godofredo garcia, flamboyantecologist and visionary mango producer, was widely regarded as the most charismatic and poetic opponent of Vancouver-based Manhattan Minerals Corporation in Peru's northern fruit-growing region of San Lorenzo, in Piura province. His assassination by a masked gunman March 31 has fuelled calls for the mining company's immediate departure.
"The lungs of Piura are in this valley," Garcia whispered to me one sweaty afternoon only a year ago as he inhaled deeply in the lightly perfumed mango grove. "The Canadian and U.S. markets aren't going to want our fruit if they hear it's growing beside an open-pit mine," warned the far-seeing farmer who led a movement for organic certification in the valley.
This week, reps from Garcia's movement will head to the People's Summit in Quebec City, where they'll explain how events in San Lorenzo show the risks of unregulated free trade.
Garcia's murder is the latest in a series of increasingly violent acts that have plagued the otherwise quiet agricultural valley of San Lorenzo, acts blamed on Manhattan's bid to construct an open-pit mine in the centre of the small town of Tambogrande. Local police have launched an investigation but are withholding comment until the case is solved.
Two years ago, the Canadian mining company began controversial exploratory drilling in Tambogrande's narrow, dusty streets. This coastal town of 25,000, with its quiet central square, semi-paved roads and single-storey family dwellings in various pastel shades, might have remained anonymous if not for a group of unidentified persons who set fire to Manhattan's machines under cover of darkness in November 1999.
Company officials accused leaders of the Tambogrande Defence Front, a local coalition of mango producers and concerned citizens opposed to the mine, of instigating the crime. A Catholic human rights organization helped clear the Defence Front leaders, but relations between company officials and the Front have been marked by mutual distrust ever since.
The climate of hostility erupted into full-scale battle February 27, when a peaceful two-day strike organized by the Defence Front and attended by more than 4,000 demonstrators turned nasty. About 150 angry protestors stormed Manhattan's walled, high-tech compound at the edge of town, burning and sacking offices, trucks and machinery and wounding 30 police officers.
Both sides condemned the violence. Manhattan called for a full investigation while vowing to continue operations.
Defence Front leaders say they suspect the instigators may have been sent by company supporters to subvert the peaceful march.
"This was not spontaneous violence that came from nowhere," says Alejandro Silva, a young lawyer with Diaconia, a local Catholic human rights organization. At the root of the problem, says Silva, is the fact that "more than 50 per cent of the population does not want a mine, and the company knows it. (Manhattan) can file all the environmental studies they want, but the bottom line is that if the town doesn't want a mine, the company has no right to continue."
Manhattan's president in Peru, Roberto Obradovich, insists that the company played no role in Garcia's death and will pose no environmental hazard to the area. "Obviously, Godofredo was an opponent of the company," admits Obradovich, "but I had the opportunity to speak with him about the problematic in Tambogrande, and he taught me a lot. He was a person very open to dialogue."
Eco concerns are misplaced, he continues, since the company promises to use the latest in green technology. "The (agricultural producers) in San Lorenzo were concerned because they thought the mine would affect their lands, but we have assured them that this is not going to happen," says Obradovich, who adds, "Mining and agriculture can co-exist."
Manhattan has deployed a savvy and expensive public relations campaign to persuade locals that this is true, publishing a local newspaper, holding public seminars and even constructing shiny model homes for those who will need to be "relocated." The new housing and its water and sewage facilities will provide a higher standard of living for those whose homes will be bulldozed, promises the company. (The models were burned in February's rioting).
Unaffected by Manhattan's bubbling optimism, however, are a growing number of influential public officials in Tambogrande who have revoked their support for the mine. Alfredo Rengifo, the mayor of Tambogrande, his counterpart from a neighbouring town and Catholic church officials have all publicly called for the mining company to leave town.
Rengifo says he is simply acting on the wishes of the majority of his town's inhabitants, and to prove it he has collected 28,000 signatures from Tambogrande's 36,000 eligible voters on a petition calling for Manhattan's immediate departure.
"We haven't finished collecting all the signatures yet, so the number is likely to grow," he adds. "Aside from environmental and business concerns is the cultural aspect," explains the mayor. "The population has a culture, an idiosyncrasy, developed over generations, and relocating the town would destroy everything its citizens have created. We believe development is important, but we have a thriving agricultural industry and do not need a mine to progress."
After February's violence, even the usually conservative archbishop of Piura, Oscar Cantuarias Pastor, asked Manhattan to close its Tambogrande operations, saying the proposed mine was responsible for "divisions, permanent conflict and uncertainty" in the zone. The word of high-ranking church officials wields enormous clout in a Catholic nation like Peru, and especially in Tambogrande, where a 10-metre-tall blinding-white sculpture of Jesus overlooks the town from its highest point.
At the root of the current conflict, Garcia once explained to me, is the geography of Tambogrande. The village surveys the lush semi-tropical valley of San Lorenzo, the heart of Peru's mango and lime production, which is valued at $110 million (U.S.) a year. More than 75 per cent of the San Lorenzo region's 70,000 people earn their living from agriculture. In contrast, once operational, the mine would provide a maximum of 500 jobs, though it promises more through indirect, service-oriented employment.
Half a century ago, the eager young Garcia was one of the first colonists to arrive in the valley, attracted by an irrigation project financed by the World Bank. Describing in exacting detail how the once-barren land was transformed into a sub-tropical paradise, the mango producer slipped quickly into a nostalgic mood. Water, however, has always been in short supply, and Garcia feared that an open-pit mine would compete for scarce reserves or contaminate the groundwater.
Fit and energetic for a man of any age, he felt most at home strolling through neat rows of mango trees, immersed in a world of thick green foliage. His absence, while keenly felt, will not derail the mine's opponents, who point to the many obstacles faced by the company.
Before construction can begin, Manhattan must present an environmental impact study that should be ready by July. Critics say Peru's environmental legislation is weak and ineffectual, allowing companies to hire their own environmental auditors -- a loophole that's not lost on Defence Front leaders.
Oscar Cervante, a community relations and environment expert with Peru's Ministry of Energy and Mines, hopes to avoid accusations of a stacked deck. "We are going to present the environmental impact study to the town in a public consultation -- we want this to be an open process."
A ministry insider, however, says Manhattan is in serious financial trouble and does not have the capital to pull the project off on its own. "Who is going to invest in Manhattan now, with the kind of social problems they're experiencing?" asks the source.
Alongside business, environmental and social glitches, Manhattan could face a legal challenge in Tambogrande. Juan Aste, an economist with ECO, a Lima-based non-profit organization working on mining issues, points out that Peruvian law forbids mining activities within 50 kilometres of the country's border with Ecuador. The Tambogrande concession lies within this forbidden limit. Two years ago, however, then-president Alberto Fujimori signed a presidential decree declaring the project of national importance -- a move Aste and others regard with suspicion.
Fujimori fled Peru last November to escape charges of corruption, and the country's new government is investigating a ring of influence-trafficking led by the former president's personal adviser and spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos.
"It's obvious that Manhattan cannot continue in Tambogrande," says Aste, calling on Peru's new government to "assume the errors and political decisions of the previous government" and negotiate the company's exit from the zone.
Canada's embassy in Peru has kept a low profile regarding Manhattan's difficulties, but a spokesperson says the embassy is aware of the situation and has been meeting with the various players involved, including community leaders and company and government officials.
"The Canadian government is confident that the Canadian company will abide by Peruvian laws," says the spokesperson, adding that Manhattan is a private corporation.
The Canadian government promotes a voluntary code of ethics for private companies overseas, including provisions for respecting the environment and local communities. But even if Manhattan had signed the code -- it has not -- there is no regulatory mechanism to sanction violators. The Canadian government is pushing the Organization of American States to adopt a similar code of corporate ethics in the discussions of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. The issue is expected to be broached again at the Quebec City summit.
In the meantime, Manhattan seems determined to pursue the golden carrot at all costs. Tambogrande's main deposit consists of an estimated 1 million ounces of gold and 64 million tonnes of rock rich in copper, zinc and silver. Although the full cost of extraction is not yet known, this deposit alone is worth more than $2 billion Canadian, and the company is exploring at least two more mineral-rich concessions in the area.
As obstacles to Manhattan's success mount, Defence Front leader Francisco Ojeda says the company has resorted to more desperate and underhanded methods. "Everyone (in the Defence Front) has been threatened, and we are followed when we go to work in the fields or give interviews to the press," says Ojeda, who confesses that since the assassination he and other leaders do not leave their houses after dark.
"But we will continue in our struggle. They cannot frighten us into giving up."