LIMA, Peru (AP) — President Ollanta Humala declared a 60-day state of emergency that took effect Monday to quell increasingly violent protests over the country's biggest investment, a highlands gold mine, by peasants who fear it will damage their water supply.
The emergency restricts civil liberties such as the right to assembly and allows arrests without warrants in four provinces of Cajamarca state that have been almost paralyzed for 11 days by protests against the $4.8-billion Conga gold-and-copper mining project. U.S.-based Newmont Mining Corp. is the project's majority owner.
Interior Minister Oscar Valdes reported that the state capital of Cajamarca was returning to normal on Monday, with businesses and schools open after days of strikes and roadblocks that had choked activity, caused shortages in the region and led to clashes between police and protesters in which dozens of people were injured.
Humala said in a brief televised address Sunday night that protest leaders had shown no interest "in reaching minimal agreements to permit a return of social peace" after a day of talks in Cajamarca with Cabinet chief Salmon Lerner, who had been accompanied by military and police chiefs and was guarded by heavily armed police.
Humala said the government "has exhausted all paths" to establish dialogue "to resolve the conflict democratically" and blamed "the intransigence of a sector of local and regional leaders."
Cajamarca's state governor, Gregorio Santos, has been leading the protests and he said Monday that the president's action was a mistake.
He said that protest leaders had been planning to end the strike and had asked government officials for 12 hours to consult with protesters.
"I think what's being sought is for this to end in a bloodbath," Santos told The Associated Press by telephone Sunday. Police have already used tear gas and bullets against protesters.
"We will continue with our fight," Santos added, without specifying how.
Local elected officials have led protests against Conga, an extension of the nearby Yanacocha mine, for more than a month.
They say they fear it will taint and diminish water supplies affecting thousands and have demanded a new study of the environmental impact of the mine, which was to begin production in 2015.
Peruvian officials have expressed no intention of redoing Conga's environmental impact study, which was approved by the Ministry of Mining in October 2010.
Those plans call for displacing four lakes more than two miles high and replacing them with reservoirs. Local residents say they fear that could affect an important aquifer on which thousands depend.
Several weeks ago, the Interior Ministry asked prosecutors to file criminal charges against Santos and four other local leaders who have led protests against Conga, a top ministry lawyer, Julio Talledo, told the AP. The charges include "hindering the functioning of public services" and carry prison terms of at least two years. It was not immediately clear whether prosecutors have acted on the requests.
Newmont announced last week that it was suspending work at Conga until order could be restored and on Monday, company spokesman Omar Jabara said by email that the company is "closely monitoring the situation and continues to want to participate in a good-faith dialogue" with local residents.
Its chief executive, Richard O'Brien, said in a statement earlier that if Newmont was unable to continue with Conga, "the scale and diversity of Newmont's global portfolio" would allow the Denver-based company to "re-prioritize and reallocate capital" to "alternatives in Nevada, Canada, Ghana, Indonesia and Suriname."
Humala told Cajamarca residents during campaign swings before his June election that clean water was more important for him than gold. Many local inhabitants said they now feel betrayed by the president.
Peru's economy depends heavily on mining, which accounts for 61 percent of its export income.
Humala, a former radical leftist who moved toward the center before his June election, persuaded the mining industry to agree to a tax on windfall profits to help him fund social programs. The government says it will yield about $1 billion a year.
If Conga were to be shelved, government officials fear not just for the windfall tax's yield but also for the fate of more than $40 billion in mining investments that are in the pipeline.
Cajamarca is not the only Peruvian region where peasants have risen up against mining.
There are currently more than 60 disputes over the alleged detrimental impact of mining on water supplies, according to the national ombudsman's office. Several big projects have recently been scrapped as a result.
One protest leader in Cajamarca, Milton Sanchez, told the AP on Sunday night that "this government that has put itself on the side of mining companies and distanced itself from its electoral promises."
"We are not radical," he added. "It's just that the Conga project has not legitimacy in the eyes of the people."
Associated Press writers Frank Bajak and Martin Villena contributed to this report.