JULIACA, Peru — At least five activists opposed to mining in southeastern Peru were killed when riot police fired tear gas and shot pellets to keep demonstrators from storming the city airport, a local doctor told AFP early Saturday.
The violent protests come in the final weeks of the presidency of Alan Garcia, who hands power over to leftist president-elect Ollanta Humala on July 28. Garcia is leaving so many unsolved social problems that Humala recently pleaded with him to address the most pressing issues and “not give us a mine field.”
Police also apparently used firearms in Juliaca, because the protesters who were killed, including one woman, had all be shot, local hospital doctor Percy Casaperalta told AFP.
The victims were part of a group of some 1,000 mostly local Aymara Indian farmers who tried to storm the Inca Manco Capac international airport in Juliaca on Friday. At least 32 protestors were wounded in the battle, Casaperalta said.
The province of Puno has been in the grips of a wave of protests against mining projects, led primarily by the Aymara Indians, a majority ethnic group in this part of the country. They are demanding an end to mining activity and oil drilling in Puno, one of the Peru’s poorest areas.
The activists say that mining operations pollute the land and waterways, leave few local benefits, and that the concessions were granted without consulting local interests.
Interior Minister Miguel Hidalgo said that protesters attempted to storm the airport twice. He said they also attacked a police station in the nearby city of Azangaro and tried to set a customs office on fire.
Some protesters managed to breach the security barrier and penetrate the airport in the hopes of disrupting air traffic, while others burned grasslands around the airport, paralyzing planes on the tarmac.
Airport authorities were forced to cancel flight departures and arrivals due to the clashes on this second day of a 48-hour strike in Juliaca enacted by labor unions and farmers.
For three weeks in May, the protesters blocked vehicle traffic between Peru and Bolivia, and then cut off all access to the city of Puno, population 120,000, for a week. Protests have since spread to the provinces of Azangaro, Melgar and now Juliaca.
The mining protests began as a demand to revoke a silver mining concession granted to Canada-based Bear Creek Mining Corporation.
They then expanded to include opposition to other area mines, and now include opposition to the Inambari project, an ambitious plan to damn several Andean rivers and build what would become one of the largest hydroelectric power plants in South America.
Protest leader Walter Aduviri is in Lima for talks with the government, but the negotiations have yet to reach an agreement.
In early June Eduardo Vega of the national ombudsman’s office counted 227 unsolved social or environmental conflicts in Peru.
The outgoing Garcia administration has shown little interest “in at least finding a temporary solution to these problems,” according to sociologist Eduardo Toche.