By Jose De Echave
One of the best things about the controversy generated by the new Environment Law has been that it has begun to affect public opinion about a problem that is beginning to take a heavy toll. An effective policy of environmental protection is a necessary priority for a country like Peru; it is by no means a first world luxury. The fact that the country needs investment is no reason to do away with a rigorous environmental legal framework. The kind of investment that demands lesser protection is unwanted, either here or in any place in the world.
The debate also shows the influences of the principal economic players, many of whom believe that the current situation does not need to change.
There is still a huge gap between words and practice. Looking at web pages of almost all mining companies, one would believe that they pride themselves on operating under the best international standards. However, the leading industry labour unions have not been able to secure key agreements, such as the adoption of World Health Organization standards, so there seems to be a contradiction. Generally, the maximum permitted emissions limit set by Peruvian law is still very far from international standards, as shown by the Public Ombudspersons office, they are too lax.
But if there is still doubt over the necessity to develop a set of real environmental policies, the issue of environmental legacies (environmental damages) throughout the country stand as a stark reminder. For example, the Ministry of Energy and Mining informs us that there are 610 incidents of environmental damage valuing some $200 million dollars. The Ombudspersons office says that this amount is undervalued and some estimate that up to a billion dollars will be needed to resolve the legacy of environmental abuse and contamination.
Adding to the need for environmental controls in Peru is the issue of serious impacts on health, such as are occurring in the community of La Oroya, where a mining concession owned by the US based Doe Run, operates a smelter said to be the cause of lead poisoning of the people who live in that area. Recently public hearings have begun with the view to investigate requests from mining companies for the extension of the environmental compliance timeline for mining investments. Doe Run is one of the companies which is seen as incompliant with their Quality Assurance and Environmental Managment Programme, and has threatened, openly and publicly, to leave the country and close their operations if the Ministry of Energy and Mining does not lengthen the timeframes for their environmental compliance.
It is not that they should leave. They should stay, while obeying Peruvian law and their environmental obligations, without which their operations will continue having a tremendous impact on the health of the residents of this region. They should do the same thing as in Missouri, when the environmental authorities of the USA obliged them to meet standards, to comply with their stated plans of quality assurance and investment, and even made them compensate the affected communities. In that situation it was the reverse: The North American authorities gave the company an ultimatum, and if they didn’t meet it, they would shut down the operations. They had no option but to comply and they did.
Not even the best laws help if they are not applied. The new environmental legislation will have to demonstrate that it can be effectively applied. If the mining companies have understood the messages of the many environmental conflicts that have occurred in recent years in this country, they should be interested in a radical change not only in their image, but above all, in their behaviour.
By Jose De Echave
To find out more about the case of La Oroya and the issue of mining in general go to www.cooperaccion.org
If you would like to write to Glodomiro Sánchez, the Peruvian Minister of Energy and Mining, about any of these issues you can email your letter to email@example.com who will be handing such letters to him this month.