Protesters at the site of a China-backed copper mine in Peru where bloody confrontations this week left four dead agreed Wednesday to lift their blockade for 24 hours in the hope of holding talks with the government to ease their health and safety concerns.
About 7,000 mostly indigenous protesters are facing off with police at the site of the Las Bambas mine in the Apurimac Valley, where the Chinese firm MMG is investing $7.4 billion in a mine that was slated to begin operations early next year.
"We hope a dialogue will commence within 24 hours," protest leader Adolfo Abarca told a radio reporter Wednesday. Abarca said he sent a letter requesting negotiations to the government and asked that the talks include representatives of the mining and environment ministries as well as President Ollanta Humala's staff.
A source in the mining ministry's office had no immediate comment Wednesday on the proposed talks. Humala previously said he would not negotiate with the protesters, insisting that the project was environmentally safe and that its backers had acquired all proper permits.
Hundreds of protesters on Monday invaded the Las Bambas administrative area and clashed with police. In addition to the four dead, all protesters, about 50 demonstrators and police officers were injured; 21 protesters were arrested. On Tuesday, Humala declared a state of emergency in the Apurimac and Cusco regions and sent 300 additional police officers and soldiers to the area.
The clash is the latest in recent years between poor Peruvian communities and mining companies over new and expanded projects. Residents say mining brings contamination, little local economic benefit and higher living costs, while the government sees mining as a primary source of export revenue, investment and financing for social projects.
In 2011, people protesting the proposed $5-billion Conga gold mine near Cajamarca succeeded in postponing that project indefinitely. Among the project's backers is U.S.-based Newmont Mining. This year, protests derailed plans for the $1.7-billion expansion of Southern Copper's Tia Maria copper mine near Arequipa.
Three other major mining projects in Peru in which investments total $9.5 billion are also pending.
Although communities largely supported the Las Bambas project initially, opponents say it could foul water sources and they want mining waste transported out of the area. One critic told a radio interviewer Wednesday that an environmental impact assessment was modified without advising residents. They complain that the project is generating too few jobs for are residents.
The Las Bambas mine is estimated by its owners to contain 6.9 million tons of copper, making it one of the richest deposits in the world. The owners also expect to extract significant quantities of gold and silver.
Mining accounted for one-tenth of Peru's economic output last year but 58% of exports. The controversy over mining projects has put Humala, who has insisted that mining is necessary to finance his social reforms, at odds with much of his impoverished support base.
Special correspondents Leon reported from Lima and Kraul from Bogota, Colombia.