The annual shareholder meeting of London-registered mining giant Anglo American took place behind closed doors on May 5th 2020. The company is the owner of the Quellaveco copper mine in the Moquegua region of southern Peru, scheduled to begin operations in 2022. As members of London Mining Network, and together with colleagues from DHUMA (Human Rights and the Environment) in Puno, we helped to submit a series of questions to their annual shareholder meeting regarding the impacts of the Quellaveco mine on local water sources and communities, as well as the actions of the company during the COVID-19 pandemic. The company published written replies to our questions soon after. Below is our short analysis of the company’s predictable and unsatisfactory responses.
By TerraJusta / Derechos humanos y Medio Ambiente – DHUMA Perú
On water consumption and hydrological imbalance
One of the main observations regarding the Quellaveco project has to do with the high water consumption that the operation projects (22 million m3 of freshwater per year). Added to this are the potential impacts that the construction of the project and the extraction of water for its operations could have on the hydrological balance of the region.
The observations on the first Environmental Impact Study of Quellaveco carried out by the Hydrogeologist Robert Moran (2002), suggest reviewing the water situation of the region in a comprehensive way because the region belongs to a desert ecosystem. Also extraction of water for mining activity involves turning water into a non-renewable resource which is then overexploited and contaminated, preventing its regeneration.
Anglo American affirms that the Quellaveco project has in mind the use of “surplus water from the Tambo basin in rainy weather.” The company argues that these waters have no agricultural or domestic use and that each year more than 500 million m3 of water are “lost” in the ocean. However, arguing that “these waters have no use” is an absolutely arbitrary statement that ignores the basic concepts of hydrological cycles. It is important to point out that the “water cycle does not have a beginning and an end” and that surface water courses and their runoff or surpluses in rainy weather fulfill a series of environmental services, such as recharging underground aquifers and regenerating natural flora, among several others.
“The water that is on or very close to the soil surface evaporates under the effect of solar radiation and wind. Water vapor, which is formed in this way, rises and is transported through the atmosphere in the form of clouds until it condenses and falls towards the earth in the form of precipitation. During its journey to the surface of the earth, the precipitated water can evaporate again or be intercepted by plants, then it flows through the surface to streams or infiltrates the ground. Of the infiltrated water, a part is absorbed by the plants and is later transpired, almost entirely, into the atmosphere. Another part flows under the surface of the earth towards streams, the sea or other bodies of water, or to areas deep in the ground to be stored as groundwater and then emerge in springs, rivers or the sea.“
What this paragraph describes is the natural process of interactions between nature and living beings, a relationship that is belittled by Anglo American when it states that this water is simply “lost in the sea”. This statement is typical of those whose vision of hydrological processes is focused primarily on economic needs, leaving aside the social and environmental needs present in the area.
It is important to point out that the fresh water that comes from the rivers to the sea fulfills a function, because it is part of the natural process known as the “water cycle”. In this sense, the discharge of these waters into the ocean is extremely important, because: (a) it contributes nutrients and consequently to the preservation of coastal biodiversity, (b) it preserves the geography of estuaries and fjords, and (c) it maintains the normal functioning of ecosystems through the circulation of brackish and seawater.
The impact of the future extraction of water from the rivers that flow into the sea by Quellaveco requires a comprehensive evaluation, in which both social and natural needs are taken into account. An “ecological flow” must be established, which ensures a sufficient amount of water in the flows for the correct functioning of ecosystems, the preservation of biological resources and biodiversity, the sufficient supply of nutrients, the dilution of pollutants, the decrease of the impacts caused by extreme events and the preservation of the landscape. In this sense, studies of water resources should be prioritized at the regional level by independent researchers who help determine “ecological flows” and other pertinent studies.
A mercantile vision of water and its excessive use for mining derives in what Harvey (2005) considers as “accumulation by dispossession”, to the detriment of communities and local ecosystems. In the words of Moran (2015), water is being “undermined” in the sense of making it a non-renewable resource, which is overexploited beyond its capacity for natural recharge and regeneration. Given this reality, it is necessary to ask ourselves: what will be the long-term impact of the mining use of these waters on the local ecosystem? What is the value of fresh water “that nobody uses” and that Anglo American will use to exploit Quellaveco? Perhaps Anglo American should pay for the use of this water to the Peruvian State and to the farming communities that depend on rainfall and underground and surface water courses, as an act of social responsibility and commitment to the environment.
Finally, it must be made clear that Anglo American’s assertion that the Vizcachas dam “will maintain water levels” in the Tambo river basin and that it will even “improve its quality” is to deny that the construction of a dam and the diversion of a river cause environmental impacts in this region where the driest desert in Peru is located. At first glance it is inconsistent and does not take into account the water shortage that already exists in the region; it also casts doubt on the rigour of the data obtained as part of the “Quellaveco” project, whose presentation is once again misleading, very optimistic and clearly biased in showing that no significant impacts will occur.
Even the Peruvian Ombudsman has issued warnings and identified the situation in the region and the future impacts of the Quellaveco project as a source of possible conflict, since it could exacerbate the scarcity of water resources in the Tambo river basin. This means that as Quellaveco’s start date of operations approaches, this conflict could arise. The company should take these warnings into account.
Regarding the deviation of the Asana River
Anglo American’s explanation regarding the diversion of the Asana River does none other than demonstrate once again the company’s attempt to separate, in its management of water, the surface resource from the subterranean. The company seems to be unaware that underneath a “superficial basin, there is an underground basin, whose shape is similar to the superficial one” (Aparicio, 1996). As such we must ask what the impact will be on the relationship between surface and groundwater as a consequence of the diversion of the Asana River? We must ask what will happen to the springs located along the Asana river as a result of the diversion of its channel? Moran states that there are 5 lagoons in the surroundings that naturally benefit from the Asana River, and that they would inevitably be affected by the diversion.
In this sense, it is necessary to promote studies by independent researchers from the government and grassroots social organizations to determine with certainty the predictions regarding variations in the quality and quantity of surface and groundwater produced by the diversion of the Asana River. The negative impacts on the quantity and quality of the water in the affected regions and the basins involved must likewise be determined, as well as simulation scenarios regarding the possible release of pollutants from tailings.
The diversion of the Asana river seems to respond to what we could call a pattern of behavior of mining companies that modify nature to make their projects viable. It must be remembered that a company in which Anglo American has a stake has already been in charge of diverting a river in Colombia to expand its coal operations. This is the diversion of the Arroyo Bruno in La Guajira Colombiana by the Cerrejón company, which operates the largest open pit coal mine in Latin America. This company is owned by Glencore and BHP and Anglo American.
Arroyo Bruno is located in a region affected by drought and is the main tributary of the Rio Rancheria, which constitutes the main source of water for La Guajira. The health of the river determines the functions of the surrounding tropical dry forest, one of the most threatened ecosystems in Colombia.
Cerrejón built an artificial flow to divert the Arroyo by more than 3 kilometers. The idea was to divert the stream through an artificial channel so that later it meets the natural flow again. Despite the fact that the company affirms that this engineering work would guarantee the health of the Arroyo Bruno and the stability of the ecosystem, the communities that made visits to the stream confirmed that this is not the case and that the stream is dry, something that has never occurred before.
In this case, the company has also not investigated the behavior of groundwater in the Arroyo Bruno basin, nor has it taken into account the outbreak of water from the fractures of the rocks that feed the stream on its way. It has been ignored that below the earth layers are the aquifers that communicate harmoniously and form complex ecosystems. The communities affirm that a natural channel that has been formed for thousands of years cannot be replaced with an artificial channel. No engineering work can replace what took nature centuries to build.
This exercise in altering nature can have long-term consequences. In the case of Quellaveco, the 8-kilometer tunnel that has been built to divert the Asana river, modifies the river channel forever and will require life-long maintenance, something the company does not guarantee. Anglo American says that the quality and quantity of the river water will be maintained for domestic and agricultural use by the local population, but what guarantees or insurance has it offered the population to avoid later conflicts?
Despite Anglo American’s claims that the inspections carried out under Participatory Environmental Monitoring for 5 years suggest that Quellaveco does not have negative effects on the Asana River, mistrust and conflicts have persisted throughout the years – including those registered at the end of 2019 – and are still latent.
Covid19 and Mining
During the Covid19 health emergency in Peru, there has been a debate about activities that are essential and those that can be suspended by quarantine. In this process, social organizations denounced the benefits granted mining companies, with not only “essential” maintenance and other activities running, but the mining production chain remaining active. In other words exploration, exploitation, transport, commercialization and even construction of mining projects were allowed to continue. As such, companies like Anglo American have been working with almost total normality while the majority of the population has assumed the costs of quarantine.
In the course of this emergency it has become evident that agriculture and water are fundamental for the subsistence of the population. The availability of clean water and the cultivation of food are truly essential activities. Without water, there is no food or health. Anglo American, instead of boasting about the contributions of food and medical equipment that it makes to communities in the absence of the State, should explore more mechanisms that guarantee that its Quellaveco project does not affect the availability or future quality of waters from the Asana rivers and from the surface and underground water sources of the region. Ensuring clean water is not just about building dams; it is important not to destroy or pollute existing waters and sources. Anglo American’s engineering works are very dangerous and can result in environmental disasters like the ones they have already caused in Colombia.
During the pandemic international reports have identified general patterns of behavior and how the mining industry has benefited from the pandemic. Anglo American is no exception. Business in general has continued to operate normally during the health crisis. They are also whitewashing their image and using the vulnerability of the population to show themselves as saviors, distributing food and creating divisions within populations. Furthermore, people cannot mobilize as a result of restrictive measures and state repression towards social protests. In Peru, states of emergency also continue to be decreed along with militarization of the mining corridor in the Southern Andes where Moquegua, the site of the Quellaveco project, is located. Moreover, many governments seek to emerge from the current economic crisis by expanding and deepening mining extractivism. In the case of Peru, mining has been a priority activity in recent years and environmental regulations have been flexibilised to the benefit of mining companies. It’s no surprise that, in a phase of economic recovery, they will benefit from the deepening of extractivism – increasing the conflict related to competition for the use of water between mining companies and communities that need it for human and agricultural consumption in regions such as Moquegua.
That said, it would be important for Anglo American to state whether it is willing to provide a guarantee or insurance to the region that it will not effectively alter the local ecosystem and the availability of water at the close of its operations. Finally, it is important to point out that it is not enough to comply with minimum agreements with local communities, nor is it enough to comply with the lax rules of a government that facilitates the implementation of extractive activities under the argument of economic recovery. Our questions have to do with responsibility and respect for the region’s water sources – a resource whose importance has been underlined in the current pandemic and will continue to be so in the future.
These responses were first published by London Mining Network