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Social Responsibility and Environmental Justice: How Professors Are Working to Raise Awareness On Campus and Abroad

Here at Connecticut College, so much of the academic focus is placed on us, the students — “Write these papers!” “Declare your major!” etc. — that it is often easy to overlook exactly how much work our professors do outside the classroom. On September 7, I was fortunate enough to attend a roundtable discussion with eight professors from different departments called Resisting Mining Multinationals and Environmental Destruction: A New Cycle of Social Struggle in Latin America. It was during this lecture that my eyes were not only opened to a very serious issue of social justice, but also to how some of my own professors were getting involved and raising awareness of social responsibility on campus.

Speakers at this roundtable included Professors Jane Dawson, Government and International Relations; Leo Garofalo, History; Karen Gonzales-Rice, Art History; Maria Cruz-Saco, Economics; Beverly Chomiak, Physics, Astronomy and Geophysics, and Environmental Studies; Jennifer Fredericks, Human Development; Joseph Schroeder, Neuroscience; and Yibing Huang, East Asian Studies. Staying true to Connecticut College’s tradition of interdisciplinary studies, each professor not only came from a different department, but also work together on a larger committee working to create a global environmental justice program in the college’s curriculum. This portion of the faculty program, which is funded by Christian A. Johnson Endeavor program, will also be traveling to Peru this coming January to conduct field research on a variety of topics related to mining, including the effects on economic policy, healthcare, and education.

Mining in Latin America is not a new phenomenon. It dates back to the discovery and colonization of the New World by the Spanish in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. In fact it was the Spanish who brought over the technology to efficiently mine the important and abundant minerals present in Latin America, including gold, silver, zinc, and copper. So much so, in fact, that Professor Cruz-Saco stated, “a bridge could have been built from La Paz to Madrid,” just from a single mine in present-day Bolivia. Despite the brutal working conditions the largely indigenous workers had to face — resulting in a lower than 40 year life expectancy — mining persisted through colonization, independence, and globalization and has been solidified as a critical part of the economic development of Latin America.

This proves especially significant in Peru, where mining, and the prospect of mining, has caused widespread social protests that have resulted in governmental crack downs and even the deaths of several protesters. Currently, Peru is experiencing a time of instability, with over two hundred other social conflicts that have the potential to become as massive and even as potentially violent as mining. Because of the violent government response, Peru was named as the most dangerous place to protest a social issue in the world.

But why are people protesting? Why is mining an issue of social and environmental justice?

Here are some facts.

Peru is one of the top five exporters of mineral resources in the world, meaning that it is an extremely profitable industry. Although Peru is one of the world’s most resource rich countries, t the minerals are not always easily accessible. Many of the mines are located high up in the mountains, away from water and technology, meaning that they have to be cost effective. This means that the mines have to be big enough to warrant the costs of constructing the mines in these remote locations in the first place. As a result, the majority of Peruvian mines, including Yanacocha near the rural village of Cajamarca, are enormous producing millions of ounces of gold and other precious metals. Gold, in particular, significant in relation to the 2008 economic recession that sent the prices of gold skyrocketing, increasing the potential mining revenue.

Yet the people closest to the mines rarely receive any of the money. Many of the most profitable mines, including Yanacocha, are located in regions inhabited largely by impoverished indigenous people. Although the mines promise to provide both employment and money for the locals, much of the money made by the mine is sent to the central government of Peru and never returns to the locals.Furthermore, mining can have detrimental environmental effects, particularly in relation to the supply of water. In the case of Yanacocha, mining has also led to instances of water contamination, specifically with both mercury and cyanide, chemicals that are present during the mining process.

The stakeholders that do receive the benefits of mining are often located nowhere near the mine itself such as the Newmont Mining Corporation, a Colorado based company that is the world’s second largest gold mining firm. Newmont not only owns the Yanacocha mine, but also plans to develop the Conga mine, also located in Cajamarca. It is Newmont that receives the bulk of Yanacocha’s profit, sending a small portion of it to the Peruvian central government. Although Peru’s president Ollanta Humala initially promised to protect the interests of the indigenous populations, he seemed to experience a shift in opinion when faced with the fact that mining projects like Yanacocha and Conga can benefit the Peruvian economy as a whole even as it negatively affects the environment of the local residents.

It is a result of all of these factors that local indigenous Peruvians have begun to protest the mining projects near Cajamarca. Betrayed by a government that is choosing the prospect of gold over the vitality of water, it is once again the indigenous populations being exploited. Compromise, too, seems almost impossible. Indigenous voices are rarely heard in Peruvian government and there are currently very few avenues open between the central government and the locals of Cajamarca in which to communicate. However, even if these avenues did exist, their effectiveness cannot be guaranteed. Each of the mining projects taking place in Cajamarca needed to be approved by the World Bank and the IMF, in which the United States holds unmatched power. Since the Newmont Mining Corporation is a U.S. based company, the United States can use its influence in these organizations to ensure that mining projects are approved to protect its own financial interests with little opposition, even from Peru itself.

Even more dismaying is Connecticut College’s connection to this particular issue. At the end of today’s event, the floor was open to questions, with one student asking the panel of professors if they knew if the school played a specific role in the financing of these mining projects taking place in Peru. Like many other colleges, Connecticut College has an endowment committee dedicated to investigating exactly where the endowment investments and resources come from yet shockingly, they were asked to put their studies on hold in 2008 at the beginning of the recession. That is to say that although professors can choose which investments their retirement funds are put into, we do not know exactly where our endowment funds come from. More surprisingly still, is the fact that the current president of Connecticut College, Leo Higdon, was a former member of the board of directors for the Newmont Mining Corporation from 1994 to 2006, when he began his presidency here at the college.

Mining is an issue of international concern, occurring not just in Peru, but also in China, the United States, and countless other locations around the world. Despite much of the negativity surrounding mining, the professors present at this roundtable discussion are confident that their upcoming field research in Peru will provide insight into a very complicated situation and can help them in designing a course of study here at Connecticut College that will promote global environmental justice.  

I'm a history major here at Conn and in addition to being a writer for Her Campus,  I am also a SISTER mentor, meaning that I do fun activities with local middle school girls twice a week! This semester I am applying to PICA, a certificate program in public policy and community action, and designing a project around how after-school programs can counteract inequalities within the public education system. In addition to being socially active, I love hanging out with my friends, being silly, reading books, and drinking tea! My current obsessions include: Passion Pit, the Wombats, Downton Abbey, and pretending to be a secret agent when watching Covert Affairs.
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