Lima: President Ollanta Humala declared a 60-day state of emergency Sunday in a northern region wracked by protests against a highlands gold mine, the country`s biggest investment, by peasants who fear for 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 paralyzed for 11 days by increasingly violent protests against the USD 4.8-billion Conga gold-and-copper mining project. US-based Newmont Mining Corp. is the project`s majority owner.
Dozens have been injured in clashes between police and protesters, some of whom have vandalized Conga property. The general strike also shuttered schools and snarled transportation as protesters mounted roadblocks.
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 and three other ministers.
Humala said the government "has exhausted all paths to establish dialogue as a point of departure to resolve the conflict democratically" and blamed "the intransigence of a sector of local and regional leaders."
He said the emergency would take effect at midnight Sunday.
Lerner`s group was accompanied by Peru`s military and police chiefs and guarded by hundreds of heavily armed police.
Cajamarca state`s governor, Gregorio Santos, who has been leading the protests, called Humala`s announcement an unnecessary provocation.
He said 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 a news agency by telephone. 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 government 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 acquifer 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 agency. 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 them.
The streets of the regional capital, Cajamarca, and the town of Celendin, a flashpoint of protests, were empty Sunday night after Humala`s announcement but people remained tense, local police told the agency by phone.
Local reporters reported seeing busloads of soldiers and police with assault rifles arriving in recent days.
Cajamarca police duty officer Miguel Vigil said police commanders were meeting to plan their next steps.
"We can`t yet say what measures will follow," he said.
Newmont announced last week that it was suspending work at Conga until order could be restored.
Its chief executive, Richard O`Brien, said in a statement then 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 "reprioritize 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 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 USD 40 billion in mining investment that`s 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 agency 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."