Seventy percent of unresolved social conflicts in Peru are believed to be due to environmental issues related to extractive industries.
President elect Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, a former executive of a number of multinational corporations, announced Thursday he will seek to reduce environmental standards on metal refineries to boost the Peruvian economy. Kuczynski argued that current emission standards are too demanding, resulting in a lack of new foundries being built in the country.
Peru currently restricts sulfur dioxide emissions, a byproduct of smelting copper and other base metals. Such regulations are set by the Ministry of the Environment under control of the executive and do not need congressional approval for changes. Seventy percent of unresolved social conflicts in Peru are believed to be due to environmental issues related to extractive industries and a great deal of those result in violent confrontations.
“I believe that simply promoting the industrialization of the metals, mining exports can increase their value by 25 percent,” Kuczynski argued at an entrepreneurs meeting in Ica, in the south of Peru. He also claimed that Peru could become a regional hub for refining metals with the help of China and “the right environmental standards are needed because current ones are unrealistic.”
The mining business is the main source of foreign exchange for the country but investment in the sector has fallen with the drop in international commodity prices. Peru is the second largest exporter of copper in the world with 70 percent of those exports in raw format and 30 percent as purified metal.
However, environmental contamination caused by extractive industries continues to be the main cause of social conflict in the country. Out of the 212 active or latent social conflicts, 150 are due to the environmental concerns of local populations, according to the countries Ombudsman. One hundred and twenty eight of those have witnessed violent confrontations since they began.
During the government of departing president Ollanta Humala, which started in 2011, 50 people have died and 750 have been injured after clashes between environmental demonstrators and government authorities. In addition, in 70 percent of the conflicts locals are ready to permit social and environmentally responsible extractive industries, but in the other 30 percent of the conflicts the population rejects any possibility of such operations, according to the NGO CooperAction.
Kuczynski is now proposing to resolve social conflicts in order to finance services for local communities. “We are going to promote social advancement in all the areas of possible conflicts. What does this mean? It means the state is going to get electricity, schools, hospitals, health posts, and roads so that people feel like they are part of the country.”
For social conflicts expert and director of CooperAction, José de Echave, the situation will worsen if Kuczynski does not rapidly intervene and if he limits solutions to economic offerings that ignore fixing environmental contamination. “If we continue with this tendency, to not understand the multidimensional character of the conflicts, not understanding that there is a legitimate agenda behind the conflicts that the state should address, we are going to have scenarios again of blocking [the projects],” argued De Echave.
The polymetallic smelter plant in la Oroya, for example, has left 90 percent of the local population exposed to levels of lead much higher than recommendations for a healthy life, and it is one of the projects for which Kuczynski is proposing to lower environmental standards. La Oroya was shuttered in 2009 after a hundred years in operation amid pollution and financal troubles. According to the Blacksmith Institute, the town next to La Oroya is one of the most polluted places in the world.