Chinalco builds new homes for Peruvian mining families

Residents in old mountain town make way for huge open-pit copper project

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 November, 2015, 7:15pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 November, 2015, 11:46pm

The Andean mining town of Morococha has moved.

One day a little more than two years ago, lorries arrived and professional movers entered each home to wrap furniture and haul it away. They put pets in special cages and provided hot food to residents until they could resettle.

The mining families left their decrepit mining town – a hodgepodge of shanties made from clapboards and zinc corrugated roofing, open sewers and roaming pigs – and moved five miles to a newly built town called Nueva Morococha, or New Morococha.

The company behind the relocation, Aluminum Corp of China (Chinalco), which obtained a concession for a huge open-pit copper mine in 2008, had little choice but to move Morococha.

Over the planned 36-year life of the mine, earth movers will chew into mountainsides, and the pit will expand and undermine the town. Rather than negotiate piecemeal with individual owners, the company decided to build a town of 1,050 homes and move Morococha in its entirety.

Today, the new town looks taken from a picture book, with tidy row houses, parks, illuminated streets and playgrounds.

“It has a church. It’s got a market. It has a soccer stadium. The company built all of this,” said Sylvia Matos, a sociologist with Social Capital Group, a consulting firm hired by Chinalco to carry out the move.

The relocation of Morococha, 14,500 ft high in Peru’s central Andean region, underscores the Chinese companies that have flooded into Latin America do not always flout environmental standards and trod on workers’ legal rights as they might at home.

“The Chinese have learned from errors they have done in the past,” said Ezio Buselli Canepa, a vice-president of environmental and corporate affairs for Minera Chinalco Peru, the subsidiary of the world’s second-biggest aluminium producer.

When Chinalco obtained the concession to exploit the Toromocho copper deposit nearby, one of the nation’s largest, it agreed to build a town to house the 5,000 residents of Morococha, a mining camp founded more than a century ago but with a transient feel.

The old Morococha was a collection of makeshift shanties with corrugated tin roofs held down by rocks. Virtually no public services existed. Miners and their families lived in crowded, unsanitary abodes. Sewage ran in gutters. Children played in what appeared to be toxic mine waste. Year-round freezing temperatures only added to hardship.

“Old Morococha was really messy,” said Felipe Chambi Mamani, a former miner. “We lived in one room, all six of us. We would walk into the hills to get water, which was often polluted. There were public latrines. You would be disgusted by them.”

The residents had reason to doubt Chinalco’s promises, given a troubling recent history of forced evictions in China, where township and city authorities routinely relocate populations, sometimes using force. Those who fight the evictions are sometimes sent to “education through labour” camps. Seeking legal redress often only brings further harassment.

But Chinalco representatives pressed their case and received a rough consensus after the town meetings. The company set a deadline in 2009 for anyone who wanted to apply for a free home in New Morococha, which would be set across a mountain pass from the original settlement.

“We said that everyone who had been in Morococha for at least one year would receive a housing unit,” Matos said.

The relocation was largely complete by early 2013, but some residents remain disgruntled. The houses were free, but they see other problems.

“We don’t have our deeds yet,” said Maximo Corsino Guadalupe, a heavy equipment operator at the Toromocho mine. “Without the deeds, we can’t sell.”

Executives at Chinalco shrug at the complaints, saying they are proud of the new community, which has a price tag far higher than the budgeted US$50 million.

“It’s not every day doing mining that you have the chance to do this. We’ve changed the lives of a lot of people,” Buselli said.