Interview: Mikey Watts on Mining & Human Rights in Peru

19 Feb
All photos:  Mikey Watts 

On March 14, LAMMP (the Latin American Mining Monitoring Programme) is holding an international conference on ‘Mining, Women and Human Rights in Guatemala’. One person who’ll be filming there is young British documentary maker Mikey Watts, who I caught up with last week to talk about his last film and forthcoming projects.

I’d first heard about Mikey’s film Laguna Negra back in October. Perusing The Guardian, I noticed a video and article about alleged torture in the province of Piura, northern Peru, linked to a mining company called Monterrico Metals. It was a British company, and yet there was barely a whisper of news about it in the UK. In 2003 Monterrico had pressed ahead with a copper mine project that the local population had not agreed to. The mine was going to occupy vital agricultural land and would pollute the valley’s water sources. Monterrico had a legal requirement to obtain the consent of at least two thirds of the population. They didn’t, but were supported by the government nonetheless and so went ahead with the mine. In 2005, locals, including children and the elderly, made their way to the mining site in a last attempt to have their objections recognised. They were tear gassed, arrested and allegedly tortured by police and the mine’s security guards.

It was a Peruvian photographer friend, Adrían Portugal from the collective Supay Fotos, who first sent me a link to Mikey’s video on VimeoLaguna Negra is a 20-minute study of how mining has affected people in the Huancabamba valley, northern Peru. The film follows two people, Servando and Cleofé, as they describe their lives, land, protest, how they are perceived, and question the purpose of environmentally and socially destructive ‘development’. It has won a series of awards, including: Grand Jury Prize World Cinema Student at the Amsterdam Film Festival 2010, Best International Documentary (Festival Internacional de Cine de Lebu 2010), and the Rights in Action International Award (Bang! Short Film Festival 2009). I met Mikey last week to discuss how it all started, his stay in Piura, Huancabamba, the impact of and inspiration behind the film, and the projects he’s working on now.

You started filming in the region in 2004, following research for a Latin American Studies dissertation. What first inspired you to focus on opposition to mining in Huancabamba?
While I was in Lima, I started hearing about the anti-mining movement that was going on in Tambogrande. The mine got cancelled in the end, so it was big news over there. It was then that I decided to research the effect of mining on traditional farming societies. A journalist, Nelson Penaherrera, helped me a lot in planning who to interview and where to go. It was when I went up to meet him for the first time that Remberto Racho, one of the farmers opposed to the mine in Huancabamba, was killed by police (my first film ‘Rio Blanco: the story of the farmer and the mine’ was about this) so I decided to include the Rio Blanco conflict in my dissertation. My friend, David McNulty, came to visit me in June 2004, and since he had a camera with him we gathered footage for what eventually became that first documentary, Rio Blanco.

Laguna Negra centres on the experiences of two farmers, Servando and Cleofé. You break away from standard documentary style, forgoing a voiceover, and devote the film to your protagonists’ accounts. What was the thinking behind that?
I wanted as much as possible to tell the story through the words and experiences of the people directly affected by the mining project. Although through the editing I, as the storyteller, choose what to include and what not to include (and so Servando and Cleofé’s words become the narration) I still feel that by removing myself almost entirely from the action the audience feels more directly involved with the place and its people. A voice-over narrative I think would take the story away from the people it is about. Also, in a practical sense, Servando and Cleofé sum the issues up in a far truer and personal way than I ever could – after all, they are the people who live day to day the problems the mine has brought – I was only there for three weeks.

The film opens with the scene of a boy sitting with a radio, with a broadcast about how selfish and ignorant the farmers are in rejecting the mine. The scene is a powerful contrast to what we hear later, yet also so simple and clear. How did you come up with the idea?
The use of the boy with the radio happened through a chance encounter – I met him as we were walking the countryside around Huancabamba one day, he followed us for the day and we became friends. At the end of the day I asked him if he would mind being filmed with his radio and he did the rest! The reason I wanted to use the boy with the radio was to put across the mining company’s opinions through the local population’s experience of them. I could have tried to get an interview with Monterrico Metals, but really this would only have served to get the company’s PR responses to a Western student’s questions. By showing the day in day out propaganda machine the mining company uses to grind down any opposition to the project, the film can start to allow its audience to understand how the community experiences the mine. I was lucky to find the boy with the radio and his disinterested but commanding expression.

Tambogrande seemed like a real success story. Is there any similar hope for Huancabamba?
Tambogrande was a success story in the end, but the reasons for the cancellation of the mine really point towards what the Peruvian government’s plans for the Piura region are. It wasn’t officially cancelled because of the opposition to the project; it was cancelled because Monterrico Metals lacked the necessary funds for the government to approve it. I am sure the huge protests and international campaign helped a lot, but officially this wasn’t why the mine was cancelled. So really this means that the Peruvian government isn’t conceding it was wrong over the project, and it continues to push on all fronts to make Piura into a mining department (like it’s done with nearby Cajamarca). I wish I could believe that the community in Huancabamba will be able to stop the Rio Blanco mine, but deep down I don’t have much hope. The mine is now owned by a Chinese company and the Peruvian government has just signed a whole load of trade agreements with China. The only real hope I think is for Tierra y Libertad, a new political party led by Marco Arana, to do well in the next elections. Marco Arana has been heavily involved with the anti-mining movement in the north of Peru and seems dedicated to the cause and the people who are having their lives destroyed by these mining projects.

So what specifically has changed in Piura since you made the film?
Well, the government is still pushing the project forward, and is now militarising their presence in the region because of an attack in November on the mine site, which ended with the deaths of two security guys. The next month the police killed two farmers in a village near Huancabamba. The police had gone down to the village to arrest villagers they said were connected with the November deaths, the villagers formed a barricade to stop the police entering, and the police attacked them, killing two villagers – post mortem reports show that they were shot in the back as they were running away. So there’s still a lot of tension, the government is still refusing to re-engage through dialogue and simply insist the mining project is of national necessity and will not be abandoned.

Were you involved in any way in the court hearing that went on in London recently?
I’ve carried on filming here in the UK so went to the court hearing, but I wasn’t involved in any way, just documenting it really. The court hearing at the end of the day won’t stop the mining project though – it will mean the victims of torture that took place in 2005 will get compensation, but the new Chinese owners of the mine (Zijin) will just say it took place when they weren’t owners so it isn’t their responsibility.

Is there any hope that the government and mine owners will start listening to the people?
In all honesty I don’t have much faith the government will see reason, they’ll push ahead with the project, cause huge friction and destruction to the rural communities of the area, and possibly destroy the agricultural potential of the region as a whole. The really sad thing is that the government has now sold off nearly 30% of the land area of Piura to mining interests – they are all waiting for Rio Blanco to start operations and will then do the same themselves. The mind boggles really, just doesn’t seem to make any sense, but then again the draw to short term financial gain seems to always win against smaller interests such as the small scale farming practised around Huancabamba.

How strong is the stereotype of the ignorant or violent Campesino in Peru, and to what extent is it used to undermine the importance of agriculture?
The stereotype is definitely a prevalent view in the cities and mainstream media.  Campesinos are portrayed as backward and as not knowing what is best for them. Development is always in the context of growth rates, GDP, money – small scale farming practised by campesinos is not really given the appreciation it deserves considering it provides city dwellers with their food. Rhetoric of backwards looking violent terrorist campesinos is often used in the media to give justification to mining.

From your experience, how unified is the opposition to mining among the rural population?
What interested me was that most of the campesinos I talked to didn’t lambast mining in the way the government accuse them of doing. They understand the potential of mining to create jobs, and funds – they are just asking the government to think about where these mines are being built. If they are high up in the mountains, away from important water sources, and not in areas of agriculture then they can have a positive impact for the country.

Was the mainstream national media broadly for or against the farmers?
Broadly speaking the national media and the government give huge support to the mining industry – mainly because the mining lobby in Peru has huge power. There is however a large part of the Peruvian population who are campaigning for a different Peru which prioritises its people over its resources.

Any plans to carry on documenting this issue? What are your future projects?
Yes, definitely – this is kind of turning into a niche issue for me, and I definitely want to carry on making films about it. What I really want to do is make a feature documentary that connects the experiences of different communities around Latin America that are seeing their communities torn apart and their environment destroyed by large scale mining. These communities suffer very similar abuses at the hands of both their governments and the mining companies – I want to make a film that reveals this trend; that multinational companies based in countries like our own go to developing nations and do not respect the same laws they would have to here. I think it is up to us here in the developed world to really put pressure on our governments and companies. So that is what I’m trying to do at the moment with my friend and co-director David McNulty. We are going to Guatemala and El Salvador to firstly document a conference that the Latin American Mining Monitoring Program is organising entitled, “WOMEN, MINING AND HUMAN RIGHTS: Beyond the Challenge.” We’ll then be going on to film research footage for our feature idea as well as producing two short documentaries about two communities affected by mining in Guatemala and El Salvador.

I think it’s a really interesting and important issue to focus on as it in many ways reflects the question of our time – do we continue taking all the resources we can from the earth or do we start thinking and acting in a more sustainable way to ensure our future generations have a decent earth to live from?

Neoliberal economics I think only prioritizes monetary growth, and doesn’t take into account other considerations such as environment, culture and worldview. I think the social conflict and environmental problems caused by mining really reflect the general question of how humanity chooses to act in the years to come – do we continue exploiting the earth without thought to the consequences, or do we start living more within our means?

For more information:

Laguna Negra:
Peru Support Group:

[Originally published in Ctrl.Alt.Shift:]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: