Peru weakens safeguards for air, soil, water quality

  • Updated: July 26, 2014 - 3:00 PM

Peru reduced oversight over its air, soil and water quality in an effort to increase investment.

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Matilde Cruzado, 60, washed her clothes on the banks of the Namococha Lagoon in Combayo, Peru. Activists predicted that the weakened environmental protections will spark clashes.

Photo: Photos by Martin Mejia • Associated Press file,

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– Dozens of international groups, the United Nations, and even Peru’s own citizen ombudsman are objecting to a new law that weakens environmental protections in the Andean nation even as it prepares to host international climate talks this year.

The law, aimed at increasing investment, strips Peru’s six-year-old environment ministry of jurisdiction over air, soil and water quality standards, as well as its ability to set limits for harmful substances. It also eliminates the ministry’s power to establish nature reserves exempt from mining and oil drilling.

The nation pocked by more than 300 major mines already offers the industry incentives unmatched in the Americas, even by mining-friendly Chile and Mexico. Enacted July 11 by President Ollanta Humala after limited debate in Congress, the new law also further streamlines environmental reviews for new projects, and, for the next three years, lowers by half the maximum fines for all but the most serious of environmental violations.

At the same time, it re-establishes tax breaks for big mining multinationals, which already enjoy such benefits as simultaneous, indefinite concessions for both exploration and exploitation as long as they make nominal payments. In some Peruvian states, more than half the territory is under concession.

“As far as Latin America goes, we are the country backpedaling the most,” said Jose de Echave, a former deputy environment minister.

Activists predict the weakened protections will spark more clashes between police who protect mines and highlanders angered by contamination and diminished water supplies they blame on the open pits. At least 80 mining-related social conflicts simmered in June, by government count.

The law stipulates that Peru’s environmental protection agency occupy itself for the next three years more with “preventative” than disciplinary actions.

Its timing is especially awkward for Environmental Minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal. In December, he will host 15,000 people, including delegates from 194 nations, for U.N.-sponsored climate talks, the last major climate conference before the countries meet in Paris next year in hopes of signing a global treaty.

Veronika Mendoza, a Cuzco congresswoman, called it “an embarrassment” for a country with “a completely debilitated environment ministry” to be trying to lead efforts to draft a global emissions reduction pact.

The U.N.’s top official in Peru, Rebeca Arias, wrote the foreign minister objecting to the new law. She said “a growth model spurred by investments respectful of the environment is the only viable possibility for sustainable development in a country like Peru, which is among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.”

Peru’s economy depends heavily on mining, which accounts for about 60 percent of export income. Over the past decade, Peru has reaped some $38 billion in mining investment. Government officials argue that easing environmental regulations will spur investment. But they have offered no specifics.

Environmentalists say it’s not overregulation, as government and some industry officials argue, but rather lower global commodity prices that are hurting the economy.

“I can’t think of a single example of a project that has been frozen by an excess of red tape,” De Echave said.

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  • “As far as Latin America goes, we are the country backpedaling the most.”

    Jose de Echave, a former deputy environment minister.

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