Peru’s commercial fishing industry is sustainable, productive and well regulated, says Conterno, but the illegal “artisanal” fleet of the poor is “growing too fast and unsustainable.”
“Why blame business?” Conterno asks of the Pope’s encyclical, when “the public sector is really lagging,” failing to regulate the environment and the climate, and provide for the poor.
“Who are the ones doing the most illegal activities? It’s the poor. Not the big companies,” she says. The Pope’s encyclical “is more than naïve. It lacks institutional analysis.”
Elena Conterno is a former minister of production for the Peruvian government and she has served as president of the National Fisheries Society of Peru since 2013. It’s an important position: Peru lays claim to one of the planet’s most productive commercial fisheries, with a world market for more than 6 million tons of fish for animal feed, fertilizer and human consumption annually. Conterno’s role as a policy maker and lobbyist is highly influential.
In an exclusive interview for mongabay.com, she spoke with journalist Justin Catanoso about Peru’s fisheries, government regulations, the poor, and her views on Pope Francis’ encyclical on environmental protection. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Mongabay: Peru is critically important to the world as a fishery. Tell me about that.
Conterno: We have the largest fishery stock in the world. We harvest about 6 million tons of anchovy annually, plus 500,000 tons of giant squid, mackerel and mahi mahi. That fish is frozen for human consumption, or made into fishmeal and oil. All of our fisheries put together yield about $3 billion in exports and employ 230,000 people, directly and indirectly. The industry is a top 10 employer in the country.
Mongabay: Warming oceans due to climate change are killing coral reefs and reducing fish stocks. There is also much overfishing. How regulated is the industry here?
Conterno: In general, we are praised. There is a study from British Colombia that found that Peru is #1 in the sustainability of our anchovy fishery. The government has a lot of control over who legally fishes. Each fleet has a quota assigned. When a fleet returns to port, everything is monitored. Statistics show that the regulations are respected by the industry.
Mongabay: How long have these quotas been in place?
Conterno: Since 2008. I was a [Peruvian] minister of production [from 2008 to 2009] when reform came. You have to understand that in the 1960s, we had a major collapse of our fisheries because of overfishing and El Nino. They have largely recovered. Regulations have worked. At that time, fishing was run by the private sector. In the 60s and early 70s, it was a total free market. The industry was taking 11 million tons a year back then. Now? 6 million tons. We have lower quotas than neighboring countries. We don’t want to fish more than is sustainable.
Mongabay: But when you look around the world, so many commercial fish species are on the brink of collapsing.
Conterno: When there are no regulations, you have that problem. Almost all [unregulated] species are having this problem. Fish populations in Peru in general have been growing. Income of the people is rising here — 20 percent in real terms in the last five years. There is more demand, but the sea cannot deliver more. When there are no controls, it gets really bad. Twenty years ago, no one was even thinking about this.
Mongabay: Here in Peru, the mineral and fossil fuel extraction industries are said to be monitored, but there is plenty of illegal mining. Is there a parallel in the seas?
Conterno: Of course. There is much illegal fishing, and not much regulation there. The flounder and wahoo [a prized game and commercial fish] are getting smaller and smaller as a result.
I represent industrial fishing. Our major species [such as anchovies and giant squid] are regulated. Other species are fished by the “artisanal” [illegal] fleet. They don’t have the regulations. This unregulated sector is putting too much pressure on our oceans and fish stocks. It’s not going to affect our anchovy. But if things go bad, we get blamed. We know that the artisanal fleet is growing too fast and unsustainable. My role is to push the agenda, to roll this back.
Mongabay: In your view, what is the ratio of legal to illegal caught fish?
Conterno: If we pull out 6 million tons, they pull 1.2 million tons. That reduces the value of our catch. Co-existence is very difficult. We try not to pollute. They don’t care. [The government] has regulations in place for fish oil and fish meal, for treating emissions and effluent. But on another plane [with the illegal artisanal fishing] you have no regulations. I have been here since May 2013. We have been calling for reform. And we’re not getting it.
Mongabay: Let’s shift this discussion to Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change and environmental protection. It’s mostly about land and forests, but he speaks of oceans, too.
Conterno: I like this Pope. In the last 10 years, the Catholic Church has been losing parishioners and credibility. Priest sex abuse. Corruption. Clergy that didn’t connect to people. The last Pope didn’t help in that regard. I believe this Pope is giving Catholics the opportunity to re-establish a relationship with the church. The most important thing this Pope can do is remain an important voice in society.
Mongabay: What do you like about him?
Conterno: I like that he is more consequential in his values. That’s a very important role for him today. And people are embracing that. He also speaks clearly about things that matter a lot.
Mongabay: He is quite harsh on extraction industries like yours.
Conterno: I am a public policy specialist. When I read this [papal encyclical], I feel like the analysis is lacking. Who is responsible for what? I see a pessimistic view of entrepreneurs and investment and economic leaders. I think it is unnecessary. I think he is losing his role of bringing business, the people and the church together.
I don’t like that he blames [environmental devastation] on the companies. Big business. Look, in my industry, we follow the rules. We are heavily regulated. Don’t blame it on me. Blame the artisanal fishing — those not obeying the fishing seasons, the quotas, the species, nothing. The government is not establishing regulations and enforcing them. Don’t put everybody in the same sack. It was unnecessary. My feeling is that the encyclical puts all the blame on business.
Mongabay: Richard Webb, the well-known economist here in Peru, told me he found the Pope’s document naïve economically. Though he thought the science was strong. Do you agree?
Conterno: It is more than naive. It lacks institutional analysis. Why blame it on business? Business has to follow regulations and pay taxes. The government is in charge of collecting taxes, enforcing regulations and providing for the poor. Those are the big roles. I would say that there are things the private sector could be doing better. But the public sector is really lagging.
Mongabay: When you read the encyclical closely, Pope Francis is asking how can we make industry more sustainable. He doesn’t just blame business. Some of the encyclical seems to match your own thinking. Can the moral authority of the Pope help you do your job better?
Conterno: I like this Pope. But the COP [UN climate summit] was just here in Lima last year. There is an overwhelming amount of information available about climate change and environmental issues. Then comes this encyclical.
Mongabay: Are you saying it’s too much for Peru to absorb now?
Conerno: I am saying there are many other issues. It is not high on the public agenda. You have a group that follows the rules and another group that doesn’t, but the population blames everyone.
Mongabay: I want to understand you clearly: is the papal encyclical a relevant document to you?
Conterno: I think it is blaming business unnecessarily and ignoring the gains we’ve put in place. Stopping the artisanal fleets out of season is not popular; these are the poor we’re talking about.
Mongabay: So you are saying the poor are part of the problem when it comes to fishing?
Conterno: Of course. Look at their activity. The society and government are not offering them other possibilities, so they do what they must to survive. We all want the poor to be better off. But it is unsustainable the way it is being done now.
Mongabay: Give me an example.
Conterno: Infrastructure — phones, electricity — we have improved a lot. But water service? Not much. The poor suffer the worst. Because, while I in my house, pay for a certain volume of water, in the [poor] outskirts of Lima, they pay seven times that. They have to hire a truck to bring them water. There is no [government] money invested in a pipeline to poor areas. No one is taking care of this problem.
Mongabay: Pope Francis raises plenty of questions about water equity. He wants to take the lead internationally on these issues. Do you give him credit for raising these questions?
Conterno: (long pause) I mean, in terms of public opinion, nobody reads. This document is more than 100 pages. I have read half, and the summary. People are not going to read this. In terms of putting an issue on the agenda, these issues are already on the agenda. So who are his constituents? What is he proposing? It is so vague; it is not going to drive action.
Mongabay: So you really don’t find much value in it.
Conterno: I think the Pope can do much better in pushing government to do its job better. He wants to be a political actor. He was winning a place in the [discussion] about democracy, the poor and prosperity. And now climate change? Not even the Pope can take on everything.
Mongabay: He appears to be connecting the dots — that the poor are the ones affected the most by climate change and environmental destruction.
Conterno: Let’s be honest. Who are the ones doing the most illegal activities? It’s the poor. It’s not the big companies. They cannot run away. The [poor artisanal fleet] springs up and is gone in a few days. In my industry, I spend 50 percent of my time fighting illegal activities and unsustainable practices. I want the [illegal] artisanal fleet to have an adequate way of living. But they don’t manage the sustainability of their stocks, and we get blamed.
Mongabay: So to you, the encyclical carries little weight.
Conterno: It will do a lot if the U.S. signs the treaty in Paris [at COP 21]. But I don’t think there is a message here for us. We feel in Peru we have gone too far in regulation, and [done]nothing in controlling the others [the poor] with at least basic regulations. Don’t misunderstand me. We don’t need to blame the poor. They are trying to survive. We need our education system and government to work better. We need more roads and electricity. So much change is needed. Civil service is terrible. Politics is terrible. We need security. We need public services.
Mongabay: And you don’t see this papal document providing guidance?
Conterno: No. I have not heard the Pope refer to these issues. I don’t feel this is a passion of this Pope. He seems to be for austerity over excessive consumption. I don’t see him talking about these issues.
Mongabay: Are you Catholic?
Conterno: Yes, but I stopped going to church more than 20 years ago.
Mongabay: I wonder, as much as you like Pope Francis personally, are you bringing your harsh judgment of the church into things when reading this document?
Conterno: He is pursuing too many issues. He is confusing people. He is still figuring out what he wants to do. He is too unfocused.
Mongabay: Do you believe the church has a role in environmental protection and sustainability?
Conterno: Analyzing it from a public policy position, I think there are [better] priorities for him. He was making a space for himself, fighting against excessive consumption, fighting Vatican corruption. He had some fights he was winning. The largest fight was to regain the confidence of Catholics worldwide. You felt he had all the capabilities for undertaking these battles. But then he undertook this issue, and I believe he doesn’t have the knowledge to tackle this. It should not be on the top of his agenda.
Mongabay: In the encyclical, Pope Francis sets his arguments in a spiritual context. Genesis, for example. The Pope says people have been reading the Bible wrong. People of faith have a role in stewardship — saving the earth, not simply using it up.
Conterno: How many do you think are guided by what the Bible says in their daily life?
Mongabay: In my view, a lot. That may be why we have so many conflicts over so many social issues like gay marriage, contraception and abortion.
Conterno: (laughing) The Bible can be read in different ways.
Mongabay: Final thoughts?
Conterno: The Pope has a lot of battles. To me, it [the encyclical] is not a coherent strategy. If I were his adviser, I’d say, “Get out of it.” Focus on where you can make an impact. Maybe in five years; consider it. Or make a small statement, but not something so pretentious.
Justin Catanoso is director of journalism at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His reporting in Peru is sponsored by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington, D.C.