PUERTO HUARMEY: HOW FISHES, SEA LIONS, AND PEOPLE COEXISTED UNTIL THE ARRIVAL OF ANTAMINA
Article written and translated by Red Muqui. Original Spanish article here.
Recently, on December 7, a news story was published about a Chimbote court decision that revoked a preventive prison order and called for the immediate release of five Puerto Huarmey residents detained a month ago for protests that took place there on November 1st. Protesters were arrested by police, accused of committing violence against the authorities by the Public Ministry. Until a few years ago, this harbour and its surroundings were known for their beaches, varied and abundant seafood. However, to learn and understand the claims made by its inhabitants, you have to travel to this coastal town located 286 kilometers north of Lima. The tour begins in Caleta Puerto Grande populated by neighborly people and 30 other families who once lived in this place.
Puerto Huarmey Beach
Life here used to be centered around fishing, people working from what the sea could provide. There were even three factories that turned captured anchovy into fishmeal—hundreds of jobs that began to disappear twenty years ago. The fruits of the sea are no longer available, neither for artisanal fishers nor for the fishing industry. There are few traces in the cove of the homes that housed the fishermen and their families. A few still use the cove to embark and disembark their motorboats on hours-long journeys along the coast heading south. In the past, the best fishing spots were located a few three hundred meters away, accessible on paddle boats by means of small-scale artisanal fishing gear, considered by the Peruvian Sea Institute as having negligible impact on ecosystems. Fishermen found a great variety of species coveted in places as far away as Chimbote. Others plunged into its waters as divers and caught rockfish, such as the conger eel or vieja.
Puerto Caleta Grande with mining industry tug boats in the background
Everything changed in 2000 when in that par excellence fishing area called Puerto Punta de Lobitos, a pier with a transversal structure of colossal iron pillars was installed, capable of supporting a conveyor belt of several hundred meters in length. The Antamina mining company has since discharged into the sea copper, silver, zinc, molybdenum, and lead obtained from its operations located 309 kilometers away in the Ancash mountains.
An engineering mistake?
The shipping terminal was approved in 1999 by the General Directorate of Captaincies and Coast Guard, Peru’s highest maritime and coastal authority, as part of Antamina’s mining project. It’s a mining operation that became the largest copper producer in Peru and the ninth, in terms of size, worldwide. The precise place to build this infrastructure was supposed to be Puerto Lagarto, hundreds of meters away, separated by a hill from the fishermen’s bay. However, this giant mining project, a third of which belongs to the Australian BHP Billiton and the Swiss Glencore, respectively, and 22.5 percent to the Canadian conglomerate Teck Base Metals, “made a mistake.” Instead of the designated place, it placed its installations deep into the bay, a fishing area of calm waters for artisanal fishers.
Red Muqui is in possession of documentation that reliably demonstrates the assigned area. However, it is enough to visit Puerto Huarmey to see today the ore slurry pipeline.
Ore slurry pipeline and terminal with the conveyor belt in Puerto Punta Lobitos
Since then, the lives of the people whose lives depended on fishing changed drastically. The fishermen who used to cast their nets lost their livelihoods; the mining structure extends about one hundred and fifty meters into the sea, dividing the area into two sections. Additionally, there are at least six floating round surfaces anchored to the bottom distributed at a distance of about thirty meters from each other that serve to moor cargo ships that carry the precious minerals abroad. According to documentation about the concession, the entire infrastructure occupies a large sea and coastal area of 48,980 m² for its operations. In other words, there is no more room for boats and fishing nets. The place was named after an animal that, like the humans who lived there, has disappeared. There are no more sea lions in sight, nor what they ate, nor tourists to visit them.
View of the coast from the hills near Puerto Punta de Lobitos
Why have the fish, sea lions, penguins, and other animals disappeared? The exact reasons for their disappearance has not been established and might never be known; studies have not been done to verify the number of species left nor the condition of the seabed floor.
What fishermen have observed, and what former terminal operators attest to, is the constant and recurrent dumping of minerals into the sea and coast. That is something that occurs when the material is loaded onto the ships since some if falls out of the sleeve placed at the end of the conveyor belt, and also because the tank, which stores the extracted metals, is oftentimes left wide open. Strong winds that sweep the hills also enter that expanse and scatter the cargo along the coast. Transporting minerals from the Antamina deposit to the cargo ships is not an hermetic process, to say the least, despite the slurry pipeline.
The closure of three fishmeal factories that used to operate simultaneously in the port is another evidence of deep changes, although it does not establish a causal link between the mining activity in the area and possible environmental impacts.
The last of the fishmeal factories that closed its operations in 2007
In 2007, the last of them, CFG, closed.
Although anchovy, a primary input for fishmeal, is caught further down, five miles from the coast, an area reserved for artisanal fishing, the townspeople cannot explain what led to the disappearance of this industry.
Lack of health care
In late 2021, the town surrounded by the rugged monotony of hills and ocher-colored plains with very little vegetation appears subdued, almost uninhabited. But that image is deceiving since there are many who resist leaving the place where they were born and where they grew up—people who have been for a long time demanding direct dialogue with the company. Antamina has consoled them instead by including them in an Environmental Monitoring, Surveillance, and Enforcement Committee of Huarmey; an unconvincing space that in the past 20 years has not taken the people’s protagonism into account.
According to a health post official, who last saw a doctor come by to visit in March 2021, around 2,800 people live poorly in the three populated centers that make up Puerto Huarmey. People have scarce access to doctors, especially from 2016 to 2019 through the Rural and Urban Marginal Health Service – SERUMS a Ministry of Health program, and during other occasions from a physician whose fees were covered by the mining company. Another contribution by the company was a motorcycle taxi, precariously equipped to act as an ambulance, and that is currently out of service due to lack of maintenance.
Puerto Huarmey health post’s “ambulance”
And it is not from a lack of ill people in this corner of Peru, populated since pre-Inca times, as evidenced by the sacred ruins located a few meters from what was the largest fishmeal factory in the area, now completely abandoned and surrounded by garbage and wetland that warns any living creature with its reddish waters to stay away. From this archaeological site at least three mummies were extracted and taken to “Max Uhle” Regional Museum of Casma. Later, this place, where you can still see a mound or pyramid shape built by ancient cultures, was abandoned, like many other places in this impoverished town. The locals, meanwhile, do not know the reasons for some of their illnesses, which include skin and respiratory ailments. Undoubtedly, they do not benefit from the stinking, stagnant foamy pink waters in a small lagoon two hundred meters away from the only playground with a synthetic grass soccer field. Nor from the countless plastic bags and bottles, tires, and remains of dead animals scattered among precarious houses made of cans, cardboard, and wood that alternate with other constructions of adobe or concrete.
Stagnant waters in Puerto Huarmey
In the absence of minimum living conditions, celebrations are hardly to be desired
The most negative image is possibly an area proclaimed as an archaeological site, a large stone panel in the old fisherman’s cove that lies now abandoned. Over wet sand and stone one can find thousands of exposed human remains that have probably emerged from their ancient tombs due to wind and land erosion. There is no institution or entity in sight to protect what is supposed to be a last resting place.
Garbage dumps in front of the town’s sacred site and human skeletal remains
Maybe, since the essential needs are many, the mining company decided to finance a great festival with cumbia concerts and motocross competitions instead of investing in this town to restore minimal living conditions of the people who used to subsist from communal fishing. That same company dominated copper production in Peru and in 2020 exported minerals worth 2,170 million dollars.
Or perhaps, it is time to resurface point nine of the General Directorate of Captaincies and Coast Guard’s resolution, which granted Punta Lagarto’s concession to Antamina, which says “Antamina Operadora SA should undertake under responsibility not to pollute the land, air or water, so that it does not cause damages nor endangers life, human health nor the normal development of flora and fauna, and must strictly comply with the legal provisions in force and those issued for the protection of the environment on article A-150410 of the Regulations for Captaincies and Maritime, River and Lake Activities.”