LIMA (Reuters) - Weak turnout on Tuesday hobbled the latest in a string of protests to stop a $5 billion gold mine in the northern Peruvian region of Cajamarca and denounce the government’s ban on rallies against U.S.-based Newmont Mining Corp’s Conga project.
Only several hundred people marched, local media reports said, and throngs of police, helped by 300 soldiers, patrolled the streets. A high-level security source in Peru’s government said the atmosphere was “calm” and that a repeat of clashes that killed five protesters in July was not expected.
Milton Sanchez, who represents a community group opposed to the mine, said rallies were being held in provinces not included in the government’s ban on rallies. He lives in Celendin, where marching in groups is currently prohibited.
“Everything is tranquil,” he said by telephone.
President Ollanta Humala has shuffled his Cabinet since November in a bid to win local support for the project, but he has made little headway pushing forward with what has become the defining issue of his young presidency.
A six-week mediation effort headed by two prominent Catholic leaders has bogged down as the government refuses to accept their call to lift a ban on civil liberties in several provinces of Cajamarca, and the mine’s opponents continue to reject what would be the costliest mining project Peru’s history.
Opponents of the mine boycotted multi-party talks on Friday to reach an accord. Their reasons for opposing the mine range from environmental concerns, which Humala’s government says are overblown, to a dislike of foreign companies. They have also accused Humala’s government of supporting the project at all costs.
“There’s no space possible for them to tell us they’re looking to meet in the middle,” Gregorio Santos, the leftist president of Cajamarca who has led rallies, said on Friday. “The central government should stop pushing the project.”
Analysts say Santos, who has criticized Humala’s embrace of foreign capital, wants to run for national office in 2016. The Conga dispute has become a rallying cry for voters left behind by the country’s decade-long boom that was fueled by mineral exports.
Humala, a former military officer, took office a year ago urging mediation to solve hundreds of disputes nationwide over natural resources. Critics say he has instead been too quick to use force to quell protests.
Newmont, which amended its environmental mitigation plan for the project at the request of the government, has said it will proceed with construction only if it has local and national support.
Reporting by Patricia Velez and Terry Wade; editing by Matthew Lewis