CHALLHUAHUACHO, Peru (Reuters) – The recently-freed leader of an indigenous community that has cut off access to a major copper mine in Peru said on Saturday that he was open to talks with the government, the first sign of a potential breakthrough in a dispute that has halted the mine’s exports.
Gregorio Rojas, the president of the Quechua-speaking community Fuerabamba, said by phone from Lima that he hoped to talk with government officials to negotiate an end to the community’s blockades of roads used by Chinese miner MMG Ltd “soon,” potentially within a week.
Fuerabamba had initially sought compensation from MMG for using a road that crosses the community’s farmland to transport copper to market from its Las Bambas mine. But the arrest of Rojas and three of the Fuerabamba’s lawyers on charges they tried to extort MMG last week thwarted talks and triggered an outcry from local leaders in Peru’s southern copper belt.
Rojas was freed on Friday with no charges, while the lawyers remained in jail under investigation.
Prime Minister Salvador del Solar said late on Friday that he hoped talks with Fuerabamba could be established now that the community has a valid representative.
But protesters on Saturday continued to occupy an entry road to Las Bambas in the highland town of Challhuahuacho, demanding the community’s three lawyers be released from jail as well.
Rojas said he would not demand the lawyers be freed from jail before engaging in talks, but added that he would not immediately call for Fuerabamba protesters to end the road blockades either.
“Villagers have their demands. I can’t tell them what to do,” Rojas said. “But hopefully with dialogue we can reach a solution to end the road blockades soon.”
It was unclear if the government would demand – as it did before the arrest of Rojas – that Fuerabamba end its road blockades before discussing the community’s demands in-depth.
The government of President Martin Vizcarra did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The blockades have put the mine, responsible for 2 percent of global copper output, on the verge of halting production, the company said on Friday. They have already cut off the mine’s exports from Las Bambas, forcing it to declare force majeure.
Rojas added that he was “worried” about the arrest late on Friday of Fuerabamba’s vice president, who was accused of wounding two police officers while driving drunk.
But Rojas said he thought the situation could be cleared up in talks with the government.
Reporting By Mitra Taj, Editing by Franklin Paul