Case study

Glencore copper mine contaminates land in Peru

In Espinar Province, located in the highlands of Peru, Glencore has been running a gigantic copper mine since 2013. A new study reveals the damage.

Photo: Miguel Gutierrez Chero

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In Espinar Province, located in the highlands of Peru, Glencore has been running a gigantic copper mine since 2013. The mine has had a dramatic impact on the province’s approximately 60,000 inhabitants, most of whom belong to the Quechua or K’ana Indigenous communities. New environmental studies prove that Glencore’s Antapaccay mine in Peru is poisoning the air, water and soil. For years, the local population have been striving to combat this health-hazardous pollution, as well as the attempts to drive them away against their will. A new study reveals the damage.

Copper is an extremely sought-after mineral for all renewable energy technologies: with the energy transition bringing a global rise in wind farms, solar power systems, hydropower, geothermal energy and batteries, demand for this resource is increasing. The mining of this so-called ‘transition mineral’ is causing environmental pollution on a massive scale, as the case of the Glencore Antapaccay mine shows.

Pollution on a massive scale

In recent years, numerous studies have been published, which show that the population’s drinking water and the soil in the vicinity of the Antapaccay mine are contaminated with heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic and lead. From a medical point of view, there is clear evidence that these metals are very harmful to human health. The inhabitants of the region are suffering from numerous health problems, such as headaches, stomach aches, diarrhoea, respiratory problems and coughing, as well as urinary and kidney problems. They also blame the mine for cases of cancer in the region.

However, Glencore has constantly denied that its mining activities have anything to do with the pollution. Instead, the company has claimed that such amounts of the aforementioned heavy metals occur naturally in the region – due to the area’s geological conditions.

Investigative research conducted by the Peruvian organisation CooperAcción shows that previously unpublished environmental studies by the Peruvian environmental authority clearly prove that the Glencore mine is responsible for the pollution: the air is contaminated with particulate matter containing heavy metals that can be traced back to the mining activities. The water is polluted with metals because contaminated water from the mine dumps is flowing into surrounding streams or seeping into the ground. According to the studies, the quality of the soil around the mine has also ‘deteriorated considerably’ due to deposits with high concentrations of copper and other heavy metals.

Not only are the consequences of the pollution becoming evident in the population’s many health problems, but the studies indicate that the mine is also having a massive impact on flora and fauna: aquatic organisms are suffering from the pollution and biodiversity has declined. High levels of heavy metals such as copper, manganese and arsenic have also been detected in lizards, birds, plants and various livestock animals. In certain zones, the studies show there is so much metal pollution that the land is not suitable for use as pasture. This is consistent with the experiences of the local population, who say that if their animals drink water from the river, they either die or suffer frequent miscarriages.

Indigenous communities are putting up resistance

The land on which the current mine is located has been inhabited by Indigenous Quechua and K’ana population groups for centuries. However, there have been conflicts for decades because the rights of the Indigenous communities were violated in order to construct and expand the mine. Specifically, based on international standards, Indigenous communities have the right to be consulted if their land and resources are to be used by third parties, so that they can either give free, prior and informed consent to a project – or reject it.

However, it seems this does not matter to Glencore. For instance, a study published by Oxfam in 2023 shows how Glencore is trying to weaken and circumvent the consultation process regarding a current controversial project to enlarge the Antapaccay mine. Glencore has repeatedly failed to inform the communities in a transparent manner. In addition, residents feel pressurised to sell their land, and some have been offered jobs and other types of economic benefits, so as to persuade them to agree.

Back in 2019, video footage taken by a Peruvian journalist showed Glencore security staff throwing stones at Indigenous women. According to a report by Multiwatch, around 40 police officers and Glencore employees attempted to drive away Indigenous families in 2018. Many of the residents were injured when they put up resistance.

Support the Indigenous communities and sign the letter of protest to Glencore CEO Gary Nagle!

The STP is demanding the following:

  • Glencore must immediately stop the ongoing poisoning of the region and clean up the massive accumulation of toxic waste. Glencore must finally respect the Indigenous communities’ right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.
  • In any future projects, all stakeholders must commit to the United Nations principle of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), ensure that the rights of Indigenous communities are respected, and guarantee that their voice is heard.
  • Switzerland needs to finally put in place a practical law on corporate responsibility: If companies like Glencore poison an entire region and drive away Indigenous farmers, they should also have to answer for it.

Not an isolated case

Unfortunately, this story is no isolated case. The mineral-intensive energy transition is taking resource mining to new levels. It is affecting Indigenous communities disproportionately: a 2022 study on the mining of transition minerals worldwide shows that 54 per cent of mining projects are located on or near Indigenous territories. Together with Indigenous representatives, the STP is campaigning for climate-friendly solutions that respect Indigenous and human rights.

Find out about our climate justice programme here.

The text is based on the case study of the Coalition for the Responsible Business Initiative.

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