New Peru law undermines environmental protections
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New Peru law undermines environmental protections

Peru is facing criticism for a new law that slashes environmental protections in key sectors, even as the country prepares to host a major international climate forum later this year.

The law revokes the ability of Peru’s environment ministry to enforce air, soil and water quality standards, as well as to restrict the use of harmful substances. The ministry also loses its authority to establish nature reserves that are protected from extractive projects, including mining and oil-drilling.

The law, enacted July 11 after a brief debate in Congress, is part of President Ollanta Humala’s economic “packet” that aims to boost Peru’s economy by encouraging greater private investment and spur growth.

More than 100 domestic and international environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Oxfam, have voiced strong opposition to the law, saying in an open letter to President Humala that the law “rewards those parties who do not comply with current environmental rules in Peru.” The Peruvian Society of Environmental Law also sent a letter to President Humala saying that the measures would weaken the country’s environmental laws and institutions.

Manuel Pulgar Vidal, the Peruvian environment minister, voted against the bill, describing it as a major setback for the country on climate change. Pulgar is the president of COP20, the UN group scheduled to hold a major climate change conference in Peru in December.

Some participants are now questioning Peru’s commitment to the values of the event, which will be the last significant climate summit before the nations meet in Paris next year to sign a new global climate change treaty.

Veronika Mendoza, a Cuzco congresswoman, called it “an embarrassment” for a country with “a completely debilitated environment ministry” to be trying to lead efforts to draft a global emissions reduction pact.

Some of the most controversial aspects of the law are its proposal to cut by half the fines ordered by the country’s environmental regulator, known as OEFA, and the fast-tracking of environmental impact studies to a maximum period of 45 days. Previously, approval could take up to two years, based on the size and complexity of the project. The bill also reinforces tax breaks for multinational mining companies, which already have access to indefinite concessions for exploration and exploitation.

Peru is one of the most heavily mined countries in Latin America, with more than 300 major mines in operation. It is home to South America’s largest gold mine, and as of 2013 was the world’s second largest producer of both silver and copper, and the fifth largest global producer of gold.

The Peruvian government has continued to support these industries with some of the region’s most mining-friendly policies and incentives offering vast swaths of national territory to mining concessions. In the mineral-rich northern Cajamarca region, mining concessions account for more than 45 percent of the total territory.

Activists and human rights groups fear the new law may also lead to greater civil conflict between security forces that protect Peru’s mines and local residents protesting the contamination and decreased water supply that they link to the mining activity. According to the government, there were at least 80 mining-related confrontations in June alone.

Peru is already one of Latin America’s most dangerous countries for environmental activists, who are often targets for threats, surveillance, violence and legal action brought by mining companies. Currently, almost 400 environmental protestors and human rights defenders face legal procedures initiated by mining companies, their staff or public prosecutors, according to a Front Line Defenders report.

Additional reporting by Associated Press