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Social and Environmental Issues in Peru

Peru’s socio-economic climate

In Peru, as in all Latin American countries, social issues revolve around the economy. In Peru’s case, it has meant sustaining economic growth after an extended bout of political unrest and economic turmoil following a 20-year civil war against violent radical insurgent movements.

The issue is further complicated by racial affairs relating to Peru’s colonial heritage. Eighty-two percent of the country is of either indigenous or mixed indigenous-Spanish descent, while 15 percent of populace is Caucasian of purely Spanish heritage, yet that same 15 percent continues to make up the majority of Peru’s upper-class with its attendant domination of industry and politics. This in turn has led to ongoing civil unrest resulting from large-scale poverty and resentment among the mostly disenfranchised non-white majority. The problem is further exacerbated by a lingering racism that originated with the arrival of the Spanish and still today pervades popular culture. Television shows and advertising still present Caucasian descent as more desirable than Indigenous.

This came to a head with the emergence of two separate radical factions during the early 1980s: the Shining Path, a Maoist organization, and Túpac Amaru, which was Marxist-Leninist. Both organizations recruited among the poorest in Peru’s rural areas and used violence and terror to achieve their aim of taking over the country-and for some time it seemed that the Shining Path movement might succeed; at one point 60 percent of the country, mostly the rural sectors, was under its control.

The presidency of leftist Alan Garcia during this time was nothing less than an abject disaster-during his term inflation reached 2,200,200 percent, crippling the nation's economy and requiring three changes of currency as the Peruvian monetary kept losing its trade value. In addition, incomes dropped, foreign investment stopped, and unemployment soared-all of which contributed to rising support for the two competing revolutionary movements-especially the Shining Path guerrillas, who increased the degree and severity of violence against Peru’s urban sector during this time.

Peruvians then turned to the hard-line candidate Alberto Fujimori, who intensified and broadened the military campaign against the rebels. He also reversed many of Garcia’s economic measures and introduced wide-sweeping free market reforms, privatizing many industries and opening up greater sections of Peru’s Amazon for oil drilling. This measure, despite its positive effect on the economy, was widely criticized for the impact it had on Peru’s ecology and the livelihood of Peru’s indigenous tribes.

The Fujimori government was able to both reverse Peru’s economic downfall as well as defeat both Shining Path and Túpac Amaru, but at the cost of curtailing democracy and permitting the country’s security forces to commit serious human rights abuses. Evidence also surfaced of extensive corruption throughout the administration, including private dealings with Colombian narcotraffickers.

After winning a questionable election in 2000, Fujimori abruptly resigned while on a visit to Japan, using his duel citizenship with that country to avoid being prosecuted for a variety of criminal charges that were being brought against him.

However, with Peru’s economy on the rebound and the threat of a Maoist or Marxist takeover in recession, the general agenda for post-Fujimori Peru has been to keep moving forward. Unfortunately, the reconciliatory presidency of centrist Alejandro Toledo, while restoring some of the democracy that was confined during the previous administration, was overwhelmed by corruption scandals and unpopular economic measures, which resulted in Toledo’s approval rates dropping as low as eight percent.

Despite the failures of his first term in office, Alan Garcia made a political comeback and was narrowly re-elected president against the Hugo Chavez-backed leftist military candidate, Ollanta Humala. Garcia won over his supporters by claiming to have revised his political philosophy and with his hopes of approximating the success of Chile’s free-market economy.

Garcia stepped away from his second stint as president with low approval ratings and wide-spread criticisms over his reluctance to curb corruption in governmental pursuits, his administration's lack of accountability to the rural populations in major energy and mining projects and increasing social conflicts among various groups. But the economy had become relatively more stable under Garcia's watch, allowing his successor to focus on more pertinent Peruvian issues.

In 2011 Ollanta Humala ran his second campaign against Alberto Fujimori's daughter Keiko, and won the narrow election, stating during his first address that he wants to be known as, "a defender of human rights and of freedom of the press and expression."

Humala's road ahead will require a balancing act of gaining the trust of the Peruvian business class, who are largely skeptical of his close affiliations with Hugo Chavez, and maintaining the respect and support of poorer Peruvians living in more rural areas. The current president has also claimed that tackling corruption and reversing damages that occurred during Garcia's term will be a high priority on his to-do list.

The Machu Picchu vs Yale University Controversy

Alan Garcia was fortunate enough to seize upon a nationalist and patriotic issue, one especially relevant to Peru’s indigenous population: the relics removed by National Geographic explorer Hiram Bingham from Machu Picchu after his discovery of the historic city in 1912. They have been residing at Yale University ever since. Yale claims that the government of Peru legally signed off on the artifacts, which comprise everything from crockery to clay deities, while Peru maintains that Yale’s custody of them was only for the sake of research and with the understanding that they would eventually be returned.

The controversy came to fruition in 2011, and Yale University reached an agreement with the Peruvian government to return the controversial artifacts to their native land. The Peruvian government decided to keep the collection at La Casa Concha in Cusco for the purpose of furthering research and eduction.

Environmental Issues

Peru has some of the richest and most abundant natural resources of any country in the world, but the economic crises and political turmoil of the last several decades has put safeguarding the country’s environment secondary to its exploitation. As a result, Peru is experiencing panoply of ecological problems that have raised concerns of environmentalists around the world. These include air and water pollution, soil contamination and erosion, and deforestation.

Industrial and vehicle emissions in Peru create over 26 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year. In the rural areas, due to industrial, sewage, and petroleum-drilling waste, only 62 percent of the population has access to pure drinking water. Overgrazing in the sierras and the coasts, meanwhile, has brought about soil erosion.

Half of Peru is forest, and experiences a deforestation rate of 0.35 to 0.5 percent, largely as a consequence of subsistence farming resulting from migrant farmers exploiting a squatter’s law that allows citizens to obtain public land if they can prove they have lived in it for at least five years. The greater degree of deforestation, however, is wrought by commercial logging, both legal and illegal, as well as mining, petroleum drilling, and road development.

Most of the logging going on in Peru is illegal; estimates are that up to 95 percent of the country’s mahogany is unlawfully cut and sold, much of it from national parks and federal reserves, but with law enforcement underfunded and vulnerable to bribery and corruption, almost no commercial loggers are either charged or prosecuted.

Then there is the deforestation brought about by oil-drilling. In 2005 a contract was granted to the China National Petroleum Corporation in the Madre de Dios region of southern Peru, an area that is home to more than ten percent of the world’s bird species.

Coca production, both legal and illegal, has taken its toll as forests have been cleared in order to make way for coca plantations.

Gold mining also contributes substantially, since the process involves destroying river banks and clearing floodplain forests. Furthermore, this creates an incentive to bring in independent miners who then cut trees for firewood and shacks. Mercury is a necessary component of the mining process, but leaks poison into the soil and water.

A very controversial construction project in Peru’s Amazon basin is the proposed construction of a superhighway across the jungle connecting Peru to Brazil. There are concerns that the road will essentially urbanize the land lining its path, consuming or endangering all flora and fauna in the area.

Peru has up to 2,937 varieties of amphibians, birds, mammals, and reptiles, and 17,144 species of plants. Currently, Peru’s endangered species list includes 46 mammal varieties including the yellow-tailed woolly monkey and the black spider monkey, 64 types of birds including the tundra peregrine falcon and the white-winged guan, and 653 categories of plants-and many of these are endemic to Peru. There are a number of reptiles at risk as well, including the hawksbill turtle, the leatherback turtle, the spectacled caiman, and the Orinoco and American crocodiles.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Peru: Inca Trail: Environmental Issues, The Peruvian Amazon Environmental Issues, Politics in Peru, Environmental Issues Of The Colca Canyon, The Shining Path, The Economy of Peru and Lori Berenson: An American Behind Peruvian Bars.

By Ricardo Segreda
Growing up in New York, Rick Segreda used to cut out of high school in order to hang out at the Museum of Modern Art and catch foreign-language...
14 Jun 2012

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