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By Mitra Taj
LIMA, June 1 (Reuters) - Mining conflicts in Peru, a top global minerals exporter, will likely heat up ahead of presidential and congressional elections next year as political outsiders whip up anti-mining sentiment, government officials and business leaders said.
Protests from local community groups have derailed three mining projects worth $7 billion in the past five years, and threaten to hold up more.
Carlos Galvez, head of Peru’s main mining association, said opponents of mining projects can win votes in rural areas where poverty rates are high and many eke out a living as farmers.
“Here everyone is anti. If you’re anti-mining then you’re in fashion,” said Galvez, who leads the National Society of Mining, Petroleum and Energy.
Southern Copper Corp’s $1.4 billion Tia Maria project was put on hold last month amid deadly protests.
David Montoya, a cabinet official tasked with conflict prevention, accused protest leaders of feeding fears about pollution from Tia Maria in order to win the dispute and pave a political future for themselves. “They shut down discussion,” he said.
Several leading opponents of Tia Maria belong to an environmental party, Tierra y Libertad (“Land and Freedom”), that plans to run a candidate in the presidential election in April 2016. The group currently has no seats in Congress and is not seen as a leading contender.
Polls show most Peruvians favor mining, which accounts for about 60 percent of the country’s export earnings.
However, projects can run up against local opposition and leftist politicians can boost their reputations by leading protests, said Roland Luque with the country’s ombudsman office.
“Protest leaders get loads of public exposure,” he said.
Marco Arana, the head of Tierra y Libertad and its likely presidential candidate, said his party did not orchestrate protests against Tia Maria to promote itself.
“That’s a way to dismiss the legitimate concerns of farmers,” Arana said. “What is true is that where there is conflict, candidates must make their positions clear ... that can prolong and deepen the conflict.”
He said opposition to Tia Maria and Conga, a gold mine peoject thwarted by protests in 2011, was strong in part because President Ollanta Humala had suggested when he was a candidate that he would oppose the projects. Humala ended up backing Tia Maria and Conga after his election.
Reporting by Mitra Taj; Editing by David Gregorio