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Thoughts from the Andes 2012 Study Tour

Leaving Lima, en route to the upper Cañete basin, we passed through some of the bleakest landscapes imaginable – mining towns like La Oroya, described by Time Magazine as one of the world’s most polluted places, where the average lead level is three times the World Health Organization limit.

Chasing waterfalls


The reserve was founded in 2001 to protect the upper basin of the Cañete river.

The contrast with our destination, Nor Yauyos Cochas (NYC) Landscape Reserve, could not have been more stark. Jade lagoons, green pastures, Incan terraces, gushing waterfalls, picturesque villages and snow-capped peaks – the 15 members of the Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF)’s Andes study tour team quickly ran out of superlatives to describe the sights within Peru’s NYC. The 221,688 hectare reserve was created in 2001 to promote tourism and to protect the upper basin of the Cañete River, one of the most important coastal rivers in Peru.

Hidden Operations

But NYC is not immune to Peru’s insatiable mining boom. The week after we visited in March local authorities discovered an informal mine within the reserve, seizing processing machinery, chemicals, dynamite, ANFO explosives, drill collars and compressors from the 200 square meter mining camp.  According to the head of the reserve, this was the seventh informal mining site discovered within the reserve this year.

The relationship between mining and the quantity and quality of the water in the Cañete basin is complex. In addition to informal mining, there are formal mine sites within the reserve diverting water from springs and wetlands, while numerous mines surrounding the protected area affect the quality of water downstream. “One local inhabitant claimed every mining operation dumps tailings during the rainy season – when rivers are swollen, the water is darker and it is difficult to detect dumping” the NGO ParksWatch reports.

Improved water management for enhanced decision making

Deep in discussion


Study trip participants deep in discussion

It is difficult, however, to address problems without concrete data. While the work of the CPWF AN2 project in the Cañete basin does not explicitly focus on mining, it is producing data and tools that will lead to improved water management in the basin. Research on the basin’s hydrology, economy and social conditions, together with a valuation of water, will help local authorities and water users make better decisions about water resources. The data will be used to negotiate an equitable benefit-sharing mechanism between actors in the basin, under the leadership of the Peruvian Ministry of the Environment, a principal AN2 project partner.

Mining and Social Conflict

In the Cañete basin, the goal is to avert future water-related conflict. In many basins in the Andes, water-related conflict is a very real and current problem. In Peru alone the number of social conflicts explicitly related to water and mining increased from six in 2005 to 28 in 2010. In 2011 the proposed $4.8 billion Conga gold and copper mine in the Cajamarca region of Peru sparked violent protests from communities who feared the mine would harm their water supplies.

Mining was also a key issue in the other basins we visited for the CPWF Andes study tour. For example, in the Coello-Combeima basin in Colombia, a research site of the CPWF AN3 project, 24 mining concession contracts were suspended in October 2011 based on community concerns about the impact of mining on water resources. The suspension was the result of a Popular Action launched by the community to challenge the legality of the mining contracts. Across the Andes, governments have been aggressively pursuing pro-mining agendas in recent years, driven by high mineral prices. In Colombia, where mining is banned in the fragile páramo ecosystems, the government has been exploiting loopholes in the law, for example the definition of what exactly constitutes a páramo ecosystem, to grant exploratory licenses for mining projects covering 10% of Colombia’s páramos.

Sharing Benefits and Solutions

The dry and dusty lower Cañete basin


The dry and dusty lower Cañete basin

Balancing the economic impetus for mining with socially and environmentally sustainable development is a key challenge for the Andean region, and is closely related to CPWF’s Andes Basin Development Challenge – to increase water productivity and reduce water-related conflict through the establishment of equitable benefit-sharing mechanisms (BSMs). BSMs depend on open dialogue between actors, including mining interests, where negotiations can be supported and decisions made based on accurate and accessible information.

Over the course of the study tour we saw how CPWF projects are using tools such as SWAT (Soil and Water Assessment Tool), WEAP (Water Evaluation and Planning System), AguAAndes and MHEA (Hydrological Modeling of Andean Ecosystems) to model water use scenarios in the Andes. We also saw how the projects are supporting platforms for dialogue, such as the Conversatorio de Acción Ciudadana(citizen action exchange) in the Coello-Combeina basin. These spaces for dialogue are at the core of the CPWF mission, engaging different groups to ensure that science is part of the policy dialogue at different levels or the development process at the local level.

The success of the BSMs being developed will have applicability beyond the individual basins. As the number of social conflicts in the Andes continues to rise, supporting decision-making based on accurate scientific data and open dialogue is more important than ever.  Let’s hope this will lead to more places like NYC and less places like La Oroya in the Andes.  

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