The PSG annual conference took place in London on 16 November. The day gave a picture of a difficult and often abusive reality, but with glimpses of optimism.
John Crabtree and Natalia Sobrevilla opened with comments on the political scene, one familiar to our regular readers. The sense of alienation from politics today seems stronger than ever as, over the last year, the majority in Congress has bitterly opposed the president’s efforts to fight corruption; Congress was shut down as a result. The Latinobarometer ranks Peru close to the bottom in the league of Latin American countries in its measure of alienation and dissatisfaction with democratic institutions.
This reality of corrupt and non-functioning politics permeated the day’s discussion of human rights and the state. The state, it was claimed, needs to promote norms, regulate company behaviour, and encourage adequate management of the environment. But how to reform both the state’s and companies’ ways of operating when responsible politics are so conspicuously absent?
Our plenary speakers took human rights in the mining sector as their focus, discussing both company and government. Virginia Pinares is a community leader from Cotabambas in Apurímac, a farmer like her husband, with six children and two grandchildren. She has already served four years in the local municipal government and has taken the tough decision to run for Congress for the Apurimac region in the 26 January elections. Julia Cuadros is a founder member of the non-governmental organisation Cooperacción, a close partner of the PSG. She is the head of the extractive industries programme there, and will become its director next year.
Virginia stressed how communities see companies and the state authorities “opting for money over life”. She repeatedly made the point that the communities are not opposed to mining as such, so long as it does not run roughshod over their rights. She saw the criminalisation of social protest as a terrible problem, and that consequently women are afraid to undertake political action because they would risk being charged and convicted. Women, she said, are charged more often than men, in other words machismo at work.
Companies, she affirmed, act unlawfully and irresponsibly and are not controlled by the state. Cotabambas is close to Las Bambas, the giant the Chinese-owned mining operation. As readers will be aware, MMG amended the EIA without public consultation by scrapping a proposed mineral pipeline to the coast and opting instead to ship the mine’s output by truck along ill-suited roads through various communities and small towns.
Virginia urged the PSG to support women taking their rightful role in decision-taking and management, and in bringing an ending to discrimination.
Julia described how political instability frustrated the activities of NGOs like Cooperacción, an organisation there to stand beside communities and help them be heard. But with new ministers being appointed incessantly it becomes problematic to explain to every new entrant the situation confronting people in places like Apurímac. She was clear that the ‘Voluntary Principles‘ contain the right elements: governments must guarantee rights, companies should respect them and act accordingly, and that society as a whole should take on board and repair the damage done by human rights abuses. But, she said, the Principles must be made obligatory not just voluntary. This should be a key campaigning point, as should reform of EIA procedures. Consultation, she stressed, must happen before a project is agreed, not at the point of implementation when it is far too late.
Julia’s own reflection on the inadequacy of politics was the continuing penetration of the public sector by corporate interests. The private sector had no need to lobby, she affirmed, it was right inside the state.
Was there optimism here? President Vizcarra at least seems to have good will and a determination to find solutions. And the ‘voluntary principles’, while not obligatory, do exist.
The next session moved to young people. Patricia Oliart, from the University of Newcastle, shared her research and explained the important role played by youth culture in contemporary politics, with ‘collectives’ mobilising solidarity for a variety of causes including the environment, gender issues and employment conditions. These operate on the basis of deliberative assemblies and the savvy use of social media to mobilise support. Patricia saw these as aiming to create a ‘new political culture’ based on horizontal ties, autonomous from traditional political structures. The collectives do not boycott politics but distrust the use of social struggles by politicians and parties seeking electoral gain.
The sense of optimism here was not so much in the specifics as in the sense of abundant energy and the collectives’ critique of traditional political practices.
The day’s final session moved to the Amazon. Aldo Soto of Rainforest UK helped clarify issues which we hear a lot about, notably that we are reaching an environmental ‘tipping point’ at which damage done will be irreversible. He said that 22% of the Amazon biome will be lost by 2030 if deforestation continues at its present rate. Illegal mining is dumping mercury into the river system at the rate of 30 tons a year. But he focused more on the work of community groups and organisations such as the FENAMAD, representing 36 indigenous communities in the Madre de Dios region. His own group, Rainforest UK, supports communities in developing ‘community monitoring’. This, he argued, is much more cost effective than other methods in preventing deforestation. But the problem is also judicial and political; the problem continues when the state fails to prosecute those responsible. This has to change.
Aldo talked in detail about some more ‘good news stories’, in particular the Kemito Ene Producers Association, 400 Asháninka producers exporting cacao and coffee in ways that are “bio-diverse and reproducible”.
Aldo claimed to be optimistic. Interest in the Amazon is growing worldwide, and improved techniques of monitoring and communication, coupled with social media, are creating better informed public pressure to ensure that the livelihoods, needs and rights of the Amazon population are respected.
Our final reflection on the issues raised was that politics, although perhaps dysfunctional in many respects, matters; Peru is not dictatorship and democratic pressure can, and must, be brought to bear to ensure that rights are respected. International support and solidarity is as important as ever.