Peru clashes raise green issues

June 8, 2009

Clashes in the Amazon between indigenous protestors and Peru’s army that killed some 60 people last week throw some old issues into sharp new relief: development versus the environment and local versus foreign control of natural resources.

Indigenous tribes, worried they will lose control over natural resources, have protested since April seeking to force Peru’s Congress to repeal new laws that encourage foreign mining and energy companies to invest billions of dollars in huge tracts of pristine rain forest.

In the developing world, extractive industries have a bad record of bringing benefits to local people. Prime examples include the oil-rich Niger Delta in Nigeria and mineral-rich South Africa under apartheid.

Equally bad is their record on the environment. The despoiled Niger Delta also springs immediately to mind (and it is probably no coincidence that it has also been wracked by conflict and insurgency).

The tensions in Peru also highlight the on-going debate about the environment versus development — especially when that development involves the planet’s dwindling rain forests.

A seven-year economic boom has failed to significantly reduce poverty in Peru, which is where about 36 percent of the population remains mired.

Developing countries such as Peru have long argued that the rich world reached its affluence in part by exploiting its own environment (and its colonies’) and natural resources and that they should be able to do the same.

But the world’s rain forests are the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet, and left intact could still generate untold economic riches. They contain countless species which have not even been discovered or described by scientists. Some may hold the keys to medical or other scientific breakthroughs. They also have huge potential as ecotourist destinations (a sector that creates local jobs and encourages local investment).

Letting the rain forest stand can also play a big role in the struggle against climate change. Chopping down fewer trees and caring for the soil may be cheaper and more effective in fighting climate change than curbing emissions from coal plants, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said on Friday. Trees store the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) as they grow. You can see our story on the report here.

Tropical rain forests are shrinking almost everywhere they are found, from Borneo in Asia to west Africa to South America’s Amazon. Estimates for deforestation rates vary widely and some of the predictions from the 1980s for example have long since proven to be alarmist (one otherwise fine book from the mid-1980s, which has been many a student’s introduction to rainforest ecology, predicted at the time that ”there will be little left of this fascinating habitat by the end of the century.”) But there is no question that the world’s rain forests are in trouble — not least some would argue because they are found in tropical countries which tend to be poor.

Alternative paths to development also include a plan to pay tropical countries not to chop down trees — but an exclusive Reuters report last week revealed that the plan risks being discredited by opportunists even before it starts.

What do you think? Should Peru exploit its rain forest regions in a bid to attract badly needed foreign capital? Or should other paths to development be taken which can hopefully spare the rain forest from the axe?

(Photo: Native people hold sticks as they barricade the entrance to Yurimagua city, in a remote Amazon region of northern Peru, June 6, 2009. They are protesting the government’s drive to lure foreign energy and mining companies into the rain forest. REUTERS/Enrique Castro-Mendivil/PERU)

3 comments

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If exploitation of resources means the necessary destruction of habitat for humans and wild life, what will we do when there is nothing left to exploit? How will the economy grow then? Perhaps we would be wiser to address this issue now rather than later?

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

This is a terrible but all too common issue in South America. Unfortunately, these govt’s are working to exploit the positive economic growth of fairtrade scenarios, instead going to bed with big business. When you destroy the rainforest, you increase carbon emissions and that leads to climate change and flooding…
http://tinyurl.com/lzm6al

Posted by Marcus | Report as abusive

Those governments only see the forests as something standing in their way to the real big money. The real prize is the sale of mining concessions of the valuable resources that lie underneath.