Peru’s Dangerous Environmental Regression

New laws cozy up to big mining companies and give police impunity in quelling eco-protests in Peru

This December, Peru will host the United Nations Climate Change Conference, during which representatives from 194 countries will convene in Lima to set the stage for a comprehensive international climate change agreement in 2015. The agreement would succeed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on carbon emission reductions, which is set to expire in 2020.

Ironically, in the run-up to the conference, Peru has substantially pared domestic environmental regulations — arguing that this is necessary to attract investment. The Associated Press summarizes the terms of a new law enacted by Peruvian President Ollanta Humala in July:

“The law … strips Peru’s six-year-old Environment Ministry of jurisdiction over air, soil and water quality standards, as well as its ability to set limits for harmful substances. It also eliminates the ministry’s power to establish nature reserves exempt from mining and oil drilling.”

Also, the measure slashes fines for environmental violations, limits the duration of environmental impact assessments and enhances tax incentives for mining corporations.

In a letter addressed to Humala three days prior to the law’s enactment, Oxfam and more than 100 other international nongovernmental organizations warned against catering to the economic interests of the mining and fossil fuel sectors — both of which promote deforestation and thus contribute to climate change in addition to contaminating the environment with toxic waste. Such legislative reforms, the letter states, “may strengthen a misguided vision that environmental audits and regulations are serious limiting factors to desirable investments and national economic development.”

But Peru’s misguided vision is nothing new. The law is simply the latest in a series of moves that court foreign capital at the expense of local communities.

Gift to the Rich:

To date, the nation’s sycophantic relationship with mining multinationals has brought serious consequences. After visiting Peru earlier this year, the Dublin-based human rights group Front Line Defenders (FLD) reported (PDF) that 45 percent of the Cajamarca region in northern Peru is under mining concession. Despite the significant mining presence in Cajamarca for the last 20 years, the report notes, “51.9 percent of the population lives in poverty, the highest poverty rate in the country.”

Many of the inhabitants of territories under concession are indigenous subsistence farmers. They are not the intended beneficiaries of the economic gains the government swears will coincide with its friendly disposition toward the mining industry; instead, profits go to transnational companies and their local allies.

A few years ago in an interview with New Internationalist, Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy described a “huge, ongoing land grab in which land and resources are forcibly taken from the poor and given to the rich — a process which goes by the name of development.” Though she was referring to India, the description applies to the Peruvian context as well (and to much of the rest of the world).

As gold, copper, natural gas and a host of other resources are extracted for export, Peruvians are left to deal with the contamination of the environment and attendant health consequences such as mercury poisoning and diseases resulting from polluted rivers and water sources. In some cases, this leads to the displacement of communities as they seek less toxic territory. Unfortunately, it’s far from the only risk they face.

Next Steps:

Multinational extractive corporations have faced some limits in Peru. Last year, the Environment Ministry fined Argentine transnational corporation Pluspetrol more than 7 million dollars for wiping out a Peruvian lake. But as The Associated Press and other news outlets have pointed out, such cases are few and far between — a situation that will only worsen now that the ministry’s wings have been clipped by the new anti-environment law.

Peru clearly has a long way to go to keep transnational corporations accountable — and it’s heading in the wrong direction, with the Oxfam letter calling the law “a serious pullback for Peru in the environmental field.”

If only “development” meant progress in the state’s respect for human beings and the environment rather than the perpetuation of a status quo in which financial gain trumps all. Stepping back from the law would then be Peru’s only option for moving forward.

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