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ENVIRONMENT: Preserve Peru’s Biodiversity, Save the World

Milagros Salazar* - Tierramérica

LIMA, May 26 2009 (IPS) - Peru, second in Latin America for total area of tropical forests, has adopted international laws, instruments and strategies to protect its wealth of flora and fauna. But those tools have not yet had much effect.

Helicone plant in the Peruvian jungle Credit: Public domain

Helicone plant in the Peruvian jungle Credit: Public domain

Officials in Peru are quick to point out that this was one of the first Latin American countries to establish local government strategies to curb the loss of biological diversity. “We made it possible in 1999, even before Brazil,” María Luisa del Río, the Environment Ministry’s director for biodiversity, told Tierramérica.

But experts and critics assure that the biggest problem is implementing those plans in Peru, considered one of the world’s leaders in natural wealth of ecosystems, species, genetic resources and indigenous cultures.

Scientists estimate that Peru is home to some 25,000 plant species, that is,10 percent of the world total, and to 1,816 bird species.

Peru’s territory ranges from ocean coast to Andean mountains and Amazon forest. It has 84 of the 104 “life zones” identified in the world, with a wealth of diversity that has surprised researchers like British botanist David Bellamy.

Co-founder of the Conservation Foundation, Bellamy has said that Peru is a country of surprising diversity in human and biological terms, and because of its vast genetic wealth, if Peru can be saved, it could serve as the basis for “rehabilitating” the rest of the world.


But this great natural heritage has been threatened in recent decades by the extraction of natural resources, and hundreds of species are in danger of extinction.

Manuel Ruiz, international affairs director for the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law (SPDA), says that in addition to the expansion of the farming frontier, small-scale mining, oil drilling and logging in the Amazon have intensified.

“Peru has signed nearly all of the international instruments for protecting biodiversity, but has failed in practice, because the government doesn’t function when it comes to protecting its resources and establishing oversight systems that give life to the regulatory frameworks,” said Ruiz.

There should not be a dichotomy between promoting private investment and protecting biodiversity, he said. The problem is the “weakness” of the responsible institutions.

Seventy-two percent of the Peruvian Amazon is involved in plans for fossil fuel extraction, according to the study “Oil and Gas Projects in the Western Amazon: Threats to Wilderness, Biodiversity and Indigenous Peoples”, published in 2008 in the online scientific journal PLoS One.

Between 2002 and 2007, mining concessions grew more than 70 percent due to incentives for foreign investment and high international prices for metals. Meanwhile, protests by indigenous and peasant communities about mining-based pollution also increased.

But the government has expressed concern especially about the artisanal mining operations in the eastern jungle region of Madre de Dios, where 150,000 hectares of forest have been destroyed and an estimated 32 tons of mercury have been dumped in the environment, according to official figures.

As a result, officials established a two-year moratorium on granting new permits for resource exploitation in that area.

The former head of the National Institute of Natural Resources, José Luis Camino, said last year that the regional administrators granted 4,200 timber permits to be used by the local communities, but that tons of cedar and mahogany ended up being sold abroad.

Biological diversity chief Del Río admitted in a conversation with Tierramérica that there are problems arising from certain economic activities in the Amazon. But a historical step, she said, was the creation of a high-level oversight body, the National System of Protected Natural Areas.

Furthermore, she said, regional strategies are being implemented in the northern Peruvian departments of Loreto and San Martín, which this year issued ordinances to reduce the loss of natural wealth.

The other five regions that have designed specific strategies are Ucayali, in the east; Amazonas, Cajamarca and Tumbes, in the north and northwest; and Junín, in south-central Peru. But they have yet to be implemented.

Peru has 60 protected areas that cover some 20 million hectares, or nearly 15 percent of the national territory.

Ruiz believes the government needs to make protection of those areas a top priority, and that it should consolidate “bio-business” in order to make the most out of the country’s natural resources.

The biodiversity department of the Environment Ministry, said Del Río, is working on a study to show how profitable preservation of Peru’s natural heritage can be.

International Day for Biological Diversity was celebrated May 22. The world’s governments had committed to efforts to cut biodiversity losses by 2010 – a goal now widely seen as unattainable.

But to push for progress and mobilise governments, business and civil society, Countdown 2010 is under way, coordinated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The IUCN’s Red List in 2008 registered more than 16,900 species in danger of extinction.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

 
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