Peru frees indigenous leader from jail as copper mine protests mount

CHALLHUAHUACHO, Peru/LIMA (Reuters) – Peruvian police released an indigenous leader from jail on Friday after hundreds of protesters in a remote Andean region demanded his freedom by cutting off access to a huge Chinese copper mine.

FILE PHOTO: Attendants adjust the national flags of Peru and China prior to the meeting between Peruvian Foreign Minister Nestor Popolizio and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, China, 28 August 2018. How Hwee Young/Pool via REUTERS

The immediate release of Gregorio Rojas, the president of the Quechua-speaking village Fuerabamba, had been a key demand of protesters who have spent the past week occupying a road that Chinese miner MMG Ltd uses to get supplies to its copper mine Las Bambas.

Las Bambas is one of the country’s biggest copper mines, producing about 400,000 tonnes of copper per year, equivalent to about 2 percent of the world’s output of the metal and 1 percent of Peru’s gross domestic product.

Protests by residents of Fuerabamba had already blocked MMG from transporting copper on a road in the neighbouring region of Cusco since early February, halting its exports.

Police had arrested Rojas and three of Fuerabamba’s lawyers last week on allegations they organised the first blockade in hopes of extorting MMG.

But Rojas was released without charges on Friday, while the lawyers remained in jail under investigation, the offices of the attorney general and the prime minister said.

Images broadcast by local media showed Rojas wearing a poncho and a traditional domed hat as he left police custody in the capital Lima.

In Challhuahuacho, a town nearly 4,000 meters (13,000 ft) above sea level in the Andes at the foot of Las Bambas, protesters who have camped out near the entrance of the mine said they would not go home until the lawyers were released as well.

“Our leader and our lawyers aren’t criminals. They were demanding respect for the community,” Serefina Huachaca, a 28-year-old protester told Reuters as she nursed her infant daughter on the road as police in riot gear looked on.

“They can kill us if they want but we’re not leaving,” she said.

The government of President Martin Vizcarra, which has said it wants a peaceful solution to the dispute, declared a 15-day state of emergency in Challhuahuacho earlier on Friday, suspending the right to hold gatherings in public and authorizing police and military to use force to restore order.

Police planned to inform the protesters that they were violating the state of emergency and ask them to disperse later on Friday, said a police source, who was not authorized to speak to press and declined to be named.

COPPER PRODUCTION ON VERGE OF HALTING

The unrest underlines the difficulties for investors involved in resources projects in remote areas of Latin America, where locals are increasingly complaining that their needs are ignored and they are denied a fair share of revenues.

MMG has said it remains open to dialogue.

“The ongoing blockade has impeded the arrival of our supplies and transportation of minerals, which means production will halt in coming days, with serious damage to the local and national economy,” the company said in a statement.

Fuerabamba wants MMG to provide compensation for trucking its copper concentrates on a road that crosses community farmland and dozens of villages. It has become a source of tension as residents complain about the dust and noise created by hundreds of the mine’s trucks daily.

MMG denied allegations by Fuerabamba that it built the road without the community’s permission, saying it was already in place and that it cannot pay the community for using it because the government had declared it a national highway.

Earlier this week, a government negotiating team was repelled by protesters near the blockade, who hurled rocks at their helicopter, the government said. Local residents denied anyone from Fuerabamba had attacked the helicopter.

Reporting by Mitra Taj and Marco Aquino, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien

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