How illegal miners are stealing $57bn from Peru

It’s been almost a decade since I was last in Lima and there’s been a lot of changes in that time. Part of the Peruvian capital now looks like a giant building site – in a good way.

From the window of my 13th floor apartment, I can count five construction cranes, while down on the streets, hungry consumers are buying branded clothes and package holidays – the type of goodies most ordinary Limeños couldn’t have dreamed of having ten years ago.

And all around the city, there are tall, shiny towers bearing the names of leading European and North American banks that are eager to service Peru’s booming economy.

Of course, life isn’t a bed of roses for everyone here and there are still plenty living in squalid poverty. In some places, the government has a very small presence, while in others, it’s got none at all.

In these areas, the lack of roads, police, schools or hospitals has created a power vacuum that illegal miners, contraband smugglers and narco gangs have been quick to fill.

Why does this matter to British investors? Because these remote areas are also home to the most exciting oil, gas and mining projects.

Lately, criminal elements have been causing havoc for the mining industry – but not in the way you might think. Today, I want to talk you through how this threat emerged, the best way miners can deal with it, and some hidden opportunities Peru has to offer.

An old enemy with a new weapon

In recent years, Peru has seen a spate of protests against big-ticket mining or energy projects being carried out by Western-listed firms. For example, Canadian miner Newmont’s $5bn Conga project, which would have been the biggest ever single investment in Peru, has been stalled by protests.

So, the chances are that if you like a punt on commodities, your shares have been affected by what’s going on in the deepest corners of remote Peru.

On the face of it, these are environmental protests from local communities who worry that they are going to be affected by the new mine or well. Sometimes this is the case.

Indeed, there have been some horrible cases of environmental damage committed by Western companies in the region. But often there is something else going on, explains Karim Kahatt, a partner at Santiváñez Abogados, who specialises in mining.

“An international company may buy some land and make a deal with the local government, but there are other, hidden stakeholders, in the project. Illegal miners, contraband smugglers and drug gangs may also often operate in the area. If they think that a Western company’s project will interrupt their operations, then they will cause trouble.”

And the easiest way for them to do this is through environmental protests.

Why local knowledge pays

Karim believes that the illegal mining industry contributes the most funding to these protests; which is ironic, since their mines have far worse environmental standards.

According to Karim, the key to a successful project is knowing who the power brokers in your area are, and knowing how to keep them happy.

“It used to be that the first representative of these companies to visit an area was a geologist. Nowadays, it should be a community team.”

In the UK, phrases like ‘community relationships’ or ‘environmental awareness’ are normally just part of the politically correct – and often fake – corporate speak that multinationals feel they have to churn out. But in Peru, the right local understanding and strategy can make the difference between a $5bn project going ahead or being stalled by investors.

Over the next month, I’ll be speaking with a number of listed mining and energy companies. I’ll be finding out what strategies they have in place to make the most of the country’s unbelievable mineral and hydrocarbon potential.

The ‘Inca super-grain’ and how to profit

Thankfully, investing in Peru isn’t just about mining and energy. Last week, I interviewed Peru’s minister of foreign trade and tourism, Magali Silva, and she did a great job of convincing me that there are other exciting areas.

Peru’s non-traditional sectors, such as agriculture and tourism, now account for 30% of total exports. Among the niche sectors that are growing fast are organic, GM-free food produce – much of which goes to the UK – and tourism.

For example, sales of quinoa (an incredibly protein rich, cuscus-like Andean grain with supposed super-food qualities) were up by 250% in the first quarter of 2014 compared to the same time last year.

Peru’s tourism and agriculture potential is partly down to its impressive ecological and geological diversity. But it’s also going to get a structural boost from a huge transport infrastructure programme – which will make life easier for exporters – and the Pacific Alliance.

Of course, playing trends like the ‘Inca super-grain’ is not easy for small, private investors based in the UK. And again, over the next few weeks, I’ll be looking for ways that we can gain exposure to this story.

  • Rajah Brookes

    Look up Chanaral Bay in Chile if you want to know why the locals are protesting. We drove past this apparently beautiful beach town and wondered why no-one was on the beach.The US based Andes Mining Corporation and then Codelco pumped some 220 million tons of toxic waste into the bay there over 30 years. The whole bay is still toxic and will be for years.