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Fury over Conga threatens to overwhelm Peru’s president

Reporters Without Borders reports five journalists were attacked and injured during violent protests against Newmont Mining’s Conga project in the Cajamarca region of northern Peru over the weekend.

The attacks came amid a state of emergency in three of the region’s provinces over the planned $5 billion gold and copper mine high in the Andes.

President Ollanta Humala’s government declared the state of emergency after a day of deadly clashes – a fifth protester died on Friday and dozens of demonstrators were wounded during the week – but the violence shows no signs of letting up.

Protesters again expressed their fury at funerals held on Saturday including that of a 16-year old bystander who was killed in crossfire.

The latest protests are in response to the granting of environmental approval for the mine, located some 3,700 m above sea level, which involves moving the water from four lakes high in the mountains into reservoirs for mine operations.

Much of the violence against the media was blamed on special police units deployed to quell the protests, “but protesters unhappy with the media’s coverage were also responsible in some cases,” Reporters Without Borders said, adding that  covering the conflict entailed an “enormous risk” for the media:

In Celendín, the site of the proposed mine, some journalists had been forced to stay indoors because of the constant shooting.

Denver-based Newmont stopped construction of the copper-gold project in November and the first state of emergency was declared in December Peru when boulders were used to block exits from the regional capital of more than 200,000 inhabitants. Schools, hospitals and business were closed and dozens injured in clashes with police.

The $23 billion company is the majority owner of the Conga project with Peru’s Buenaventura, which was to begin production in early 2015. The new mine is basically designed as an extension of the company’s nearby Yanacocha, Latin America’s largest gold mine, which is approaching the end of its life.

Conga is capable of producing up to 350,000 ounces of gold and 120 million pounds of copper per annum with a 19-year life of mine.

The project is the largest ever single private investment in the country and has turned into a political minefield for the Humala administration with many in the opposition and within his own party calling for drastic changes to his handling of Conga.

Peru’s Prime Minister said earlier this year Conga will eventually be developed as the government could end up with a “huge” compensation payment to the developers if the mine does not go ahead.

Most damning to Humala’s reputation this week was video aired on local TV showing left-wing leader Marco Arana, a soft-spoken former Roman Catholic priest and possible presidential contender, being detained and beaten by police during one of the demonstrations.

On Saturday Humala proposed appointing a well-known Peruvian Catholic priest to mediate the conflict while Gregorio Santos, governor of the Cajamarca region and the leader of the anti-Conga protests, has also roped in a prominent priest to help in talks according to Peruvian Press.

Merco Press reports “hundreds of social conflicts over the spoils of natural resources, as well as a string of brazen attacks by a small but more assertive Shining Path, sunk Humala’s popularity rating to below 50% for the first time of his term in June.”