Peru suffers from a range of environmental problems that are caused in large part by the abuses of mines, fishmeal factories, oil and natural gas wells and pipelines and processing centers, illegal lumber operations, and other extractive industries. These industries have operated with little oversight in Peru for decades as a result of a weak political system that is cash-starved and corrupt. Legislation governing extractive industries, along with regulatory agencies, is improving in Peru but lags well behind other more developed nations.
Peru’s zinc, copper, mercury, silver, and gold mines continue to pollute water supplies with mine tailings, especially in the areas of La Oroya in central Peru and the Cordillera Huayhuash. The U.S.-owned Yanacocha gold mine near Cajamarca has finally taken environmental measures, after being involved in numerous social conflicts with the nearby communities over the last 10 years.
Over the last three decades, gas and oil exploration in the Peruvian Amazon has caused water pollution and deforestation and had a huge impact on native cultures. The most controversial recent project is the Camisea Gas Field, which is exporting 13 trillion cubic feet of natural gas from the lower Urubamba basin, one of the most remote and pristine areas of the Peruvian Amazon. The project also includes a pipeline over the biodiverse Cordillera Vilcabamba and a natural-gas processing plant next to Paracas, the country’s only marine reserve.
Sewerage treatment is also seldom implemented in Peru, and water pollution and algae blooms in rivers are a serious problem. The situation is especially acute around Lima, where certain local beaches are often declared unsafe for swimming. Across the country, trash is dumped in landfills and burned. Because there is very little recycling in Peru, much of the plastic garbage ends up blowing across the land and floating down rivers. Even in the Sacred Valley near Cusco, plastic bottles can be stacked more than half a meter deep along the shores of the sacred Río Urubamba.
Population growth is also exerting tremendous pressure on Peru’s resources, especially in the highlands. Overgrazing and the chopping of trees for firewood have caused the area’s thin soils to wash away in many areas. The loss of vegetation combines with heavy rains to cause mudslides, known locally as huaycos. A series of floods and mudslides in the Cusco area in January 2010 swept away bridges, roads, and the railway that leads to Machu Picchu. The weeks of continuous rains also flooded large areas of fields of the Sacred Valley. As a result, 3,000 tourists were stranded for almost a week in Aguas Calientes, the town near Machu Picchu, and were finally evacuated with helicopters. Worse, thousands of peasants lost their crops and homes.
In the Amazon, conflict between the Peruvian government and the Amazon’s native peoples reached a boiling point in 2009. Tensions had already been simmering, and occasionally flaring, because of government efforts over the last decade to regulate small-time gold panning, timber poaching, and illegal hunting in various parts of the Amazon. But a violent protest erupted in Bagua, northeastern Peru, in June 2009 when the Peruvian government suddenly opened up new areas of the Peruvian Amazon to oil and gas developers. The legislative move was made without the input of Amazon indigenous groups who resided in the area and was seen as a clumsy effort to comply with a recent U.S. free trade agreement. In the resulting protest, 33 people—both police officers and civilians—were killed and 200 were injured. Shortly after the protests, the Peruvian congress reversed the legislative change.
Natural Protected Areas
As of 2010, there were 68 natural areas protected by the Peruvian government, under the administration of SERNANP (Servicio Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas por el Estado), which total more than 16 percent of the country’s territory. There are twelve national parks, three of which have been classified internationally as Natural World Heritage Sites. These are Huascarán, Manu, and Río Abiseo, a huge swath of remote cloud forest in northern Peru that includes the Chachapoya archaeological site of Gran Pajatén.
Only tourism and scientific research are allowed inside national parks, which are meagerly funded by the government but luckily can count on private donations from international organizations. The other strict categories of protection in Peru are the historic sanctuaries—Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail are classified and protected under this designation—and the natural sanctuaries, such as the mangrove areas in Tumbes.
Other designations include national reserves or reservas nacionales, such as Paracas, Titicaca, and Pacaya Samiria, and reserved zones or zonas reservadas like the area surrounding the Cordilera Huayhuash or Sierra del Divisor on the Peru-Brazil border. Additionally, there are communal reserves or reservas comunales protecting large portions of land where the main Amazon groups live, and protected forests or bosques de protección, among other lesser classifications.
Since 2001, Peru’s government has allowed protected areas that are administered privately or through regional, municipal, or community organizations. Currently there are five regional conservation areas or áreas de conservación regional, such as [nodeL32133 link Tamshiyacu Tahuayo] in the jungle, and 16 private conservation areas or áreas de conservación privada, with Chaparrí the first to be created in the northern coast. These areas have proven to be managed more effectively than the state-administered parks and reserves. There is a current tendency of protecting more and more forests and other ecosystems under this new system.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition