2017 Virtual Edition: Fabiana Li

The article “Documenting Accountability: Environmental Impact Assessment in a Peruvian Mining Project,” depicts a time of intense conflict in the highland city of Cajamarca, during my main period of fieldwork in 2005 and 2006. At the time, Peru was in the midst of a “mining boom”, and mines like Yanacocha represented a rapid expansion of mining that was bringing transformative changes to communities and the environment. Although recent years have seen the rise and fall of mineral prices and less favorable conditions for the mining industry, the country’s reliance on resource extraction has not abated.

In some respects, not much has changed in terms of the controversies that surround mining activity in Latin America and other parts of the world. In Peru, a number of mining conflicts have continued to dominate media coverage and political debate. The rhetoric and practices of accountability that I described in the article – not just Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) but participatory water monitoring, public hearings, and other ways of demonstrating “Corporate Social Responsibility” – have also proliferated and become a mainstay of corporate discourse and self-monitoring.

Activists and communities are increasingly skeptical about various corporate and government initiatives to promote “responsible mining” (Kirsch 2014). However, the promises of transparency, democratic participation, and accountability that underlie them are more difficult to criticize. Indeed, the proposed solution to the conflicts is often seen as more transparency and participation, as recent efforts to improve the EIA process in Peru confirm.

Fabiana Li Cajamarca Peru

A crowd gathers outside the EIA public hearing in Cajamarca, Peru (image by author)

The Ministry of the Environment recently proposed changes to EIA regulations and citizen participation. In a press release, the Minister of the Environment stated that citizen participation is fundamental because it makes possible projects that “contribute to the development of their communities, and of the country” (Minam 2017). Government agents often take the eventual approval of proposed projects (and their positive contributions) as a given, and this is reflected in the EIA process. In Peru, EIAs are approved by the Ministry of Energy and Mines, which points to a confluence of interests between corporations and government agencies. Activists and communities opposing a mining project know that the only way that it can be stopped or significantly modified is not through legal mechanisms such as the EIA, but through public pressure and direct action. This realization contributes to the distrust and frustration of all parties involved, and the practices of accountability that aim to prevent or resolve the conflicts often end up intensifying them.

In my 2009 article, I focused in part on the EIA document itself – the way it defines the area of a project and its socionatural characteristics, and how it makes each potential risk correspond to a mitigation plan that purportedly negates it. The result is that EIAs are almost invariably approved, and end up delegitimizing the concerns of affected communities. This is why conflicts can erupt after the approval of the EIA, as was the case with the proposed Conga mine, one of the more recent and most contentious projects involving the Yanacocha mining company. The Conga EIA was approved in 2010, and protests erupted in the years that followed, leading the company to halt construction work in 2011 and announce in 2016 that it would be abandoning the project “for the foreseeable future.” While there are economic reasons for halting the project (low mineral prices and higher operational costs have made mining a riskier venture), the company recognized that it could not operate without social acceptance.

As I argued in the article, the Conga project clearly illustrates how science and expertise have played a central role in the conflicts. In my book (Li 2015), I describe how the Conga EIA became a highly scrutinized and contested artifact, with different studies and experts’ reports (commissioned by NGOs and the government) vying for scientific legitimacy. The EIA enabled the State to claim that the project was environmentally sound, and the experts’ report strengthened the legitimacy of the document. Meanwhile, activists knew that the issues could not be addressed through their technical dimensions. Nevertheless, they had to give their arguments legitimacy by using technical data and the language of expertise.

In my PoLAR article, I pointed to the possibilities and difficulties of using science as a political tool for resistance to mining activity, since the small staff and budget of non-profit organizations inevitably put them at a disadvantage when pitted against large transnational corporations. During my most recent visit to Peru earlier this year, a friend from a NGO dealing with mining conflicts said he now realized that countering the “corporate science” of mining companies was a losing battle. In spite of his own organization’s efforts in this regard, he doubted the effectiveness of environmental campaigns that rely on technical arguments and scientific studies to challenge a mining project. However, it is also true that technical debates around Conga (particularly the focus on the mine’s impacts on water resources) helped raise awareness about the consequences of mining activity, and brought national and international attention to the case.

I have argued that the EIA can have the effect of inviting public scrutiny, mobilizing activists, and influencing the terms of the debate. What this suggests is that the EIA process does not always produce the intended results, and its participatory component can influence the response of affected communities (bolstering opposition to a project, for example). As Jaskoski (2014:880) writes, “The EIA has become something very different from what is defined by regulations. Amid limited central government oversight of the EIA, that communities are not formally granted substantive input paradoxically has made the EIA highly politicized by placing communities and their demands at the center of the EIA process”. The effects of the EIA extend beyond its formally sanctioned spaces (such as consultation sessions and public hearings). In the Conga case, challenging the legitimacy of the EIA after it was approved ultimately led to the suspension of the project, but not before local opposition led to massive demonstrations, inflamed tensions, a state of emergency, and the death of five protestors.

The limits of participation (as well as the limits of science and the law) that I highlight in my article leave us with the question of what can be done to address the problems with the EIA and corporate accountability more generally. It may seem that my analysis precludes any possibilities for substantive changes, especially when the logic of extractivism prioritizes mining development over other socioeconomic activities. In Peru and beyond, communities and social organizations continue to view the EIA process and other mechanisms of consultation with distrust. For example, international instruments like Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), outlined in the International Labor Organization’s convention 169 concerning indigenous and tribal peoples, remain largely symbolic or “performative,” meaning that state officials, company representatives, and community residents participate in a “carefully managed and highly predictable process” (Perrault 2014). Nevertheless, we cannot entirely dismiss efforts to implement mechanisms intended to give more of a voice to affected communities.

While we need to recognize the obstacles that impede meaningful consultation, including power asymmetries and the continued marginalization of indigenous and peasant communities, mechanisms of consultation can empower grassroots actors and provide an additional tool to raise awareness, establish alliances, and defend their rights on the international stage. After all, these mechanisms of accountability cannot be encapsulated in a document, an international agreement, or a public hearing, but become part of larger political processes with widespread (and sometimes unexpected) repercussions.


Jaskoski, Maiah. Environmental Licensing and Conflict in Peru’s Mining Sector: A Path-Dependent Analysis. World Development vol. 64 (2014): 873-883.

Kirsch, Stuart. Mining Capitalism: The Relationship Between Corporations and Their Critics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.

Li, Fabiana. Unearthing Conflict: Corporate Mining, Activism, and Expertise in Peru. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.

Minam (Ministerio del Ambiente). Minam recibe opiniones sobre normas de evaluación de impacto ambiental y participación ciudadana. March 2, 2017. http://www.minam.gob.pe/gals/2017/03/02/minam-recibe-opiniones-sobre-normas-de-evaluacion-de-impacto-ambiental-y-participacion-ciudadana/

Perreault, Tom. Mining, Power, and the Limits of Public Consultation in Bolivia’s Mining Sector. Public Political Ecology Lab, December 9, 2014.