After the huaico: meeting Aida Gamarra Sánchez

Above: The open pit mine in Cerro de Pasco. Central Andes, Peru. August, 2018

by Barbara Galindo1

When I first saw the impressive images of the devastation caused by the flood in the districts of Lurigancho-Chosica, Chaclacayo, San Juan de Lurigancho, and Punta Hermosa in Lima, Peru, in March of 2017, I never imagined that one day I would visit a community created by some of the affected families. That flood or huaico, as Peruvians call it, seemed to be just one more tragedy produced by climate change, and at that moment, I could not think of any connection between the flood and my research interests on the impacts of Andean modern mining in the Peruvian society, environment, and culture from the 20th century to the present. However, during my summer trip to Peru, I met renowned social activist and mining engineer technician Aida Gamarra Sanchez, who now spends the majority of her time living in Carapongo, a residential area located on the banks of the Rimac River in Lurigancho-Chosica, amongst 27 families displaced by the huaico. Finding Aida living amongst other people displaced by the flood had a deep impact on me for two reasons: first, because it immediately reminded me of the oppression of those displaced and impoverished miners who went to live in the peripheries of the capital during the booming industrial era, sometimes after struggling in unequal labor litigations against the North-American mining company Cerro de Pasco Corporation (CPC) and having lost their health in the mines; second, because her life  intertwined two extremely tragic circumstances.  First, she and her community lost everything when the China Aluminum Corporation (Chinalco) destroyed the Andean city of Morococha in 2013-2014 to develop an open pit mine. The residents were offered the risible amount of five thousand soles (the equivalent to one thousand and five hundred U.S. dollars) to reconstruct their lives and the ones who accepted the negotiation were relocated to the new/artificial town of Carhuacoto, which was entirely built by the corporation on a wetland and is dangerously located close to a mine tailing dam that could easily collapse during an earthquake.2 Secondly, after being displaced to Lima with her two children, she was one of the victims of the flood. Aida became well known after her fight against the abusive conduct of Chinalco in Morococha and as a strong voice warning about the highly “contaminating” effects of the open pit mining activities on the natural springs and rivers. 3 During an informal conversation in August 2018, she told me that her fight not only seeks justice for the displaced Morococha residents —especially for those who still resist moving to Carhuacoto and are camped at the destroyed city— but also for the future of the water and the continuity of life which includes all the people that live in the seemingly immune capital of Lima. She emphasized that society should always remember that Chinalco and the Peruvian state committed serious human rights violations against the whole community: Ollanta Humala Tasso’s administration (2011-2016) declared a state of emergency in order to expulse them with impunity, closing all the schools and hospitals.4 That same year, the online newspaper Con Nuestro Peru published a denouncement made by the Asamblea de los Pueblos de Lima y Callao confirming Aida’s severe health condition.  Her body suffers from high levels of uranium, barium, cadmium, lead, thallium, nickel, silver, tin, copper, cobalt, and rubidium. The newspaper warned that Chinalco was secretly extracting uranium, which may trigger, in the future, an epidemic of cancer and leukemia in Lima, Callao, and the Mantaro Valley.  I was profoundly touched when Aida told me that she is not afraid to die because the company already sentenced her to a slow death and that, despite the extreme vigilance of Chinalco, she continues to travel to the destroyed Morococha where she maintains her tent to bring food for the families living/resisting there. The painful irony is that she always has to explain to the drivers that she is not going to nowhere and the city still exists…

Transnational mining is a controversial subject in Latin America: on the one hand, fervent supporters from different backgrounds argue that it will bring “progress,” development, and new jobs; on the other hand, numerous critics and victims show the increasingly visible environmental and human costs of large-scale mining on the continent. There has been a growing rejection of predatory extractive projects amongst rural and indigenous communities whose resistance is frequently misunderstood (labelled as anti-mining/anti-development) and criminalized by the States.5 There are many representative examples of the irrefutable violence/genocides perpetrated by extractivism such as the atrocities committed against indigenous communities during the Amazonian rubber boom period, the colonial and neocolonial mining history of the Andean region, the recent and repeated occurrences of petroleum spill in the Peruvian Amazon, the Yanomami’s gradual extermination by informal mining since the 70s in the Brazilian Amazon, the scandalous contamination of the entire Andean village of Choropampa by mercury in 2000, and the outrageous threats against the lives of Andean peasants like Máxima Acuña de Chaupe and her family, who struggle to protect their sacred lake from the warlike power of the U.S. Newmont Mining Corporation and the Peruvian State. Máxima and Aida’s examples show the colossal disparities produced by our totalitarian neoliberal world system and how women are particularly vulnerable to violence in these conflicts. As the Peruvian journalist Rocío Silva Santisteban remarks, women are subjugated under the triple discrimination of sexism-racism-classism and the indigenous and peasant women are doubly subalternized “not only by the extractive companies and the State, but sometimes also by their husbands who often do not support their ‘dedication to the fight’ because they feel their wives will neglect their domestic obligations, and who sometimes prevent them —either subtly or through violence— from occupying power positions in native organizations” (Silva Santisteban 2017: 11; translation mine).6 Furthermore, it is crucial to stress that Máxima’s primary defense of her sacred lake and mountains, which are considered part of the Andean community, their extensive family or ayllu, is key to understand why rural and indigenous societies contest extractivism.  As the Peruvian anthropologist Stefano Varese explains, these societies have a “cosmocentric” ethics based “in the logic of diversity and the logic of reciprocity” that is the foundation of their way of relating to the environment.7 This indigenous moral code centered on reciprocity is radically opposed to the individualistic, competitive, and extractive ways of interrelating in capitalist society. The French-American anthropologist Frédérique Apffel-Marglin elucidates what is behind the extractive voracity of capital and asserts that the main problem is a view of nature which “assumes that meaning/mind, intentionality, and agency are exclusively human capabilities. The soil, the subsoil, the water and its fishes, the whole ecosystem, are seen as being purely material” (Apffel-Marglin 2017: 133).8

Consequently, this mechanistic view of the world authorizes the complete pillage of despiritualized nature and human bodies, which are respectively converted to natural and human resources. This is why the “cosmocentric” cosmologies not only challenge the current dominant paradigm but also teach about other ways of being in the world. For instance, the practice of offering gifts to the land, shared by several indigenous societies world over, is vital in a paradigm of reciprocity, because the “reciprocal exchanges enact a regenerative cycle, which from an indigenous, rather than agronomic, perspective constitutes the opposite of the extractive, unilateral actions in a modern economy where the soil is considered a ‘natural resource’ rather than a revered mother” (Apffel-Marglin 2017: 137). Hence, there is a decisive confrontation between these two paradigms in the core of the conflicts involving rural and indigenous societies and large-scale extractive projects nowadays.

Those conflicts can be even more intricate in urban contexts with heterogenous populations; cities inhabited by Andean peasants, mestizos, and foreigners living in a very stratified society. Moreover, cities where mining dates back to the colonial period are usually condemned to a “toxic legacy” as historian Nicholas A. Robins attests regarding the cases of Potosi in Bolivia and Huancavelica in Peru.9 Likewise, the consequences of this heritage are obviously worse in sites that have continued to be strategic mining zones. The interaction of a “toxic legacy” and a heterogeneous/stratified society can thus demonstrate why “contamination” is so naturalized and the residents are so divided regarding the current viability of mining. One city of the Peruvian central Andes that illustrates the eco-social impacts and contradictions inscribed in this “toxic legacy” is Cerro de Pasco, which is one of the most significant mining centers of Latin America, as emblematic as other cities like Potosi and Ouro Preto in Brazil. During my brief stay in Cerro, I observed that some residents did not oppose mining as the main economic force of the city but demanded “responsible” or less polluting modalities of extraction. Talking to a group of men who were drinking close to the open pit mine, they expressed their nostalgia for the old city —cannibalized by the hole— and the golden times when there were more jobs and people of different nationalities. They were referring to the period when the American CPC had a huge mining complex in the region (1902-1974). The persistence of this promising imaginary is possibly a result of state depictions of colonial mining cities as monuments both of a prosperous past and a future of “progress” and “development” that would be guaranteed by mining extraction. Similarly, the idealization of the industrial period reinforces this imaginary. Current mining projects draw from these ideals in propaganda that assures the creation of jobs that will never become real.

As the Peruvian economist José de Echave notes, the social conflicts originated by mining activities are heterogeneous and each context has its own specificities: “There are conflicts that arise from resistance and rejection, but in Peru we also have conflicts that involve the coexistence with mining.”10 Different from the “cosmocentric” principles that shape Máxima’s demands for justice, Aida’s activism, for instance, is based on her opposition not to the modality of subterranean extraction or socavon but to the devastating large-scale mines operated by transnational companies. Her testimony makes evident the process of increasing “denationalization” of the Andean territory —and loss of state sovereignty— through the concession of huge pieces of land for the exclusive use of mining companies:

I am from Morococha, I have lived 22 years in Morococha, I have a life there. And unfortunately, the government gave away our lands, dispossessing us from our lands, from our belongings, from our roots, from our traditions […] Ollanta inaugurated and allowed the Chinalco’s megaproject, the company of the most exploitative of all governments which is China.11

Aida emphasizes the period of Toromocho, in which the residents of Morococha were expulsed from their houses under the presidency of Ollanta Humala.12 In several interviews, as I mentioned before, she denounces the government for declaring a state of emergency and explains that one day the people woke up with a militarized city and were obligated to move.  The majority decided to negotiate and go to the new city, but some families did not accept the violent demolition of their material and symbolic houses, which represented the annihilation of their rights, communal living, memories, and futures. For this reason, they decided to stay and resist until the end. As Aida states:

Thank God we are still resisting but now we are only a few that live in Morococha. Why? Because if we resist and stay in Morococha, we don’t have jobs, they close all the doors for us, it is not easy how they oppress you, how they don’t leave you in peace. I went back to Morococha after recovering from cancer, and I told them: I will stay with you until the end, even if this costs my life, because I almost died protesting for Morococha, fighting for rights, to prevent them from taking away our land and making them respect our environment, our headwaters.13

As I said in the beginning of this account, I was deeply impressed by my meeting with Aida Gamarra in Lima. It was inspiring to hear how she helped regenerate the lives of other families who lost everything in the flood. She was proud to show their new houses, their animals, a little classroom where they organize different activities for children and adolescents, and where she teaches everything she knows on political activism: in her poetic words, they are “planting consciousness.” Their community is also beautifully called “Sembrando Esperanza”, which means “Planting Hope.” Meeting Aida just before my first trip to the central Andes was a gift: I really had to start at the end or “after the huaico” to discover that another ending is possible, to understand that the extent of destruction that I would see —a despairing privatized and polluted Andean landscape— cannot prevent the reconstruction of life, reciprocity, and community.

Barbara Galindo is a PhD candidate in Hispanic Languages and Literatures and a recipient of the 2018 Constance Coiner Graduate Award. She was also awarded a Translation Grant from the National Library of Brazil in 2013, a Travel Grant from the Latin American Institute in 2014, The Ben and Rue Pine Research Travel Fellowship in 2014, the Rookie T.A. of the Year in 2014-2015, and a GSRM in 2015. She is currently part of the Sachamama Center for BioCultural Regeneration (SCBR), an Amazonian non-profit organization that also has generously contributed to fund all her research travels to Peru.

  1. I am very thankful to Aida Gamarra Sanchez, who read a Spanish version of this account and authorized me to publish it. The main data I use about Aida’s activism is primarily based on lectures and interviews she gave, which are available online. I also would like to thank all the people who helped me in Lima and in the Mantaro Valley this summer: Enrique Villalón from the Archivo General de la Nación; the writer, researcher, and actress Elizabeth Lino Cornejo, who generously shared her perspectives on the mining space of Cerro de Pasco; the professor Christian Espinoza Calle, who guided me in Lima; the hospitality of Eduardo Arriagada Gonzalez, who hosted me for two weeks; and the invaluable research partnership of the journalist Sergio Girón Santivañez, who kindly guided me in Huancayo and Cerro de Pasco. Finally, I would like to thank Abby Corbett, Kristal Bivona, and Alexandra Apolloni for kindly reviewing this text.
  2. The Brazilian tragedy of Mariana – “one of the largest ever reported failure of a tailing dam” (Hatje et al 2017) – illustrates well the catastrophic human-environmental consequences that a failing mine dam can cause to our societies and how dangerous it is to live close to these tailings. In November of 2015, the collapse of the mining dam operated by Samarco Mineração S.A. (a joint-venture between the Brazilian Vale S.A. and the English-Australian BHP Billiton Company) completely devasted the village of Bento Rodrigues and the Doce river, reaching the mouth of this river in the Atlantic Ocean. See: 1) https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-11143-x; 2) https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/nov/25/brazils-mining-tragedy-dam-preventable-disaster-samarco-vale-bhp-billiton. For the Peruvian case, see the Servindi’s article about the concerns of some Morococha residents regarding the living conditions in the new city: https://www.servindi.org/actualidad/97026
  3. Here I purposely use “contaminating” to stress not only the well-known poisoning consequences of mining but also the stigmatization this word carries: it is commonly used by official discourses to make poisoned people feel ashamed and guilty for having been “contaminated”, especially women who, according to this patriarchal discourse, should do a better job of cleaning their houses, so that the poisonous dust does not spread, as a young lady from the Quiulacocha rural community, located very close to the Andean mining city of Cerro de Pasco, told me. Talking to an old lady who is a small vendor and lives in Cerro, she explained me that when her daughter was diagnosed with lead in the blood, she and her husband did not want anyone to know it because they thought that this was contagious. For this reason, I will maintain “contaminating” when I refer to the companies and the State’s conduct to underline their stigmatizing strategic discourse, but when I refer to the victims I will prefer to use “poisoned” instead of “contaminated” to mark the distinct meanings of these two words and not reproduce a discourse that blames the victims.
  4. The Peruvian administration of Ollanta Humala created the Low 30081 (09/2/2013) to establish the new geographic location of the new city.
  5. In “La Criminalización de la Protesta Social en el Peru: Un analisis a la luz del Caso Conga en Cajamarca” (2013), the Peruvian lawyer Mirtha Vásquez shows the laws that were created since 2002 to criminalize the social protest in Peru. Available: http://www.grufides.org/sites/default/files/documentos/publicaciones/Criminalización%20de%20la%20protesta%20en%20Perú%20-%20Mirtha%20Vásquez.pdf
  6. See: Silva Santisteban, Rocío. Mujeres y conflictos ecoterritoriales. Impactos, estrategias, resistencias. Lima: Embajada de Espana en Peru, AECID, Cooperacion Espanola, 2017.
  7. I read Varese’s original article in Spanish and used the English translation of his work by Frédérique Apffel-Marglin. See: Varese, Stefano. “La ética cosmocéntrica de los pueblos indígenas de la Amazonía: elementos para una crítica de la civilización.” Selva Vida: de la destrucción de la Amazonía al paradigma de la regeneración (2013): 61-82.
  8. Apffel-Marglin, Frédérique. “Imagining a cosmocentric economy”. In: Tindall, Robert, Frédérique Apffel-Marglin, and David Shearer. Sacred soil: Biochar and the regeneration of the earth. North Atlantic Books, 2017, pp.133-150.
  9. “Today, the residents of both cities shoulder these tragic and toxic legacies, which were central to the rise of the modern global economy. While more mercury was released into the environment in colonial Potosi than Huancavelica (approximately 45,000 metric tons versus 17,000 tons), sampling results suggest that the soils of Huancavelica are more contaminated. […] The situation today is compounded by the prevalence of mud brick homes in Huancavelica that are constructed with contaminated materials, and underscores the fact that Huancavelica is the capital of Peru’s poorest department. Indeed, such is the contamination that there is off-gassing of elemental mercury vapors from the interior walls of many homes there. While Potosi is more prosperous, better integrated into Bolivia, and has a greater percentage of homes built from brick, the mining of a variety of metals and its accompanying contamination continue there to this day. Despite of these differences, many of the residents of both cities continue to breather toxic air, ingest mercury-laced dust, and are otherwise exposed to the myriad risks of mercury intoxication” (Robins 2011: IX). See: Robins, Nicholas A. Mercury, mining, and empire: The human and ecological cost of colonial silver mining in the Andes. Indiana University Press, 2011.
  10. I transcribed and translated this quote from José de Echave’s conference “Mapa de inversiones mineras y conflictos se ha movido hacia el sur” (2016), available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iyZXJ6pSkEk. See also: De Echave Cáceres, José, and Alejandro Diez Hurtado. Más allá de Conga. Red Peruana por una Globalización con Equidad, 2013.
  11. The translation is mine. See Aida’s lecture: “Aida Gamarra – Testimonio de Lucha” (2017): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luq5PFSAy8c&t=787s
  12. See the article “Toromocho Mining project will create 5,000 jobs during its construction” (2008). Available: https://andina.pe/ingles/noticia.aspx?id=173106
  13. The translation is mine. See Aida’s lecture: “Aida Gamarra – Testimonio de Lucha” (2017): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luq5PFSAy8c&t=787s
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