Human Rights Clinic Supports Peruvian Organizations’ Efforts to Prevent Mining Abuses

New Report Argues Gold Mine Risks 'Irreparable' Damage to the Environment and Human Rights in Violation of World Bank Standards

October 5, 2015—Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic students Sofia Minieri ’16 LL.M., Thor Petersen ’17, and Vanessa Racehorse ’17 traveled to Washington, D.C., last week with Clinical Teaching Fellow Benjamin Hoffman and Peruvian human rights leader Milton Sánchez Cubas to advocate before the World Bank and U.S. government about the human rights and environmental risks of a proposed new gold mine in Peru. This week, the team is traveling to Lima, Peru, to continue their advocacy.

For the past year, Hoffman and clinic students have been supporting the efforts of Peruvian communities and organizations to defend their human rights, principally by providing research and technical support towards the preparation of a new report assessing the threats posed by the mine. On Sept. 30, Sánchez Cubas testified about the mine, proposed by a company in which the International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank invests, before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U.S. Congress. He and the Human Rights Clinic team also met with officials from the IFC and the U.S. Treasury Department.
(from left) Vanessa Racehorse ’17, Milton Sánchez Cubas, Thor Petersen ’17, and Sofia Minieri ’16 LL.M. presented a report opposing a proposed Peruvian gold mine to the World Bank and a Congressional committee. 
In addition to his testimony, Sánchez Cubas entered into the record the new report—Conga No Va: An Assessment of the Conga Mining Project in light of World Bank Standards—which concludes that the social and environmental risks of the “Conga” mining project make the project “unviable” in light of World Bank standards.
 “The mine threatens to destroy our sources of water and our lives. It’s either the mine or us,” Sánchez Cubas said. “The World Bank should stand with us in publicly opposing the project.”
The Conga mine is a project of mining company Minera Yanacocha, a joint venture of Colorado-based Newmont Mining Corporation, the IFC, and Peruvian company Buenaventura. The report describes how the mine would destroy four mountain lakes and hundreds of acres of wetlands that provide essential water resources, and argues that waste generated by the mine would require perpetual treatment and present a constant risk of contamination to the surrounding land, ultimately threatening the health of nearby communities. Those opposing the project through protests or refusal to leave their lands have faced violence, intimidation, and harassment by those providing security services to the mining company.
“It was crucial that decision makers in D.C. hear from someone who is at the forefront of the movement to protect the environment and human rights from the threats posed by the mining project,” Human Rights Clinic student Racehorse said. “We hope that, by bringing the voice of these communities directly to Washington, D.C., the concerns they are raising will be impossible to ignore.”
Hoffman and the students helped prepare Sánchez Cubas for the advocacy meetings.
“It was very empowering to have the students and Hoffman at my side,” Sánchez Cubas said.
“This project has given me direct insight into how development projects can harm communities,” said clinic student Petersen. “Through working with Sánchez Cubas and Hoffman, studying the relevant international law, and conducting advocacy to the World Bank and government officials, I am learning the tools and tactics needed to best support communities at risk.”
Last spring, Hoffman and then-Human Rights Clinic students Carolyn Forstein ’15 and Daniela Paez Cala ’15 LL.M. traveled to Peru to meet with local human rights leaders and to discuss legal strategies to defend and advance the local communities’ human rights. Ultimately, the groups decided in favor of a report assessing the project under the IFC’s own environmental and social sustainability standards that could be brought directly to the IFC, the World Bank, and the actors in the U.S. government responsible for monitoring the World Bank.
The report calls on the World Bank and the IFC to publicly recognize that the project is not viable and to use their influence to stop the project from moving forward. If the IFC and the World Bank are unsuccessful in leveraging their influence to stop the project, the report recommends that they withdraw their investment in the mining company.
“The IFC has a number of social and environmental standards in place to ensure that its investments lead to sustainable development. The Conga project risks violating nearly all of them,” said Hoffman, a human rights lawyer and lecturer who spent this past summer in Peru working with leaders in the community to refine the content of an early draft of the report and to assist in the organization of advocacy.
The affected Peruvian communities and their local governments have proposed an alternative plan for sustainable development based on agriculture, animal husbandry, and tourism that would seek to preserve the natural ecosystem. Public outcry after violent repression of protests at the proposed Conga site led to the company’s assertion that it would indefinitely suspend the project, but construction continues on reservoirs essential for the proposed mine’s operations. Sánchez Cubas and other human rights actors supported by the Human Rights Clinic are now calling for the project’s permanent suspension to prevent the risk of further environmental degradation and abuse.
The Congressional briefing came just one week ahead of the World Bank’s Annual General Meeting taking place this year in Lima, Peru. This is the first time since 1967 that the World Bank has convened its annual meeting in Latin America. Hoffman, and students Minieri and Racehorse will be traveling to Lima to attend the meetings this week. While there, the students will help prepare other members from the affected communities for their advocacy before bank actors.
Milton Sánchez Cubas is the General Secretary of the Plataforma Interinstitucional Celendina (PIC), a coalition of more than thirty social organizations from the Province of Celendín in the Cajamarca region of Peru. The PIC was formed at the end of 2009 with the objective of protecting the province’s hydrologic ecosystems threatened by the development of mega mining and hydroelectric projects planned for its territory.
The Human Rights Clinic of Columbia Law School is an intensive year long course directed by Sarah Knuckey, the Lieff Cabraser Heimann and Bernstein Clinical Associate Professor of Human Rights and the faculty co-director of the Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School, as well as by Clinic Fellow Benjamin Hoffman. The Clinic brings together human rights work, student education, critical reflection, and scholarly research. Students are trained to be strategic human rights advocates, while pursuing social justice in partnership with civil society and communities, and advancing human rights methodologies and scholarship.