Story

In Peru: The Pope, a Farm Valley, and a Copper Mine

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Pope Francis's encyclical on climate change and environmental protection was released at the Vatican on June 18, 2015. The controversial document, the first of its kind in the 2,000 year history of the church, seems at times written specifically for the battle over an international mine in a south Peruvian farm valley. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2015.

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Cocachacra, Peru, is in the southern region of Arequipa near the Pacific Ocean and just above the border with Chile. Despite desert-like geography, glacier melt forms the Tambo River, the only water source in the valley. It never rains here. But the river and ground water have enabled agriculture to thrive for more than 200 years. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2015.

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Cocachacra in the morning. A simple, working class town that was under martial law for 60 days in the summer of 2015 as a result of violent protests against the proposed copper mine. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2015.

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All over town, the red-and-white national flag of Peru flaps next to a green flag that says simply: "Agriculture Yes, Mining No...Damn it!" Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2015.

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The Tambo River runs adjacent to the farm valley, which supports 15,000 local families. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2015.

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Cocachacra's mayor, Helar Valencia, opposes the proposed copper mine. A crucifix sits on the corner of his desk at City Hall. He says he is a lapsed Catholic who believes in miracles and reveres Pope Francis. He was not aware of the encyclical until he saw a 6-page summary of the document prepared by the Vatican. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2015.

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Father Jose Antonio Caselli is the only Catholic priest in Cocachacra. While the pope calls for priestly activism on environmental matters, Caselli is determined to remain neutral—backing neither the anti- or pro-mine factions in town. Seven anti-mine protesters have been shot dead since 2011. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2015.

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Fr. Caselli says he will learn about the papal encyclical and choose sides if he is so instructed. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2015.

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The national government in Lima has taken the side of Southern Copper, which has been granted land concessions in the farm valley for an open-pit copper mine. Because of constant, violent protests, martial law was imposed in Cocachacra for 60 days, starting in mid-May 2015. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2015.

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In the city's main square, there is a single statue of a farmer. Three out of four jobs in Cocachacra are tied to farming. None is tied to mining. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2015.

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Early morning, workers gather to await a ride to the fields for a day of work. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2015.

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Two women planting near the site of the proposed copper mine. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2015.

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Mayor Valencia points out in a government document how he believes the mine will threaten ground water. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2015.

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Early morning, Mayor Valencia (left) takes Justin Catanoso to the proposed copper mine site, which is called Tia Maria. Catanoso is among the first reporters to see the site up close. It will be enormous—more than a half-mile wide and 1,500 feet deep. Southern Copper has passed an Environmental Impact Assessment and pledges to operate under high environmental standards. Its track record, though, put it among the worst environmental offenders operating in Latin America. Image by Enrique Ortiz. Peru, 2015.

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This photo was taken close to where Catanoso stood with the mayor. The anti-mine protesters' concerns are immediately obvious. The Tambo River is a stone's throw from the proposed mine site; the farm valley only several hundred yards away. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2015.

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Jesus Cornejo, a local farmer, leads the opposition to Tia Maria by directing the protests of some 3,000 farmers and others. He was unaware of the papal encyclical, but vowed to get copies and share them with the other farmers. He said he is inspired by the support of Pope Francis. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2015.

Cocachacra is the site of one of Peru’s most violent and contentious environmental clashes. For six years, local farmers have battled an international mining company, backed by government license and guns, to a bloody stalemate.

The village is almost entirely Catholic, and the popularity of the first Latin American pope runs high. If ever there were a place to test the influence of Pope Francis’s new, unequivocal call for environmental conservation to slow global warming, it is here in Cocachacra.

But no one is listening. At least not yet.