Just over a year ago, Ollanta Humala rode into power upon a wave of popular hope. As the champion for the poor, he was billed as the choice for change. Humala’s cards have had a radical reshuffle however. The very electorate that pushed him towards victory are becoming disillusioned at ineffective reform and his heavy-handed ruling.

The main conflict in question is that of the proposed Conga gold mine in the Cajamarca region. The dispute is against the development of US owned gold mines, which residents argue would destroy essential water basins and poison agricultural water supplies. At first, a staunch opponent of this project, since being elected, Humala has become its chief proponent. He now states that it would bring important investment and jobs to a deprived area, a far cry from his earlier rallies of “water over gold”.

…“a cabinet of dialogue”, signalling a possible change of tact…

The protesters are unlikely to be quelled though. Since taking office, some 17 people have been killed in violent disturbances opposing the mines. In an effort to control the situation, the once-man-of-the-masses has suspended civil liberties by twice issuing states of emergency, but all this has come to little avail.

Many heads have also rolled over the Conga mines. The interior minister has been changed four times and the Cabinet chief or prime minister, one less at three. After the recent death of five farmers, the latest prime minister to be appointed is lawyer Juan Jimenez Mayor, who promised “a cabinet of dialogue”, signalling a possible change of tact. With political credibility at an extreme low, though, Peruvians have little faith in the varnished words of those in power. 

…Peruvians who demand alternatives to the current economic model…

Those loyal to Humala rebuff such criticism by pointing to key poverty indicators that detect significant social change. According to government figures, Peru’s poverty rate has dropped by 22%; helped by an economy that has expanded by 6% in the last year alone. The Humala administration has also overseen the introduction of social programmes such as “Juntos”, which provide $37 a month to those living in extreme poverty, a category that encompasses almost 28% of the population. Another similar programme was also set up for the elderly poor.

Yet while the social security system is being expanded, Humala has failed to address core issues of employment reflected in the Conga crisis. He faces strong critique from many Peruvians who demand alternatives to the current economic model, which has indeed failed to eradicate the poverty that still blights millions.

…the Conga mining project will drive thousands of farmers off their land…

Newmont, the owner of the proposed Conga mines, has assured farmers that work will be carried out with complete environmental sensitivity and they propose to construct artificial reservoirs to provide the necessary water. With a reputation as one of the country’s most destructive mining companies, many believe that the Conga mining project will drive thousands of farmers off their land into further destitution.

With his approval ratings dropping from 59% to 40% just in the last five months, the Conga crisis is crushing Humala’s support base and is unveiling the real colours behind his quickly corroding mask.


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