Tuesday, Sep. 22, 2009

Marco Arana

For Father Marco Arana, saving souls isn't enough. The Peruvian priest has made it part of his calling to save the countryside he calls home from the effects of strip-mining. Arana is a co-founder of Grufides, a human-rights and environmental organization that works with villagers and farmers impacted by mining in the Cajamarca region of northern Peru. The beautiful, rugged area is home to Denver-based Newmont Mining's Yanacocha mine, South America's largest open-pit gold mine — and for nearly 20 years, Arana, 46, has led parishioners in battles to protect their rights against mining interests, waging campaigns that range from helping peasants get a fair price for their land to protecting groundwater supplies.

Arana argues that operations like Yanacocha usually do more harm than good because they employ relatively few and those who do get jobs are usually not locals. The practice of leaching gold and silver from rock by dousing it with cyanide damages the ecosystem and displaces the farms that provide more sustainable jobs. "I am not antimining," Arana insists, "but we need to find a balance that meets the population's needs while satisfying socio-environmental conditions. Environmental problems go hand in hand with economic and social problems."

His willingness to compromise has won grudging respect from the Peruvian government, which has called upon Arana to help defuse violent mining disputes in the country. But he has also won enemies. In 2006, while battling a proposed expansion of the Yanacocha mine, Arana and colleagues were the subjects of a shadowy campaign of surveillance and intimidation, conducted by a private security company, called Operation Devil. Arana and family members received death threats, and rumors aimed at discrediting the priest were spread by anonymous sources. The mine repeatedly denied involvement; an investigation by the Cajamarca public prosecutor's office was dropped due to "lack of evidence." Arana, who has joined with other environmentalists and human-rights activists to form a political party called Land and Liberty, is philosophical about the dangers. "All struggles for justice come up against injustice," he says.

'We have stopped using gold objects in our parish. God should not be worshipped with products that cause suffering and destroy nature.' — Marco Arana