San Jacinto in Southeast Peru is famous for its gold mines. However, this is an image that does not fill the president of the local community, Alfredo Vargas Pío, with pride.
In frustration, the 43-year-old tells of the numerous conflicts caused by the gold mining. Mercury, for instance, often used in mining, is polluting the river in the region and thus endangering the local population. Altercations between the gold miners and village residents also occur regularly. Only ten percent of the gold miners working in San Jacinto grew up there.
Alfredo Vargas Pío explains that the underlying reason for the disputes is a paradoxical legal situation. In Peruvian law, it is written that the respective indigenous communities own the uppermost layer of the land, while the raw materials that lie beneath are state property. On the basis of these land rights, Peru issues certificates to third parties for the San Jacintos territory, which the indigenous community simultaneously relies on. A total of 17 such certificates have been issued so far.
Regional production as an alternative
As president of the community, Alfredo Vargas Pío is campaigning for these laws to be changed. He finds it inconceivable that the state grants mining concessions for community territories and thus makes decisions about the exploitation of the raw materials. “The communities should be able to make all the decisions about their own territories,” he says. “It is important though,” he quickly adds, “to not only combat the destructive mining of raw materials, but also to promote alternative sources of income.”
To some extent, such alternatives are already being put into practice in San Jacinto today, such as the development of regional fish ponds and the cultivation of Brazil nuts. Alfredo Vargas Pío’s goal is to see further growth in both sectors, so that regional production can be expanded.
This community president, who grew up in San Jacinto, has high hopes for the tourism sector as well. The community has also collaborated with researchers to jointly launch a pilot project for forestation of former mining zones, so that former gold mining areas can recover. “There are so many beautiful forests, streams and animals to discover here in the surroundings. Destruction of all this must not be allowed.”