World Rainforest Movement

Peru: forest inhabited by the indigenous Shawi to be handed over to Canadian mining firm

The indigenous Shawi people repeat their call for protests in defense of their territory in the tropical rainforest. This time the threat is in the form of the world’s leading gold mining company: Barrick Gold Corporation.

In October 2017, the Geological, Mining and Metallurgical Institute of Peru (INGEMMET), an office that forms part of the Ministry of Energy and Mines, and which is responsible for mining applications and rights, began processing eight mining license requests, seven for an area of 1,000 hectares each, and one for an area of 900 hectares. The total area covers 8,900 hectares and is located in the midst of a tropical rainforest, home to the indigenous Shawi people. The aforementioned requests were made by the Peruvian company Minerals Camino Real Perú S.A.C, which is owned by Canadian firm Royal Road Minerals Limited. The same Canadian mining company also runs projects in Nicaragua and Colombia for the extraction of copper, iron but primarily gold. (1)

In February 2018, the Barrick Gold Corporation, Canada’s leading gold mining company, purchased around 12.5% of the shares of Royal Road Minerals Limited. (2)

Barrick Gold Corporation is the world’s leading gold mining company, following years of an aggressive acquisitions strategy. It has 20 thousand employees (including consortiums or joint ventures), 27 operating mines, 10 projects under development and the industry’s largest reserves of gold. Barrick has on-going projects in the United States, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Saudi Arabia and Zambia.

In Peru, Barrick has two mining operations – Lagunas Norte and Pierina. Lagunas Norte, located in the department of La Libertad in the Andes, is an open-pit mine that began operations in 2005. To obtain the gold, an 11 meter borehole is drilled and then loaded with explosives to fragment the rock. More than 200 thousand metric tons of ore and waste are extracted each day! The Pierina mine in the department of Ancash, is located between 3,800 and 4,200 meters a.s.l., and is also an open-pit mine that uses drills to penetrate 10.5 meters into the rock to access the precious metal. Both mines use a process in which sodium cyanide is dissolved in water, along with other toxic chemicals, to separate the gold and silver contained in the extracted ore.

Barrick currently controls more than 145,000 hectares between these two mines, and also owns the Irene I-500 mine in Ancash. The Andean Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations (CAOI) ensures that Barrick does not pay any royalties in Peru due to Guarantee Contracts and Measures for Investment Promotion, also known as legal, tax and administrative stability contracts. In terms of social and environmental conflicts, and according to the Ombudsman’s Office, as of May 2017 there were 123 active socio-environmental conflicts registered, of which 64.6% were caused by mining activities. The biggest complaint of local inhabitants is the constant contamination from the mines and the plundering of their water sources.

Mining exploration and indigenous resistance

In December 1997, INGEMMET published the document “Geology of the Balsapuerto and Yurimaguas Quadrangles.” (3) The study was carried out by a group of experts commissioned by the Ministry of Energy and Mines of Peru, with the objective of encouraging and promoting mining exploitation in the aforementioned districts. The document included the following text: “Archaeological evidence has been reported in the study area that consists of petroglyphs that are likely to represent cultural or religious symbols of the ancient inhabitants of the zone (District of Balsapuerto). These drawings are perfectly circular and elongated and their true meaning is now the subject of detailed research.”(4)

This discovery by Western researchers regards something that the Shawi indigenous people have maintained secret for many years. Subsequent research has since determined that the Shawi people call the rock where the petroglyphs are engraved “Cumpanamá” in reference to a religious divinity. Recent studies have since identified and recorded 50 other pre-Hispanic archaeological sites (5), which unfortunately have so far neither been mapped nor registered in the public records: neither has any administrative process been undertaken with the Ministry of Culture to officially recognize these sites. The Shawi make up almost 95% of the population of the Balsapuerto district, and mainly live in the department of Loreto, alongside the Cahuapana, Sillay, Supayacu Paranapura, Cachiyacu and Shanusi rivers. From a demographic point of view, the Shawi are among the eight largest indigenous groups resident in Peru.

The Shawi believe that the world is oval like a wasps hive and that it is covered by an immense blue mantle, inside which the moon, the sun and the stars circulate. The land is surrounded by water and the places where people live were initially only water held up by the sky. According to the cosmovision of the Shawi, in the upper space resides the Sun (Pi’i) and it is from here that Mashi and Cumpanamá, the main divinities of the Shawi, originated. Cumpanamá formed the earth and the rivers, transformed the wood dust of cedars into fish, and leaves into land animals and birds, and taught the Shawi how to fish and make canoes. The cultivation of crops, hunting and other activities were taught to the Shawi by Mashi. This is a rich culture, full of stories typical of ancient peoples, and underlining their intrinsic and unique relationship with their environment.

In 2009, Shawi leaders called for national protests to defend their lands. This was a unique manifestation of indigenous resistance, which underlined the unequal struggle of overpowering political forces with those who are weakest, in this case, the indigenous minority. The great Shawi nation demonstrated its capacity for organization with a march of around five thousand protesters to the Yurimaguas-Tarapoto highway. The president at the time, Alan García, described the native peoples as “second class citizens,” while also promoting a package of laws in the Peruvian Congress related to land tenure. García argued that such laws were necessary in order to implement the Free Trade Agreement that Peru had signed with the United States. On 5 June 2009, a tragedy stuck that shook the whole country. Known as the “Bagua Massacre,” at least 33 people were killed in clashes between indigenous communities and the armed forces. The indigenous leaders, with a large group of Shawis, believed that if they didn’t stand their ground they would forfeit their land. With much trepidation they took the decision not to fall back, returning for a second day of protests. Six thousand came back willing to defend what many who study social conflicts simply don’t understand: “indigenous people are the land and the land is formed of indigenous people” – an indivisible and unbreakable union. If the land dies, the native people die, and if the native people die, nature dies. At the time, the indigenous people and those in the local population who supported them were the only ones who could ensure that the decrees being sought to facilitate the take-over of indigenous lands would all fail.

This long tradition of resistance to cultural invasion and the occupation of indigenous territories, underlines the strength of such peoples’ deep-rooted connection to the land, the forest and life. “The official history of our Amazonia is a partial history, written to praise the conquerors, adventurers, travelers and colonizers. Indigenous groups are reduced to ethnological “Objects of study,” within a simplistic approach that only offers an anonymous and passive viewpoint of conquest and dispossession. (6) On innumerable occasions, however, indigenous peoples have shown that they are neither submissive nor indifferent: quite the opposite in fact.

The prior consultation that never happened: imposition and struggle

The indigenous resistance also led to the passing of the celebrated Law of Prior Consultation No. 29785, which is based on ILO Convention 169, to which the Peruvian State is a signatory party. The aim was that such events would not be repeated.

However, a legal sidestep is contained in the Regulations for Prior Consultation. Article 1 states that the result of the consultation process is NOT BINDING, except in those aspects where agreement exists between the parties. It is clear then the direction and use intended for this piece of legislation, today reflected in the mining request to develop 8,900 hectares of land.

The plan for the so-called “Timo” mining project is focused on the district of Balsapuerto. This area is covered with primary forests. It also contains the Cachiyacu basin, the waters of which descend from the nearby Sub-Andean foothills and flow into the Paranapura River on its right bank. The watercourse then joins the Huallaga River close to the city of Yurimaguas.

Balsapuerto is located between the boundary of the lowland tropical forest or Amazon plain and the mountainous terrain of the sub-Andean or Cahuapanas range. The flora here represents the most notable living expression of the Amazonian ecosystems of the humid tropics, forming an extensive and continuous dense forest, with trees that rise up to 30 meters in height. The variety of animal species is atypical, due to the mountainous ecosystems (or high tropical forest) that are associated by position and proximity to the Amazonian plain proper (or lowland forest). These forests consist of communities holding legal titles and represent the ancestral lands of the Shawi, who depend on them for their livelihoods and sustenance. Any interference to the basin headwaters by the mining project would also have a detrimental impact on nearby urban settlements.

To date, no environmental impact study has been undertaken in relation to the Timo mining submission, and nor has any consultation been made with the local population or authorities. The Governor of the Loreto region, Fernando Meléndez Celis, has stated that he will not authorize or provide a single inch of land to the Balsapuerto project. The mayor of the district of Balsapuerto, Magno Savedra Cachique, has already held two press conferences to declare opposition to the project in the Balsapuerto district, and also stated that the municipality had received no prior information regarding the issue. (7) The legal advisor to the municipality is now pressing for criminal charges to be brought against the INGEMMET officials who processed the mining request.

Civil society organizations in the province of Alto Amazonas have voiced their concern about this issue and have been organizing joint actions with indigenous leaders and organizations representing the Shawi indigenous people of Balsapuerto. The Catholic Church has also expressed deep concern through its Land Pastoral program, which is sponsored by the Apostolic Vicariate of Yurimaguas. Local press and radio have been widely reporting the issue, especially to the inhabitants of Yurimaguas. The Rtv Total community radio station, which runs a Spanish-Shawi bilingual service, has also been transmitting in-depth reports. The El Menguare newspaper has been reporting in the city of Yurimaguas and in the district of Balsapuerto.

Mining concessions and operating permits have not yet been issued. It therefore remains for the central government, through the Ministry of Energy and Mines, to listen to the voice of the local people, including the Shawi communities, and veto the mining applications. Can a Canadian mining company once again impose a project that would destroy almost 9,000 hectares of rain forests on which the Shawi people and other adjacent villages depend, and without their consent, or even that of the local authorities?

Alain A. Salas Dávila | Independent indigenous leader | Consultant to Indigenous Organizations of the Peruvian Amazon

(1) Projects in Nicaragua; and in Colombia:



(4) Archaeological Appendix, page 2001

(5) Bustamante et. al., 2013, What the stones reveal, Cumpamaná and the petroglyphs of Balsapuerto, Lima, Peru

(6) Morey Alejo, Humberto and Gabel Daniel Sotil García. “ HISTORICAL PANORAMA OF THE PERUVIAN AMAZON: an Amazonian perspective,” Provincial Municipality of Maynas, Iquitos, 2000

(7) AlDía Peru news channel, interview with Magno Saavedra, mayor of Balsapuerto, and Shawi indigenous leaders Agustín Lancha Pizango and Francisco Tangoa. May 2018.