March 29, 2019 / 8:08 PM / 3 months ago

Peru declares state of emergency near China-owned mine as protests mount

CHALLHUAHUACHO, Peru, March 29 (Reuters) - Peruvian authorities declared a state of emergency and banned public gatherings in an Andean town where a long-running local community protest has shut off access to Chinese miner MMG Ltd’s massive copper mine Las Bambas.

The measure, published in the official gazette El Peruano, suspends the right to hold public gatherings in the district of Challhuahuacho for 15 days and allows authorities to carry out searches in people’s homes.

An earlier state of emergency was declared at a nearby location last year over the road block. That has remained in place, though it has done little to quell the protest.

MMG said this week it would declare force majeure on its copper contracts, with exports choked off from Las Bambas, one of Peru’s biggest copper mines.

The unrest underlines the difficulties for investors involved in resources projects in remote areas of Latin America, where locals and environmentalists often complain that their needs are ignored. Locals have said MMG, controlled by China Minmetals, has not provided fair compensation for using the road.

Protesters, mostly indigenous Quechua speakers, also want the leader of the local Fuerabamba community and its three lawyers to be freed from jail, where they have been held for the past week on accusations they tried to extort MMG.

“We’re going to stay here until they’re free,” Ruben Mendoza, a resident of Fuerabamba, told Reuters near the mine, where he was among dozens who have camped out at an entry road to Las Bambas.

Reuters saw police in riot gear on Friday standing to block protesters from going further on the road as children played and women prepared a large lamb stew.

Police planned to inform the protesters they were violating the state of emergency and ask them to disperse later on Friday, said a police source, who was not authorized to speak to press and declined to be named.

It was unclear if police would try to disperse the crowd by force. The government of President Martin Vizcarra has said it is seeking a peaceful solution to the conflict.

Las Bambas produced about 400,000 tonnes of copper per year, equivalent to about 2 percent of the world’s copper and 1 percent of Peru’s gross domestic product.

Police have declined to comment on the dispute. MMG has said it remains open to dialogue.

ROCKS HURLED

In August, the government first ordered a state of emergency after Fuerabamba protesters blocked MMG from using a 13-kilometer (8-mile) stretch of road through the community’s farmland.

At that site a government negotiating team was repelled earlier this week by protesters who hurled rocks at their helicopter. Local residents denied anyone from the community had attacked the helicopter.

Prosecutor Jorge Chavez Cotrina told state broadcasters on Friday that Fuerabamba’s village leader, Gregorio Rojas, might be released from jail in coming hours.

But it was unclear if that would be enough to end the road blockades. Protesters said they also want the community’s lawyers, the Chavez brothers, to be released.

“The Chavez lawyers were the only lawyers who helped us with MMG,” said a protester from Fuerabamba who declined to be named, saying she feared reprisal.

The Catholic Church and an association of lawyers have offered to mediate the dispute. (Reporting by Mitra Taj, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

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