Peru’s coup government is privatizing lithium mining

The move to privatize one of the country’s key strategic resources has been widely rejected by Indigenous community and left movements

April 18, 2023 by Tanya Wadhwa
Dina Boluarte addressed the nation on April 12 to evaluate the actions of her government since December 7. Photo: Twitter

Peru’s Minister of Energy and Mines, Óscar Vera, announced on April 10 in a press conference that the government of de facto president Dina Boluarte is set to grant permits to a Canadian mining subsidiary for lithium exploration in the southern region of Puno, near the border with Bolivia. Vera also reported that the authorities were working to reduce license approval time for copper mining projects from about two years to about six months.

The Macusani Yellowcake mining company, owned by the Canadian company Plateau Energy Metals, which as of 2021 is a subsidiary of American Lithium, also has a license for uranium mining in Macusani, Peru.

A day after Vera’s announcement, Indigenous leaders from 14 regions of Peru held a press conference to publicly condemn the decision. The leaders allege that the government’s announcement poses serious risks to 10 million people affected by toxic metals.

In the press conference, organized by the National Platform for People Affected by Metals, Metalloids and Other Toxic Chemical Substances in the capital Lima, Félix Suasaca Suasaca, general secretary of the organization and an Indigenous leader from the Puno region, warned that the people of region wouldn’t allow the lithium’s mining without a prior social agreement with the inhabitants.

“As long as there is no acceptance by the people of Puno, lithium will not come out,” said Suasaca, who came to Lima along with other leaders to express repudiation of Indigenous communities.

Suasaca called for the nationalization of lithium industrialization in Puno so that the people of Peru benefit from its exploitation. “Lithium has to be transformed, industrialized in Puno, the refinery plants have to be built in Puno…the budget must be directed to the Puno region. We are not against mining, but its industrialization must be done here. The raw minerals must be industrialized in Peru, not delivered to another country. Who are we making rich? Another country. What about Peru?” he asked.

The Indigenous leader also rejected the persecution of environmentalists in the country and condemned the lack of compliance with the guidelines established to protect the environment and the health of the population inhabiting the areas affected by the extraction of hydrocarbons and minerals.

“They (foreign mining companies) only leave us with contamination. Each of the government ministries, the regional, provincial and district governments should comply with the Multisectoral Plan for the care of those affected by toxic metals due to these extractive activities. There are many areas affected and contaminated by large scale irresponsible extractive mining activities,” said Suasaca.

“We, the leaders, are being criminalized, due to the current socio-political situation we are experiencing, due to the ouster of Mr. Castillo and usurper Dina Boluarte, and due to this congress that is not interested in the environment. We are not terrorists, we are defenders of human rights and the environment, we are legitimate leaders,” he added.

In this regard, the leader stressed that the organization would send the Multisectoral Plan to each of the regional governments along with a list of affected areas, so that the governments know where this plan needs to be implemented.

“The reactivation of the extractive industry should not be an excuse to put an end to the protection of the environment and human life. The announcements made by the Minister of Economy to end the so-called ‘permissions’ reflect the priorities of the government,” stressed Indigenous leaders from 14 regions.

On April 12, Rubén Apaza Añamuro, spokesperson of the Council of Indigenous Authorities Mallkus, Jilaqatas and Mama Tallas of the Puno region, also expressed the discontent of Indigenous communities with the de facto government’s attempts to privatize lithium. Apaza Añamuro also said that “the natural resource will not leave the department without first being industrialized.”

He recalled that in a recent meeting of Indigenous authorities, it was agreed to declare lithium as a natural resource belonging to the Quechua and Aymara peoples of the Puno region, as well as to demand its sovereignty. In this regard, the leader added that “we are not opposed to mining, but the conditions must be met, we cannot allow our natural resources to continue being given away.”

He emphasized that resources such as lithium belong to the region, therefore, if a social license is not granted, it should not be explored or exploited.

Political analysts have pointed out the similarities between the de facto government of Dina Boluarte in Peru and the former de facto government of Jeanine Áñez in Bolivia. Boluarte and Áñez came to power following coups promoted by right-wing forces and conservative oligarchy, and within months of assuming office they took steps to privatize the lithium reserves in their respective countries. Based on the resistance that Bolivians led against the Áñez regime between November 2019 and 2020, which eventually restored democracy in Bolivia, the analysts hope for a similar fate with the Boluarte government.

Since December 7, 2022, the day democratically elected left-wing President Pedro Castillo was removed by right-wing dominated Congress in a legislative coup and subsequently arrested, hundreds of thousands of people have been in the streets across Peru. They have been demanding Castillo’s immediate release, former vice-president Boluarte’s resignation, closure of the Congress, advanced general elections by the end of the year, and a referendum on a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution.

Puno has been one of the regions with the largest number of anti-government and anti-congress demonstrations in the past months.

Days after his forcible removal and arrest, on December 15, 2022, in a letter shared on his Twitter account, Castillo denounced the involvement of the United States in the coup against him, and indicated that the reason behind it was the country’s large copper reserves. In February, he concluded that it was the country’s lithium reserves that the US and its allies were actually after.

“In Puno, my government and I wanted to rescue the Camisea Gas project and lithium from the region. The whole problem has to do with lithium. Imperialism wants lithium and my government wanted to give lithium to the people,” said imprisoned Castillo in an interview with El Salto in February.

Lithium is in demand worldwide for the manufacture of batteries and its interest makes it an assert of geopolitical interest, especially in a deposit as extensive as that of Puno, which could displace Argentina, Chile and Bolivia in the production of lithium in Latin America.