LIMA Peru has ramped up mediation efforts and pulled back from repressive police tactics as it tries to manage disputes over mining and energy projects that often turn deadly, the head of the president's conflict prevention office said.
Vladimiro Huaroc, a former regional governor appointed to his current post last year, told Reuters that redoubled efforts to mediate conflicts before they turn violent - along with a greater state presence in rural areas - is helping the government regain trust in poor communities left behind by the country's long economic boom.
Roundtables have brought together representatives of the state, businesses and communities to reach agreements.
Huaroc said the more patient tack has, broadly speaking, helped calm tensions over the spoils of natural resources since last July, when five people died in clashes with police while protesting against Newmont Mining's proposed $5 billion (3.2 billion pounds) Conga gold mine in northern Peru.
The strategy also appears to have paid political dividends in Peru, a top global metals exporter.
Pollster Ipsos says Humala's approval rating has risen to over 50 percent since falling to a low of 40 percent after the Conga dispute that caused cabinet shuffles. A human rights lawyer, Prime Minister Juan Jimenez, now leads the cabinet.
"Our priority here is prevention," said Huaroc. "We know what the causes are, and what treatments are needed, so things are easier to prevent."
The government is trying to provide more services in rural areas by building schools, roads, water and electricity projects and offering a range of social services Humala has expanded to fight poverty that afflicts a third of the population.
"We have to safeguard the community rights and streamline the government's efforts to set up needed infrastructure in rural areas," he said.
Conflicts are now mostly centred in southern Peru where rejection of extractive projects has intensified, Huaroc said.
"Our (new) national system has placed commissioners around the country and that allows us to identify where conflicts are emerging or might emerge," he said.
At least 24 people have died in social conflicts in the nearly two years during which Humala has been in power - some since the Conga clashes.
There are signs violence has diminished compared to the 2006-2011 term of Alan Garcia, when 200 people died in social conflicts and hundreds were wounded, Huaroc said.
Huaroc said in the past Peru regularly repressed opposition to projects the government favoured.
"That strategy had high costs," said Huaroc in an interview with Reuters. "It created distrust of the state because people saw the state as a repressor and an ally of companies working against their interests."
Despite some signs of less violence, the government's current approach has prompted some critics to worry that big projects like Newmont's gold mine are stuck in limbo.
Other executives have said the government's message is that it will back companies if they work hard to win community support for their projects, but otherwise it will not risk the political costs of high-profile disputes.
Peru has a $60 billion portfolio of mining and energy investments that Humala views as key to funding social programs that combat poverty and keeping the economy growing at 6 percent a year.
Humala initially supported the Newmont project but turned away from it in August after polls showed broad local opposition to it.
Though several large mining projects have moved ahead without problems, some mining proposals have been delayed indefinitely as the government tries to broker deals between communities and companies.
About 70 percent of conflicts have been centred near extractive industries in rural areas.
Huaroc's National Office for Dialogue and Sustainability said there were 110 disputes nationwide in March, with 60 "conflicts" listed a more serious than 50 other "controversies."
In addition to mediation efforts, Huaroc said that the state has been increasing its presence in long-neglected rural areas near the country's vital mining industry.
"Conflict is a great opportunity for solving the country's problems," said Huaroc.
(Reporting By Teresa Cespedes; Writing by Mitra Taj; Editing by Terry Wade and Andrew Hay)