Yanacocha is the world’s second biggest gold mine and is situated about 45 kilometers from Cajamarca. It opened in 1993 and brought economic development to the city. With it came also thousands of new inhabitants… and an increase in prostitution and delinquency. A lot of contamination too. A gold mine requires the use of a lot of water, which is then contaminated with mercury. Not to mention a complete change in the landscape. The lagoon of Yanacocha disappeared, as did a lot of wet prairies, affecting the whole ecological system and sometimes leading to the extinction of animal and/or vegetal species. The Yanacocha mine is now almost run out and there is a plan to open a new one: the Conga project which, in that region, was at the center of the debates evolving around the 2014 Peruvian elections. If many people are against it, fearing for further ecological impact – a.o. the disappearance or four more lagoons -, others speak out in favour of a dialogue between public authorities, the exploiting company and the inhabitants of Cajamarca as they see in Conga an opportunity for further economic growth. This problem is recurrent in many parts of South America. Mines, especially gold and silver mines, are the reason why the continent was exploited by the Europeans in the first place and they are still a very big problem today. I had seen or heard it already in Uruguay, the North of Argentina and Colombia. And would see it again in Bolivia. These are the open veins of Latin America. Leaving very ugly scars behind.
Another problem mentioned by Herbert were the “Rondas urbanas” (urban militias), a phenomenon which, in a way, derives from the “Rondas campesinas” – peasant rounds – that emerged in the 70’s in the North of Peru. Their initial objective was to protect peasants against theft, especially cattle rustling. Later, they evolved into a full-blown private justice system, complete with courts. In the 80’s, the movement extended to the whole country and was involved with the government and the militaries in the fight against the guerilla group “Sendero luminoso”. All three combating organizations committed atrocities during that period.
The rondas urbanas are not involved in a battle against terrorism of any kind but, in the absence of an efficient police force – often corrupt or indifferent – they “protect” their neighbourhoods and often take justice in their own hands. They punish whom they consider to be guilty – of robbery… but they also intervene to settle property and debt disputes, family quarrels and marital infidelities – by whipping them. Herbert was once confronted with them, as he was installing an aerial for one of his customers. The ronda considered – without any consultation or proof – that the aerial would be harmful to the health of the neighbours and ejected whomever was in the building from the construction site. No whipping for him, fortunately. But not exactly what you would call a nice experience.
As a tourist, it doesn’t seem to me that you get to notice much of all those problems. If my host hadn’t mentioned them, I would probably not have been aware of any of them. But that’s exactly why it’s good to stay with locals. They make you aware of the unseen, help you to have a look behind the scene. Which doesn’t take away that my stay in Cajamarca was great. The city is beautiful, of colonial style, and with many buildings on the list to be declared world heritage by the UNESCO.