By Porfirio Barrenechea, Americas Project Fellow 2011, Perú
Social unrest over the extraction of Peru’s natural resources has increasingly heightened, as evident in the intensity of citizens’ claims and the resulting levels of violence. In the last few months, regions such as Ancash, Puno and Cajamarca have experienced a considerable number of socioenvironmental conflicts, particularly due to mining activity. Some of these conflicts stem from opposition to extractive activity, while others are a result of problems in relations between the communities and the companies or the failure by the government and the companies to meet their commitments.
In all of these cases, the fear of contaminating the environment or the long-term effects of extraction is always present. Coincidentally, the aforementioned areas have seen the largest number of environmental liabilities resulting from extractive activities, including mining and hydrocarbons. Such liabilities include improperly abandoned facilities, emissions, debris and waste produced by extractive activities no longer in operation, which constitute a risk to the environment, health and property.
Cases such as “Conga” in Cajamarca, the “Aymarazo” and Río Ramis projects in Puno, or the conflicts in the San Marcos District and the “Callejón de Huaylas” in Ancash are examples of this type of conflict. One of the cases that has had significant media coverage is the Tía María mining project in the Arequipa region, which has prompted episodes of violence, deaths, injuries and arrests. It is estimated that approximately US$1.4 billion will be invested in this project; its plan is to create jobs and hire suppliers of goods and services, which would be beneficial for the population. However, since 2009, protests against it have been recorded in significant sectors of the population who are engaged in export agriculture and fear having their economic activities, health and environment adversely affected. All of these examples clearly show citizens’ concerns regarding the protection of their health and the environment.
The Ombudsman of Peru recently submitted a report on government management of environmental liabilities caused by mining and hydrocarbon activities. This document stated that there are 8,616 environmental liabilities in Peru. Of the 26 regions in the country, the three aforementioned areas have recorded 39 percent of the total environmental liabilities (Ancash has recorded 1,251, Cajamarca experienced 1,075 and Puno had 1,060), with the aggravating factor that little progress has been made in the remediation and recovery of the environment damaged by these activities.
When we ask ourselves the causes of the population’s demands in environmental conflicts, we can find a history of extractive activity that has left an immense imprint on the memories of citizens who have grown up impacted by a history of irresponsible extractive activities; such is the case with the province of Hualgayoc in the Cajamarca region, where more than 900 environmental liabilities were identified.
In response to this, the government has indicated that it is in the process of identifying those who are responsible for the environmental damage, but remediation has not been given the necessary priority. The government should not wait to finish identifying those who are responsible before remediating damage, since this would take a considerable amount of time, and the affected populations will end up with their health, integrity and even their lives exposed. This represents a failure to comply with government’s duty to ensure what every citizen has a right to, as stated in Article 2, Paragraph 22 of the Constitution: “... to enjoy a balanced environment adequate to the development of his life.”
Undertaking environmental remediation will be one of the ways in which little by little citizens recover the confidence lost in the authority responsible for protecting the environment. First, what has been done poorly must be remediated and, secondly, oversight must be exercised so that a similar event does not recur. In the event that it is repeated, the government should impose penalties and, if possible, recover what has been damaged. To do this, it is necessary to establish a strengthened environmental authority that takes charge of reversing this image of inaction which, unfortunately, has contributed to citizens fearing that their lives, health and environment will be affected, leading to opposition or fear of other extractive projects in their communities and to social conflicts.
This shows that it is not a radical and violence-prone discourse that produces social conflicts in the country; rather, there are profound causes that affect citizens’ everyday lives. The failure to promptly handle problems caused by irresponsible extraction — as other countries in the region address such issues — will result in protests, sometimes violent, seeking reaction from the government, which must also organize in order to adequately protect citizens’ rights.
Voices of the Americas is a space for Americas Project fellows to share their insights into events unfolding in their home countries and in the region as a whole. The fellows' essays will also focus on economic development, institution building, democracy and the rule of law.