Mural in Iquitos

Last month I visited Peru, my home country.  Recently Peru has had an unprecedented economic growth rate: more than 6% per year since 2002, almost 9% in 2010 and 7% in 2011.  In Lima, one can readily see this growth through the construction of large stores, new commercial areas, and apartment buildings. Now, more people than ever are driving, making traffic unbearable and creating lots of air pollution.

A closer look at newspapers tells us that Peru’s rapid economic growth has been accompanied by a rising number of social-environmental conflicts, or conflicts over the use, control, and exploitation of natural resources. In July, the Public Defender’s Office reported a total of 243 conflicts.  148 of those conflicts were considered social-environmental, a record!

Many of these social-environmental conflicts are related to extractive industries like mining, oil and gas, timber, and fisheries. Why is it that the rise of extractive industries and social-environmental conflicts go hand in hand?

‘Conflicts’ are not new to Peru or Latin America. What is new is how predominant they are, especially in the last 10 years.   When I started working for ELAW in 1991, serious conflicts existed, but ‘environmental’ discussions were not center stage as they are now.   People are now concerned about how extractive industries might damage the environment, their health, and their way of life.

Workshop with regional authorities of Loreto

While in Peru, I visited Iquitos and gave a presentation organized by DAR (Derecho, Ambiente y Recursos Naturales) and the Regional Government of Loreto to regional authorities about environmental impact assessments (EIAs).  Despite the scorching 100°F heat, officers from numerous public agencies and NGOs attended the presentation and subsequent Q&A session.   Time flew!  Without noticing we had a non-stop, three hour session!

The audience agreed that an adequate EIA process including public consultation and participation would help reduce social-environmental conflicts.  I was surprised at how much information representatives of public agencies need and impressed by their willingness to learn and improve their technical capacity, especially in measuring environmental quality and monitoring extractive industries and infrastructure projects.

Despite the interest of local communities to solve environmental conflicts, there are issues regarding environmental quality (especially water quality, hydrology, toxicology and environmental management) that neither local communities nor public agencies have the capacity to address.

Economic development in Peru and other developing countries that depend on extractive industries is quickly outpacing the capacity of local and regional public agencies to manage and address environmental concerns.    Local authorities and communities need help developing their capacities to participate in decision-making processes, strengthen and enforce environmental laws and policies, and improve natural resource management.

ELAW and local organizations such as DAR are helping mitigate this problem by working with citizen’s groups and training local public interest lawyers and authorities.

Meche Lu
Staff Scientist