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Peru’s Conundrum: a Pope’s environmental message divides his people

The Doe Run smelting plant. Photo by Jason Houston

  • Government, business, academe, the clergy and the people of Peru all have varying views on the Pope’s encyclical, ranging from full support to intense opposition.
  • Both a treasure house for precious metals and an Eden for Amazonian wildlife, Peru straddles a difficult course between economic development that lifts people out of poverty and environmental protection.
  • Surprisingly, many of the working poor are opposed to the Pope’s environmental message, fearing that it will deprive them of jobs and an economically secure future.

A business executive sits at her desk, silently reading Pope Francis’ groundbreaking encyclical on climate change and environmental protection. In it, the Pope critiques the free market, decries the plundering of the earth’s limited resources and warns of dire consequences if radical change doesn’t come soon.

“It makes me angry,” the executive declares as she finishes. “I see a pessimistic view toward entrepreneurs, investors and economic leaders. I think the Pope is damaging his role in building relations between business, the people and the church.”

The fuming exec is not an American CEO. She is Catholic. She is from Peru and from South America where this pontiff enjoys an approval rating topping 80 percent. But she, like other Peruvian business leaders, can easily separate her admiration for the first Latin American Pope from her disdain for his call to restrain capitalism for the good of the earth.

Elena Conterno, National Society of Fisheries chief in Lima. Photo by Emilia Catanoso

“I believe he doesn’t have the knowledge to know how to tackle this” complicated topic, says the executive, Elena Conterno, president of the National Society of Fisheries. “If I were his adviser, I’d say, ‘Get out of it.’”

The encyclical is the first high-level Catholic teaching document on the environment in the Church’s 2,000-year history, and it is important to note that it does have its advocates in Peru. Some are in government, others are academics, some are in the clergy, and many are part of NGOs or are conservationists fighting deforestation and illegal gold mining in the Amazon.

“Pope Francis is calling for change of the global model of the economy and of politics,” says Jose “Pepe” Alvarez, Peru’s director of biodiversity for the Ministry of the Environment, and a former Augustinian missionary who worked on conservation in the Amazon for 15 years.

“People are saying he’s a Communist, a revolutionary, that he’s crazy,” Alvarez adds. “To me, he’s Jesus Christ. I can’t hear a word out of his mouth that I wouldn’t say myself.”

Economic development vs. earth stewardship

Such adulation is largely lacking among Peru’s business elite, while many in the country’s influential mining industry are dismissive. Some Peruvian economists mock the encyclical’s business analyses. Government leaders are generally respectful, but shrug when asked if the encyclical will influence environmental policy. Even the working poor — to whom Francis has staked his papal legacy — are ambivalent.

Jose “Pepe” Alvarez, Peru’s director of biodiversity for the Ministry of the Environment. Photo by Justin Catanoso

Such ambivalence isn’t unexpected in a country that is fabulously rich in both nature and natural resources. Peru proudly sponsored representatives from 196 countries at the UN climate summit in Lima last December, and positioned itself as a country committed to curbing global warming. Peru also lays claim to the world’s fourth largest rainforest, and is renowned for its spectacularly diverse Andean and Amazonian wildlife and plant life.

But Peru has also prospered as a world leader in gold, silver, copper and zinc mining — an industry that requires gigantic hydroelectric projects to feed its smelters. It also boasts the world’s biggest fishery, with 7.2 billion tons of fish extracted from the Pacific Ocean annually — a resource that could be severely threatened as the world’s oceans warm.

So it is no wonder that Peru’s need for environmental protection and responsible regulation clashes violently with the desire for rapid economic progress and the urge to meet first-world demand for precious commodities. It is a dilemma that all developing nations face in a time when “have nots” struggle as never before to have, and those who have, strive to get more.

Pope Francis seems to point a finger directly at Peru in Section 51 of the encyclical: “The export of raw materials to satisfy markets in the industrialized north has caused harm locally, as for example mercury in gold mining and sulfur dioxide pollution in copper mining.”

Yet those in Peru with the power to heed the Pope’s call are not persuaded.

“There is some hope that this is going to change the world,” says Roque Benavides, CEO of BuenaVentura, Peru’s largest precious metals mining company (NYSE: BVN). “It’s not going to change the world. Nothing changes the world.”

A Colquijirca Pasco miner and one of Roque Benavides’ BuenaVentura employees. Photo by Jason Houston

 

Benavides read the encyclical prior to an hour-long interview with mongabay.com, a discussion which took place in the 21st-floor conference room of his gleaming Lima high rise. He says that the papal document places too much blame for environmental degradation on big business, and not enough on governments for failing to enforce their own laws.

“The fact is, we all have to worry about environmental issues in the mining industry,” Benavides says. “The law requires it, especially of us [in industry]. But the absence of government regulation in the rural areas, where so much of the damage is taking place, is just not acceptable. And the Pope doesn’t say anything about that.”

Actually, he does, in Section 142: “We know, for example, that countries that have clear legislation about the protection of forests continue to keep silent as they watch the law repeatedly being broken.”

South America’s conflicted response to the encyclical comes as Pope Francis prepares to visit the United States for the first time on September 22. He will speak to both a Joint Session of Congress and to the United Nations, and will almost certainly focus on the encyclical — released by the Vatican on June 18th, and called Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Home.

The pontiff will likely press Congress and UN delegates to take his conclusions seriously, saying that the earth is in peril — endangered by rampant consumerism, corporate plundering and the profligate wasting of natural resources including the burning of too much fossil fuels.

It will be a tough sell. Especially in the U.S., where his soaring popularity dropped a month after the encyclical was released, according to a Gallup poll. He will undoubtedly receive no support from the large pack of GOP candidates running for president, who deny that global warming is manmade, and many of whom have urged the Pope to steer clear of the issue.

That Peruvian leaders are wrestling with the Pope’s conclusions in a country that is 75 percent Catholic and where his popularity remains high, suggests just how difficult it will be for Francis to truly lead internationally on this contentious issue.

A Catholic nation struggles with a pontiff’s message

Peru is the world’s treasure house for precious metals. It is also Noah’s Ark, with its teeming Amazonian wildlife. But to the people of this South American nation, it is mostly a once terribly impoverished and unstable country, now desperate to develop and take its rightful place on the world stage.

In the bloody aftermath of the Shining Path years – an insurgency that took an estimated 70,000 lives and tore the country apart between 1980 and 2000 — democracy has taken root, though with weak institutional controls and oversight. A recent spike in the value of precious metals has placed Peru among the world’s fastest-growing economies for the past several years.

Roque Benavides, BuenaVentura CEO, in Lima. Photo by Emilia Catanoso

Annual growth peaked at 6.3 percent in 2012, and is still over 5 percent. While mining makes up 15 percent of Peru’s GDP, it accounts for 60 percent of exports. Mining fills government coffers in Lima, and taxes from mining are supposed to be shared back to the communities from which the riches were extracted. The steady growth of Peru’s mining industry since 2001 has come with a huge concurrent drop in the poverty rate — from 50 percent in 2001 to 26 percent today.

Benavides, the BuenaVentura CEO and one of Peru’s richest and most influential businessmen, is proud of his company’s contribution to Peru’s progress. His employees mine billions of dollars annually in gold, silver and copper. Benavides dutifully passed on his copy of the encyclical to his other executives to read, but he sees little value in a document that instructs his company to essentially cut back on what it does so well.

“Peru has been blessed beyond religion with natural resources,” says Benavides, a lapsed Catholic. “We have the ability to put those [valuable] resources… to the benefit of our society, not just ourselves. We have a responsibility. I agree with Francis on this: if you go and exploit, and don’t care about the community, you are not doing the right thing.”

When asked how long his company has been in mining, Benavides answers, “Sixty-two years.”

“That’s a lot of holes in the ground,” I respond.

“And a lot of wealth generated,” he retorts. “And a lot of infrastructure built in a country that needs infrastructure if you want to bring your agricultural products to market.”

“And a lot of jobs?” I ask.

“Yes, a lot of jobs. We have 12,000 people in BuenaVentura. And if we add to that the joint ventures we’re in, we have in excess of 30,000 people [employed]. All in Peru.”

The CEO, who gave me a copy of a book he wrote titled Responsible Mining, insists his company is environmentally friendly, that his top investors demand nothing less. He says he pays his employees well. And when asked how the communities in which he operates feel about his company and its open-pit mines, he says flatly, “They love us.”

A visit to the country

A somewhat different story unfolds when I visit one of those mining communities, as I did a few weeks after my interview with Benavides.

BuenaVentura is a public company, and its SEC filings largely support its CEO’s assertion that he runs a responsible, ethical corporation. But the company also admits in its filings to battling striking miners at some sites, to fending off claims of poor working conditions at other locations, and to setting aside millions to pay fines for toxic spills and environmental damage.

Miners in Colquijirca Pasco on lunch break. 2,000 work at this mine. It is co-owned by BuenaVentura with another mining company called El Brocal. Photo by Jason Houston

 

During lunch-hour in Colquijirca Pasco, at 14,000 feet in the central Andes, I spoke with more than a dozen miners at a well-organized, well-run copper mine surrounded by empty miles of high desert prairie far from any large town. A small orderly village and school lie about a half-mile from the mine site.

The miners mostly say they have worked for companies far worse than BuenaVentura, and that their benefits are fine. But they claim their pay is lousy — 42 to 52 soles a day, or $13 to $16.

Miner and engineer Edward Estrella, 37, wearing filthy orange coveralls, adds, “Environmentally responsible? It’s not true. They are taking material from the ground and dumping it. There is no treatment of the chemical water that the mining produces. The tailing [toxic mining excess] ponds are not lined. There are some [government] inspections, like once a year. That’s when they do what they need to do. The rest of the year? Nothing.”

The economics of Earth stewardship

Richard Webb, one of Peru’s top economists, has taught at Princeton and worked at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C. His English is impeccable. “I am no longer Catholic, but I am fascinated by this Pope,” he says.

But when it comes to the encyclical, his fascination fades: “I think it is hugely unrealistic and essentially emotional. It’s incredibly ignorant of how the economic world works. This idea that you have these radically different business models and can just choose another one is ridiculous.”

Business isn’t to blame for the dire state of the planet, Webb insists. Consumers who refuse to sacrifice are to blame. What they want, and want now, businesses deliver, he says — everything from the rare-earth metals needed for the next generation of iPhones, to unrecyclable plastics, and the gasoline required to power the world’s billion plus cars.

“I don’t think the economic model, as the Pope understands it, is at the heart of the problem with the environment,” Webb says.

Pope Francis would firmly disagree, as he does in Section 22: “We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them.”

From an environmental point of view, the Pope appears to get it. But in La Oroya, two miles high in the Andes, one of the most polluted cities on earth, the people apparently do not.

The people say jobs come first

La Oroya is a city of 33,000 people. For 77 years, from 1922 to 2009, the community supported a booming copper, zinc and lead smelting plant on the far end of town. Doe Run, the American company that ran it last, closed the sprawling, well-designed plant whose smokestacks darkened the local skies after Peru raised its environmental standards.

The Doe Run smelting plant. Photo by Jason Houston

When 16,000 employees were laid off, the bottom fell out of the local economy; shops, restaurants, suppliers, hotels, salons all suffered a decline in business. The people of La Oroya — nearly every single one — want the smelting plant sold and reopened. And to get that done, they are willing to accept lower environment standards than those of the past.

Never mind that every child in town has excessive levels of lead in his or her blood. Never mind that the soil is too polluted to farm because of high levels of sulfur dioxide. Never mind that the Mantaro River near the plant is dead. And never mind that the mountains surrounding the plant have been chemically altered — they appear to have been melted — from seven decades of relentless acid rain.

To its credit, Doe Run has kept paying employees at 30 percent of their original salaries since the plant closed. It’s a meager living, but suggests to any company interested in buying, that the facility can ramp up quickly with a ready workforce. A handful of workers visit the plant daily to fire up the machines to keep them operational. There’s no smelting, though.

Close up of a mountain, which has been dissolved by acid rain from the smelting plant in La Oroya. Photo by Jason Houston

I tell several community leaders about the papal encyclical and how the Pope links environmental destruction with the exploitation and oppression of the poor. I hand them a six-page summary of the encyclical prepared by the Vatican in Spanish.

Freddy Rojas Chacha, 40, elected president of Old La Oroya, a neighborhood near the plant, chooses a course of firm denial: “I don’t believe the claims about pollution. I don’t trust the medical officials who tested our children for lead. I don’t trust the NGOs who monitor our air.”

As for Pope Francis, he says, “We must respect the view of the Pope. But if he says the plant should not re-open, what solution does he offer? We must be able to support our families.”

Emel Salazar Yuriulca. Photo by Jason Houston

Emel Salazar Yuriulca, 43, a devout Catholic and admirer of Pope Francis, is even more blunt: “The life of the plant is more important than anything the Pope says. We depend on that plant. It must reopen.”

Teofilo Rojas Zevallos, 54, who worked at the smelting plant for 28 years expresses himself with raw honesty: “We are aware of the pollution, but what can we do? We need to work. I have many friends who died from diseases they got at the plant. I have friends who killed themselves after they lost their jobs and couldn’t find other work. I really believe the pope must take part in these pollution problems. But he is not going to hire me.”

A Christian conundrum

All this, of course, raises an important question as to whether Pope Francis has or hasn’t overstepped his moral authority, especially when even the Catholic working poor in an environmentally ravaged town like La Oroya see the papal encyclical as more of a threat than a defense of their health and dignity.

La Oroya’s city seal proudly includes the smelting plant, smokestacks belching, and a rainbow above a pastoral landscape. Photo by Jason Houston

Perhaps Jose “Pepe” Alvarez, the former Augustinian missionary now working in the Ministry of the Environment, has the most realistic take. The encyclical will make an impact, he believes, eventually.

Alvarez believes that Catholicism and other religions, wielding vast authority in the developing world, will need time to educate, to lobby, to do philosophical battle with environmental plunderers and intractable governments, to rally an enduring commitment to the environmental cause. Of course, another question arises — with climate change impacts escalating, and the sixth great extinction well underway — is there time enough for such education.

Pope Francis did not issue Laudato Si, On Care for our Common Home, with its practical and spiritual themes, just for today. Or even for tomorrow. He issued it for generations to come — generations of children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren who will be forced to live with the earth we leave behind.

Freddy Rojas Chaca. Photo by Jason Houston

“The church is going to change before the private sector does,” Alvarez says. “And that will push elected officials to make better decisions. We have to be patient. The message will get through slowly, very slowly. And in the future, in making laws or doing business, people will demand that major parts of the encyclical be followed.”

Until that hoped-for day — when business and government find a practical, sustainable path to prosperity — the long-suffering people of places like La Oroya will likely continue to struggle, forced to make a difficult choice between jobs, their health and environmental ruin.

 

Justin Catanoso is director of journalism at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. His reporting in Peru was sponsored by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington, D.C.