Lima hosted the COP-20 climate summit last December, proclaiming its freshly washed green credentials to the dignitaries of nearly 200 visiting countries. Peruvian president Ollanta Humala called on the assembly to abandon past false comparisons between “economic growth or conservation of the planet,” saying we must have both.
The global confab came on the heels of Peru’s groundbreaking forest protection deal with Norway and Germany. The forest conservation pact included a pledge from President Humala to make Peru carbon neutral by 2021. In effect, the Europeans agreed to pay to keep the nation’s trees standing. Humala called the accord “a major step forward in realizing the vision of deforestation-free development, and we are firmly committed to implement its provisions faithfully.”
But even as Peru turned an eco-friendly face to the international community, it seemed to be turning against its own environment and its people, with aggressive new mega-dams and major mineral extraction projects. In the hallways of the Palacio del Congresso, and the depths of the Agricultural Ministry, policymakers have also been busy systematically weakening environmental legislation and making arcane regulatory rulings on land use – all to the detriment of the environment and to the benefit of regional and international corporations.
A series of new laws have weakened environmental legislation and diminished the power of environmental regulators. The anchor bill was approved last year, as Humala was getting ready for his climate conference photo op with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
For the most part, Peru’s domestic legislative and regulatory gambits have flown under the radar. But they have not gone entirely unnoticed. Witness two recently released reports. The first, titled “Strategic Litigation in Defense of the Environment and Indigenous Peoples” (El litigio estratégico en defensa del ambiente y los pueblos indígenas) is a hefty 254-page tome produced by the Institute for the Legal Defense of the Environment and Sustainable Development (IDLADS), a Lima-based public interest law organization.
It dedicates several pages to a handful of new environmental-unfriendly laws. They focus mostly on the 2014 Paquetazo, a “big package” of legislation that, among other things, clipped the wings of the Environmental Evaluation and Oversight Agency (OEFA), the country’s environmental regulator. Peru has also changed the way Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) are handled to make them less effective as tools to protect sensitive areas.
“Now the extractive companies aren’t going to have any oversight,” said Domenica Daniela Villena Delgado, a lawyer with IDLADS.
The second report summarizes its findings in a lengthy title: “Deforestation by Definition: the Peruvian Government Fails to Define Forests as Forests, While Palm Oil Expansion and the Malaysian Influence Threaten the Amazon.” Produced by the U.S.-based Environmental Information Agency (EIA), a research group, it outlines how a bizarre notion of soil use allows regulators to define primary forest as agricultural land that can be cleared for plantations of palm oil, cocoa and other crops.
“When you talk to the government and ask them why they approve this, they say that they did not approve deforestation,” explained Julia Urrunaga, the Lima-based director of EIA’s Peru program. “They don’t call it ‘deforestation.’ They call it ‘de-bosquización’” – using a synonym for the Spanish “floresta” (forest). The term “bosque” could be translated as “woods” or “woodland.”
“It is so infuriating,” said Urrunaga.
Keen to encourage foreign investment, the Peruvian government set about getting rid of environmental impediments as early as 2013. This process, which IDLADS calls “flexibilization,” included flip-flopping the rules on a concept called “administrative silence” for an EIS. Before, if regulators failed to give a stamp of approval to an EIS, the project was effectively rejected. Now, if regulators fail to raise objections in timely fashion, developers can go ahead and do whatever they want. Silence now means tacit approval.
The Paquetazo, officially Law 30320, came in 2014. As the IDLADS report tells it, Peruvian officials were not happy with OEFA’s environmental protection vigor in recent years, notably with its landmark fines in 2013 against Plurispetrol Norte, a Peruvian subsidiary of the Argentinean oil company Plurispetrol.
The new law severely curtails OEFA’s ability to levy fines on companies judged guilty of infractions of environmental rules. “The idea was clearly to handcuff, disable and deactivate [OEFA] in its role as an oversight body for the social-environmental obligations of companies,” states the IDLADS report.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Agriculture – which decides whether forests can be converted into plantations – was scheming to reinterpret land use rules in a way that would effectively gut past forest protections. Using a bogus concept called “best land use capacity” (BLUC), ministry officials now employ a definition “that only includes soil and climatic characteristics and ignores the presence of standing trees,” according to the EIA report. In other words, it is the value of what a piece of land can grow that determines its future use, not the value of the biodiverse rainforest that may already be occupying that land.
This “illogical definition” often leads to “the validation of BLUC studies that assert primary forested land is in fact best suited to agricultural production, including land that had previously been classified as forestry or protected land by the government under official methodologies,” according to the report.
Among the main beneficiaries of these rules are two big time palm oil producers: the Grupo Romero, a Peruvian conglomerate, and the Melka Group, a shadowy network of firms that seems to originate in Malaysia. “These powerful economic players have already acquired tens of thousands of hectares of primarily undisturbed natural forest in the Peruvian Amazon for palm oil expansion,” states the EIA report.
Peru also suffers from the same institutional weakness that plagues other South American states, along with the United States. “We have a lot of laws in Peru, but many of them are not enforced,” said Carlos Llerena, professor of watershed management and forest hydrology at the La Molina National Agricultural University in Lima.
As Llerna suggests, many constructive laws remain unimplemented and unenforced – whether due to lack of political will or lack of resources. “The last forestry law made reforestation a top priority. But they did not allocate a single penny for it,” said Marc Dourojeanni, a semi-retired consultant with a long career in the environmental realm, including a stint as the first director of the environmental department of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).
When it comes to palm oil production, the state’s failure to define and enforce land tenure rights come into play. Plantations are supposed to be channeled onto already deforested land. But without clear land titles this strategy is unworkable, noted Dourojeanni.
“Why is there deforestation to plan palm oil [plantations] when you have already denuded land?” Dourojeanni asked, rhetorically. “Because you do not know who the owners are. You don’t know if someone is going to show up with a land title.”
He added that “informality is in large measure due to the lack of logic of the government. You cannot build a country without knowing who owns the land.”
Fighting paper with paper, IDLADS and its team of public interest lawyers have been leading the challenge against the weakening of environmental standards. Its report outlines a series of lawsuits that the organization has filed in an effort to reverse the trend.
In the end, Humala didn’t get as much mileage out of COP-20 as he may have hoped – the summit was largely perceived as a failure. Now as light begins to shine on his administration’s domestic legislative and regulatory deforestation agenda, the Peruvian president may run the risk of losing his green credentials altogether.