Peru weakens environmental safeguards months ahead of Lima climate conference

Tintaya Open Pit Copper Mine, Peru. Creative Commons: ELLA Programme, 2012

Tintaya Open Pit Copper Mine, Peru. Creative Commons: ELLA Programme, 2012

Just months before an international conference brings delegates from 194 nations to Lima to discuss climate change, Peru has passed a new law that severely weakens environmental protections in the country.

The new law strips Peru’s six-year-old Ministry of Environment of its jurisdiction over air, soil, and water quality standards and revokes the ministry’s power to designate protected lands exempt from industrial activity.

It also reinstates tax breaks for multinational mining companies, which already benefit from pro-industry policies. At the same time, the law slims down the permitting process and will cut environmental fines by 65 percent.

The new law is only the latest sign that Peru is betting its future on extractive industries. The country is already home to more than 300 major mines, and depends on the mining industry for roughly 60 percent of its export income. Government officials claim that the new mining-friendly policies will spur Peru’s lagging economy by boosting growth by 1.5 to three percent. It will also “untangle $11 billion in hydrocarbon projects,” according to the country’s finance ministry.

Sacrificing environmental sustainability for economic growth, however, may not sit well with many Peruvians. According to Reuters, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala was elected partly on promises to side with local communities over mining interests.

Disputes between mining companies and communities who have faced polluted land and water have been widespread in Peru. Under the presidency of Alan García Pérez, who preceded President Humala, 190 people were left dead from mining-related social conflicts.

Since Mr. Humala’s election, improvement has been sporadic at best. The first bill he signed into law as President required the federal government to consult with local communities before approving extractive projects. Nevertheless, some major fights have taken place under Humala’s watch; a $4.8 billion gold and copper project in Cajamarca sparked large protests among indigenous communities, and two people were killed in May 2012 in a protest against the mining company Xstrata.

According to the Peruvian government, at least 80 unresolved conflicts involving mining are still simmering as of last month. And it is likely that the new law will only increase tensions as industry enjoys greater access and less government oversight.

Peru’s actions have also exposed the nation to censure from the international community. More than 100 environmental and civil society groups inveighed against the new law in a letter to President Humala, claiming that it would benefit polluters at the expense of Peruvian communities. The letter also argued that the changes send “a very bad signal,” especially considering Peru’s role as host of the critical climate talks that will occur this December in the country’s capital city.

Jose de Echave, a former deputy environment minister said, “As far as Latin America goes, we are the country backpedaling the most.” Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, Peru’s current environment minister, voted against the bill, but did not resign in protest of his agency’s curtailed powers.

Pulgar-Vidal is charged with overseeing the COP20 conference, which will be the last step towards a potentially pivotal climate summit that will occur late next year in Paris, France.

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