanding justice from the community, the case was archived.

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  • Image caption
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    Andichurai, Khadija Saye (2018). Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous © The Estate of Khadija Saye, London.

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