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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

World Water Day was established at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro. It is a day to focus international attention on the factors contributing the world’s safe drinking water and sanitation crisis.

This year’s theme, Water for cities: responding to the urban challenge is highlighting the staggering increase in urbanization among the worlds poorest population, and how lacking city infrastructure is not meeting the clean water needs of communities.

According to the United Nations:

“Today, one in two people on the planet live in a city. 93% of the urbanization occurs in poor or developing countries, and nearly 40% of the world’s urban expansion is growing slums. The central problem is therefore the management of urban water and waste. Piped water coverage is declining in many settings, and the poor people get the worst services, yet paying the highest water prices.”

According to the Coalition for World Water Day“one out of every eight people lacks safe drinking water and two out of every five people lack adequate sanitation.” We all know water is fundamental to life and that access to clean water is a basic human right. And while some contributing factors are certainly related to poor sanitation, we must remember that there are other reasons that people around the world do not have access to safe drinking water.

Gold mine tailings disposal

Over the years, ELAW has worked with partners around the world to perform water quality tests that provide communities with the information they need to seek justice and win access to clean water.

Last year, ELAW worked with partners in Panama to test water quality downstream from a large gold mine.  ELAW partners in Belize are fighting to protect the Macal River, a source of drinking water, from the effects of a large dam. With surface water quality analysis, ELAW partners in Guatemala, are helping community members understand the science behind community health problems associated with nearby mining activity. ELAW worked with partners in the Philippines in 2008 to close illegal connections to a storm drain that were allowing raw sewage into drinking water. As in other parts of the Amazon, multinational oil companies have been drilling for oil and dumping by-products into Peru’s Corrientes River since the 1970s. ELAW helped perform the first independent water quality analysis, and in 2006, the largest offending oil company signed an agreement to stop dumping in the river and invest in cleanup.

Achuar march for clean water (PHOTO: FECONACO, Racimos de Ungurahui)

These are just a few examples of how numerous industries and multinationals are polluting and privatizing our earth’s freshwater supplies, and many times, in poor communities where regulations are weak and access to clean water is already at risk.

ELAW joins communities around the world calling for swift access to clean water for everyone. We will continue to support the work of local advocates who are fighting for the right to clean air and water for everyone.

Lauren Ice
Office Manager

Asunta Santillan (back left) and Maria del Rosario Sevillano (lower right), lawyers from DAR, and the indigenous leaders working together at the workshop in April 2010

Last week I did something I would not have thought possible just a few years ago:  connect via live audio conference from my office in the cold, wet Pacific Northwest to the indigenous people of Pucallpa, in the hot and humid Amazon rainforest of Peru (my home country).

Approximately 20 indigenous leaders from the Ucayali River basin (members of  ORAU, a regional branch of the nation-wide Amazon indigenous organization AIDESEP) were ready with numerous questions about the two latest environmental impact assessment (EIA) studies.  These studies were released for public review and are about oil exploration in Blocks 114 and 126 in the Peruvian Amazon.

The studies describe seismic prospecting and drilling of exploratory wells in the Ucayali River basin.  Neither of the studies has detailed management plans for the drilling wastes.  These activities might contaminate soil and freshwater with substances hazardous  to wildlife and people.

Not only is it difficult for the indigenous communities to get hard copies, but these studies are also hundreds of pages long, with complicated, technical jargon… understanding them can be very challenging!

ELAW and Derecho, Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (DAR) are working together to help review these studies and interpret what they say (and what they don’t say) in plain language so people can participate in an informed manner in the public discussions.

But there are other hurdles.  During our interactive audio meeting, a storm caused blackouts that affected  communication.  Thanks to Charito Sevillano, a lawyer with DAR, we were able to sort out a last-minute solution to the problem and I was able to continue the conversation with the indigenous leaders.  We were so happy to hear each other’s voices again!

In April, I went to Pucallpa to meet with these leaders, learn about their concerns, and exchange information.  The Yine, Piro, Shipibo and Ashaninka ethnic groups live in the buffer zone of the Cordillera Azul National Park, now divided into oil concessions.  They are asking for help seeking environmental justice and are demanding that authorities acknowledge their concerns.  We will continue to do our best to help them overcome the huge challenges they face.

Meche Lu
ELAW Environmental Research Scientist

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