Environmental Issues in Peru
This page will briefly describe some of the most important environmental challenges that face Peru (and other Latin American countries.) It is divided into several specific topics. Please click on the link to view information about a specific topic. Remember that the ecosystem of any country or the entire planet is interconnected and your impact as a tourists has an effect on the local environment- see the brief description of ecotourism. It is difficult to "solve" any environmental problem unless the many complex interconnections are clear. The final section on Globalization tries to take a wider view. The section on What You Can Do tries to make some suggestions for individual action on the part of dwellers in the developed world. The section on Peruvian Environmental and Cultural Organizations lists some efforts being made by groups in Peru.
Trade in Endangered Species
What Can I Do To Help?
Organizations in Peru
Key environmental issues in Peru include: deforestation, desertification, soil erosion, air pollution in urban centers, pollution of rivers and coastal waters from municipal and mining wastes, depletion of fisheries as a result of overfishing. An increasing environmental movement and movements to preserve indigenous people's culture and rights now exist in Peru. Please see the list at the end of this page for information about these Peruvian organizations. Finally, the new government of Peru, headed by president Alejandro Toledo, has offered rhetorical promises to respect the rights of native people's and preserve Peru's priceless environmental and cultural heritage. However, Toledo's government faces numerous challenges and it remains to be seen if he will be able to follow through with his campaign slogan of "Mas trabajo" and simultaneously preserve Peru from overdevelopment.
The Amazon river's origins are in Peru and its rainforests are home to some of the most important and diverse habitats on the planet. Peru's forests are under threat from a variety of sources including deforestation, logging, oil exploration, chemical spraying to eradicate coca production, and internal migration and farming. The country's past leaders have emphasized resource extraction to the detriment of Peru's once pristine rainforest environments. Habitat destruction includes the loss of land and culture by indigenous rainforest peoples. For more information about rainforest destruction in Peru, please see the World Rainforest Information Portal on Peru. I would like to focus on one issue regarding rainforest destruction that we were able to hear about and see on our trip: Mining.
Mining provides Peru with needed income; however, the lack of enforcement of regulations or the lack of adequate regulations has resulted in high levels of pollution from the mining of gold, silver, and other metals and oil exploration and extraction. Peru is attempting to deal with the problems and there has been a recent growth in non-governmental environmental groups in Peru.
Some of the mining operations are run by major multi national corporations (see these materials on Shell and the Colorado-based American mining company, Newmont Mining Corporation.) Some of the operations are run by small operators or even individual families. In either case, regulation and enforcement of regulations can be difficult. Large scale mining often involves the deposits of tailings and the use of checmicals which subsequently pollute the watersheds. It often uses deadly chemicals such as cyanide or mercury which are subsequently thrown away resulting in severe chemical pollution. The building of roads into undeveloped areas brings deforestation and other associated problems. Our guide in our time in the Amazon noted that local small scale gold mining in the Madre de Dios region has resulted in extensive mercury pollution. Agencies make equipment available to help to safely dispose of mercury used in gold extraction, but getting people to use it is another matter.
While logging is an important source of rainforest destruction, cocoa production for the American cocaine market also contributes to both deforestation and chemical pollution. This article from the Trade and Environment Database at American University provides an excellent overview of the environmental problems inherent in cocaine production. Agricultural development also threatens rainforests in Peru as well as world wide. In addition to illegal plants, once roads are built for logging, soon agricultural production moves in. Huge areas of the Amazon basin have been cleared for plantations to grow sugar, bananas, and other export crops. Cattle ranching to feed the north American fast food industry has destroyed substantial portions of original forests. For some general information see this PBS report on Science in the Rainforest.
"If deforestation continues at current rates, scientists estimate nearly 80 to 90 percent of tropical rainforest ecosystems will be destroyed by the year 2020." - Rainforest Action Network
In 1997, almost 140,000 Americans visited Peru. This is about a quarter of its total international tourists. Many of these visitors are attracted to Peru's diverse natural environment as well as its archeological treasures. In recent years a growing number of tour operators offer "eco tours" to various regions of Peru. There is a lack of consensus on exactly what ecotourism is. In general the assumption is that the tourist will have a low or negligible impact on the local environment. Needless to say, this is often not the case. In fact any tourism impacts the environment, no matter how responsible and careful its participants attempt to be. In addition, simply because a travel organization says it is eco-friendly does not mean it has strong sustainable practices.
Responsible organizations have approached ecologically sensitive travel with three broad issues in mind: conservation, community interaction, and sustainability, including profit. An excellent set of guidelines can be found at this Sierra Club site.
Tourism may be seen as a two edged sword; one side offers the sharp incentive to preserve environment and thus support local communities. The other has a sharper edge in that every step you take in a sensitive fragile area destroys some life; has some impact. There's a saying that has been overused, but seems applicable here: tread lightly on the earth. As responsible travelers tourists need to make sure that the tour operators we deal with ascribe to and practice the above principles. I certainly found that to be the case with the operators we dealt with on our trip. Rainforest Expeditions and its work with the Ese’eja native community in the Amazon is an example.
UNESCO has designated Machu Picchu as a World Heritage Site. This historical and spiritual site is under threat from a number of sources. Forest fires pose a threat as does erosion from rainfall. Earthquakes and siesmic damage also pose a threat. However, these natural threats are less worrisome than the threat posed by unchecked and irresponsible tourist activities. Over 1,000 people a day visit the site. And efforts are underway to increase this number! One thing that has kept tourism under control has been the relative inacessibility of the site. However, until recently the Peruvian government under its president until 2001, Fujimori, had tried to increase accessibility to increase tourist revenues. Fujimori had entitled businesses to build a cable car system and a major hotel complex on the site. These new constructions may have boosted tourism revenues to the private development companies (shutting local community residents out of the market.) But the buildings would also have damaged Machu Picchu. These measures were and are opposed by conservation and preservation groups and the cable car system and construction on the hotel have been suspended; but not cancelled. The one thing we never missed in Peru was McDonald's. And we don't want to see it come or Machu Picchu be transformed into a theme park. You can read about the struggles to save Machu Picchu at Machu Picchu in Danger.
Trade in Endangered Species
Peru is a signatory nation in the Convention in the International Trade in Endangered Species. Yet the illegal trade in endangered or other wildlife continues. CITIES lists ten animal species as critically endangered, 28 as endangered, and 99 as vulnerable in Peru. Many of these are tropical birds. It is illegal to import these animals or any products made from these animals into the United States. Regarding birds, the 1992 Wild Bird Conservation Act prohibits the importation of wild-caught birds whose wild populations are under threat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitors the importation of exotic animals and plants into the United States. Aside from the legal implications, the moral and ethical implications of the removal of an animal from its native habitat should be kept in mind when considering the purchase of an exotic animal as a pet (or as food!) The rise in the popularity of Internet shopping has made it easier to get around regulations on the purchase of an exotic pet online. This often results in ill-conceived purchases. The transportation of these animals results in a high rate of death- up to 80% of the birds in a shipment die en route; the animals pose threats to human health; some animals are threatened with extinction; wild animals do not make good pets and over 60% die within one month (see PETA's Fact Sheet). You can read about the illegal trade in exotic pets at Animal Underworld. Macaws are beautiful and intelligent; they belong in the forest with their wild cousins, not confined to a cage with their wings clipped or doing tricks in some animal park.
You might wonder what the humble potato has to do with environmental problems. This section will briefly mention the issue of declining biodiversity. The potato was domesticated in Peru and has been under cultivation there for over 8,000 years. The farmers of Peru, primarily in the Andes, cultivate over 200 different species of potatoes. This is a far cry from the few varieties commonly found in U.S. supermarkets. (Indeed, the Irish Potato Famine is attributed to the lack of genetic diversity - one variety of potato subject to blight dooms the entire crop.) For the farmers of the Andes, their ability to manage and cultivate such a wide range of genetic diversity in one of their major food crops has enabled them to survive difficult conditions for centuries. For example, the Aymara peoples of the Lake Titicaca region developed methods for dehydrating and storing the over 200 varieties of potatoes they cultivate; the dried potato is called chuño. We saw this process underway during our stay on Amantani island.
Scientists have noted that declining diverity and a rise in transgenetic and genetically modified crops which are patented and controlled by multinational corporations (such as Monsanto) can result in the loss of genetic diversity neceessary to maintain healthy food crops. Many non-governmental organizations and scientific groups are attempting to preserve genetic diversity; thus providing a genetic potato (and other crops)"bank." Other organizations also try to preserve the ability of indigenous people's to control their own food production without reliance on patented seeds, chemical chemical fertilizers, and pesticides.
One example in Peru is the International Potato Center. Centro Nacional de la Papa maintains 3,527 accessions of cultivated potatoes collected from throughout the Andes This is a gene bank to protect against the rapidly declining genetic diversity of potatoes. CIP headquarters are in La Molina, outside of Lima and their website is at CIPotato.org. You can also read more about the preservation of biodiversity at Future Harvest and the Indigenous People's Biodiversity Information Network
Many of the issues mentioned on this page can be put under a broad general category dealing with the impact of globalization on developing countries such as Peru. What is globalization? The world's political leaders, especially those of the G8- the eight wealthiest developed ccountries, and world multinational corporations are engaged in a re-structuring of the world's economy to favor the profit of corporations (sometimes referred to as "free trade.") This process is underway with no accountability and little public knowledge. Many non-governmental human rights and environmental organizations have described the negative and devastating impact of global economic expansion on native peoples and the environment. Opponents of globalization are often portrayed by the major media (who themselves benefit from the new world economic order) as violent anarchists or mislead unrealistic idealists. You can form your own ideas and learn more about globalization at the International Forum on Globalization.
One example of the environmental impact of globalization is that of logging in the Amazon. Indigenous peoples in Madre de Dios have traveled as far as Washington and UN Headquarters in New York to advocate for limitations on logging exploration in their land. (See "Isolated Amazon Tribes Threatened by Logging.")
However they may be depicted in the media, opponents of globalization are acting in responsible and non-violent ways to educate the public about the dangers posed by corporate domination of world politics. A good source of information on these efforts is at Corpwatch and Global Exchange.
What Can I do to Help?
While you were reading this page about 300 acres of rainforest were destroyed. Education about environmental issues is vital; however education without action is like sex without love - empty and heartless. So begin with awareness, but follow through with action. And action can be as simple as making thoughtful choices in your daily life. Eat no beef; use only renewable wood or forest products; join the new movement to boycott gold jewelry; drive less or use public transportation; don't buy endangered or exotic species as pets; resist globalization. Information about action you can take can be found at a number of non-governmental organizations such as:
The Rainforest Action Network
Rainforest Information Centre
Native Forest Network
Friends of the Earth
Center for World Indigenous Studies
Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization
You can help local organizations in Peru with an awareness of their activities and a sensitivity to local communities.
Peruvian Environmental and Cultural Preservation Organizations:
Peruvian Amazon Indian Institute
Confederación de Nacionalidades Amazónicas del Perú (CONAP)
Amanaka'a: Amazon Indigenous People's Rights
Peruvian Association for the Conservation of Nature
Comunidad Indígena Asháninka Marankiari Bajo
Associacion Pro Derechos Humanos
Tambopata Reserve Society
See also the list of members from Peru at Amazon Alliance.
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