Canaries in the coal mine

Why Peru's disgraced ex-president remains popular with indigenous miners

Continued protests rock the mining industry and spook foreign investment

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Hundreds of miners camped out at a copper mine in Peru, protesting working conditions.
Protestors camped out at the Las Bambas copper mine. Workers demanded better safety conditions, higher wages, and more environmental regulation.
Photo: Angela Ponce (Reuters)

A month-long state of emergency has been declared in Peru after supporters of Pedro Castillo—the imprisoned former president—blocked roads, closed airports, and ratcheted up pressure on the country’s new government. The extraordinary decision announced by defense minister Alberto Otárola suspended several civil liberties, including the right to assembly and freedom of transit.

Castillo’s supporters took to the streets in protest immediately after his former vice president Dina Boluarte was sworn in as his successor in early December. The protestors claim that the country’s political and financial elite never gave Castillo, Peru’s first indigenous president and a political outsider, a chance to successfully govern, and that the national congress acted unlawfully in removing Castillo from power.

The protests are supported by the country’s largest association of indigenous groups and the national federation of labor unions, a base reflective of the coalition that originally propelled Castillo into office.

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Born to illiterate farmers in a rural, impoverished community, Castillo ran for president on the slogan “no more poor people in a rich country,” vowing to redistribute the profits of international mining companies and other foreign companies operating in Peru to the country’s poor.

The fifth president in just four years, Boluarte must find a way to rally support and stabilize the country’s political institutions. As she considers calling for new elections in 2023, a recent Ipsos poll had her approval rating at just 21%, six percentage points lower than the final poll of Castillo’s term.

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The rural/urban divide

Castillo is just the second Peruvian president since 1956 born outside of Lima, the wealthy capital city. Much of his political support is found in the country’s rural areas. In the first round of the election, he won just 18% of the national vote, but received more than 50% of the vote in Apurimac, Ayacucho, and Hiancavelicia. These three southern regions are home to some of the largest copper and gold deposits in the world, yet remain the poorest in Peru.

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During his presidential campaign, Castillo openly attacked foreign mining companies, promising environmental regulations, higher taxes, and wealth redistribution. After he was elected, foreign mining companies experienced months-long strikes and road blockades that paralyzed production and prompted deadly clashes between protestors and police.

Notably, the major Chinese mining company MMG was forced to declare force majure after protestors shut down all operations at the Las Bambas mine, responsible for 2% of the world’s copper production. In response to these extended labor actions, foreign investors fled and the credit rating agency Moody’s downgraded Peru from an A3 rating to Baa1, the country’s lowest since 2011, warning of weakened policymaking capacity and a “fractured political environment.”

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Castillo was removed from office in December for attempting to form a provisional government and draft a new constitution. Within the day, he was impeached and detained on charges of treason.

Now, with tensions only heightened since his removal, the new administration must balance the country’s needs for economic growth and political stability while trying to appease Castillo’s newly-energized supporters.

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Mining in the Peruvian Andes, by the numbers:

60%: Mining’s percentage of Peru’s total exports.

$53 billion: Estimate of lost profits for foreign mining companies because of strikes and other work stoppages during the summer of 2022.

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25%: The percentage of Peruvians currently living in poverty.

51%: The proportion of Peruvians suffering from food insecurity.

$3.67: Average hourly wage for a worker in a Peruvian mine.

Related links:

🌳Latin America’s pink tide is preparing for the green revolution

🇵🇪Peru’s president was removed from office after he attempted to dissolve the congress and subvert democracy

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⛏️Aerial and satellite photos reveal massive mines scarring the earth’s surface