Opinion
Enrique Castro-Mendivil / Landov

Peru’s dangerous environmental regression

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

August 21, 2014 6:00AM ET

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.

Deadly responses

Unsurprisingly, the inequitable arrangements in mining-heavy regions such as Cajamarca have spurred protests from the affected communities and NGOs. The government has not responded lightly. According to Human Rights Watch, the first year of Humala’s presidency saw 15 protesters killed, apparently by security forces.

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.

Fortunately for the guardians of Peruvian order, impunity for such crimes has been enshrined in Law 30151 since January. According to the British Independent, the law “states that members of the armed forces and the National Police are ‘exempt from criminal responsibility’ if they cause injury or death through the use of their guns or other weapons while on duty.”

Such impunity doesn’t come out of nowhere. Humala was elected in 2011 with the support of indigenous and leftist groups, which quickly became disillusioned when he proceeded to emulate his ardently right-wing predecessor Alan Garcia, who in 2009 accused environmental protesters of committing genocide against the police when the latter violently raided a demonstration near the northern Amazonian city of Bagua. Protesters were objecting to the government’s unconstitutional efforts to enable oil and logging companies to grab land from local communities. The police were tasked with safeguarding the companies’ interests; in the ensuing battle, more than 20 policemen and 10 indigenous people were killed.

In 2011, Humala sent in the army to quell protests in Cajamarca against U.S.-based Newmont Mining’s contaminating incursions. The Wall Street Journal’s Mary O’Grady praised the decision and warned of “risks to development coming from a hard left operating under the guise of ‘environmentalism,’” as well as a potential terrorist presence among those allegedly concerned about the quality of mountain lakes. (Never mind that O’Grady’s concept of “hard left” includes former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.)

The when-in-doubt-invoke-terrorists approach is not unique to her repertoire; it has long been the modus operandi of the Peruvian government to justify the collective punishment of communities and delegitimize human rights activists by alleging links to the Maoist guerrilla group Sendero Luminoso. In the video that accompanies the FLD report, Peruvian human rights defenders describe a new form of terrorist linking, in which mining companies blame environmental activists — and denounce them to the government — when pro-Sendero graffiti or pamphlets appear in a village. These companies often maintain agreements with the national police to assist with security, which, according to the video, often takes the form of arrests, beatings, death threats, smear campaigns and surveillance operations targeting those defending the environmental rights of indigenous communities.

Next steps

To be fair, 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.

Belén Fernández is the author of “The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work,” published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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