Interview with Reinhard Seifert: Scientist Calls Peru Conga Mining Project an ‘Environmental Disaster’
This article is part of a series on resistance to mining in Cajamarca, Peru, written by Alice Bernard and Diego Cupolo. It was originally published on UpsideDownWorld.org on May 1, 2012.
Over the last three decades, German-born environmental engineer Reinhard Seifert has played a significant role in the movement against mining operations in Cajamarca, Peru. He is former president of the Frente de Defensa Ambiental de Cajamarca and has conducted extensive research on the effects of mining on the region’s water resources.
For his actions, Seifert has been persecuted, threatened and arrested, but he continues his work as the Peruvian government currently weighs its decision on the future of the Conga gold mine. If approved, the project would give Denver-based Newmont Mining Corp. the ability to construct one of the world’s largest gold mines on fragile, high-altitude wetlands.
Seifert has lived in Cajamarca with his family for more than 35 years and specializes in hydrogeological sciences.
Let’s start simply: Can you tell us why the Conga Gold Mine project is facing so much resistance from residents in the Cajamarca region?
Well, that’s very simple. It’s been about twenty years since Newmont opened its Yanacocha gold mine in Cajamarca. In the beginning they promised to bring new jobs to the area and said the mining process wouldn’t contaminate the environment, but neither of those things happened. The jobs went to foreigners and people from other regions while heavy metals and other toxins were dumped into our water supply on a daily basis.
But the water issue is just one part. The resistance also comes from Newmont’s horrendous mining practices, its lack of serious environmental studies and the lack of regulations due to widespread corruption. Newmont is free to do what it pleases as the rest of us suffer.
After twenty years, the people of Cajamarca have seen how Newmont works and they won’t be fooled again. That’s why they’re so determined to stop Conga. The project is basically an expansion of the Yanacocha mine, but it will be much bigger and much worse. They want to go into an area that supplies our drinking water and replace four high-altitude lakes with toxic waste dumps and artificial reservoirs.
Why should we, the people of Cajamarca, drink artificial, contaminated water for the profit of a foreign-owned private company?
You’ve conducted many water quality studies in the Cajamarca region. What kinds of contamination are you finding?
Now, I can tell you for sure that there is contamination with arsenic and heavy metals in the region’s largest rivers. Since Yanacocha opened, we’ve noticed livestock have been loosing their teeth and trout have died by the thousands in rural areas.
A normal pH for water is 6.87. When it goes under 5 the water becomes acidic and trout begin to die. In the Rio Grande and Rio Porcon, the two biggest rivers supplying Cajamarca’s drinking water, we observed a pH of 3.5. It’s catastrophic.
Are there any regulations on the amount of pollution these industries can release into the environment or water sources?
Well, yes, but they’re not being followed and they’re not being enforced. Newmont has bought off most of the judges and politicians in this country so they can operate freely and as they call it “legally”, without even conducting studies on the effects of their mining. They refuse to admit any kind of contamination.
Furthermore, they have the guts to come and tell me my results over water analysis are wrong, that I’m twisting information and misinforming the people of Cajamarca. There is one thing I cannot stand, it’s when people take me for a fool. Studying the contamination of water is working with exact numbers and precise mathematics.
The facts speak for themselves. If you’re Muslim and I’m Christian then yes, we can argue or fight. With science that doesn’t work. In the facts, the water we consume in Cajamarca barely qualifies for Class III levels, which is supposed to be used strictly for agriculture. Class I and Class II are for human consumption and we haven’t had that since the mining started.
But the state doesn’t control any of this. They simply tell us the water quality is at legal levels without having the capacity or technology to test mining contaminants in the water.
Can you explain in more detail how Newmont extracts gold at the Yanacocha mine and how they handle their waste?
The extraction process is very different from what most people imagine when they think of gold mines. Newmont is not finding gold nuggets in a cave, it is collecting tiny, microscopic fragments of gold from large quantities of dirt and sand that they excavate from gigantic open pit mines.
They have to use a mixture of water and cyanide to separate the gold fragments from the dirt. The process obviously produces large amounts of toxic waste water. This requires very specific technology, for example, powerful water treatment plants and top-notch waste storage facilities, all of which are completely absent from Yanacocha.
Because Newmont lacks these technologies, the water does not get fully treated and it gets dumped into waste reservoirs where it leaks into the subterranean water table along with the cyanide and many other chemicals like lead, arsenic and mercury.
This process is being used at Yanacocha and it will be the same for Conga. It’s an environmental disaster. As far as I know, Newmont’s mining practices are prohibited in all the European Union, the United states, Argentina and Germany. The chemicals they dump in our water system can’t be boiled out. We, as Cajamarcans, consume them every day.
Have there been any documented health problems linking the gold mines to specific illnesses in the Cajamarca region?
The thing is that cancers and other contamination-related illnesses are hard to track. Toxins build up in your body over time. It’s like smoking cigarettes. One won’t kill you, but 10 years of smoking will. Usually, we find the illnesses 20 years after exposure and by then it’s usually too late.
Newmont is one of the biggest mining companies in the world, don’t they have the capacity to reduce the environmental impact of their operations?
Yes, Newmont has the money to improve it’s technology. If it wanted to, it could easily shift to a cleaner, more environmentally friendly technology. There are two reasons why it doesn’t do it. First, for the higher costs, but mostly because they would have to admit publicly that their old technology did contaminate and wasn’t adequate. Obviously, Newmont will never concede such a thing and therefore will go on with its old practices. Anyways, they are given no restrictions, they feel no pressure from the Peruvian government to improve anything.
Earlier you also hinted that government corruption plays a role in the Conga issue. Can you expand?
In Peru, corruption is our daily bread. The Peruvian state acts like Newmont’s twin brother. They’re the same. Normally, you want a government to be impartial and regulate industries, but here the “revolving door” principle is everywhere and even Ollanta wouldn’t be able to change this.
An example? Carlos Martinez, ex-functionary of Peru’s Ministry of Agriculture, was the one in charge of giving out the permits for Yanacocha’s free use of the subterranean and superficial waters in Cajamarca. Back then, he was being paid around 700$ a month. Now the same person works for Yanacocha and makes millions of dollars a year while Newmont pays absolutely nothing for the water they use in their operations.
The examples are everywhere. Sons of supreme court judges work for Yanacocha. Sons of fiscals too. If we want to make a serious effort to resolve anything in Peru, first we have to put an end to government corruption, and then we can focus on the problems caused by foreign mining companies.
Do you have any future actions planned concerning Newmont and the Conga project?
I’m actually in the process of writing a book about the hydrogeological systems in Cajamarca, but I also have bigger plans in mind concerning Newmont, only I can’t tell you about them right now. It would ruin the surprise. Sorry.
Any last words?
Water respects natural laws. It infiltrates everything it can find, goes where it pleases and supplies all the rivers it can reach. The water on the proposed Conga site flows down both sides of the Andes to the Pacific, the Amazon, and to the Atlantic.
It’s simple, the top nourishes the bottom. What happens when the mine chops up and dries the whole top? The very source of it all? The whole cycle is destroyed. And what will we do then?
Water is our most important resource. Forget about gold or copper or all those so-called precious metals. So far, their exploitation hasn’t improved the lives of most people in Cajamarca and, at this point, I don’t think it ever will.