Indigenous tribes in Peru have turned to violence to prevent their lands being turned over to mining and drilling operations. A number of policemen have been killed, and a curfew has been imposed.
It stems from legislation pushed through over the last two years, relaxing the regulations on mining and drilling within the Amazon, and eroding the rights of local people. President Garcia spelled it out: “We have to understand when there are resources like oil, gas and timber, they don’t belong only to the people who had the fortune to be born there.”
Fortune or misfortune, as the case may be. According to local activists, the new laws mean that 70% of the Peruvian Amazon has now been leased for oil and gas exploration, up from just 13% two years ago. It is a typical scenario, of a poor country with two kinds of wealth – mineral and arboreal. In the short term, the oil and gas is far more valuable than the forest. In the long term, the forest is priceless.
As oil becomes more scarce, more and more poor countries will be forced into choosing the oil over the forest. Because these pockets of oil are relatively small, they haven’t been worth exploring until now, but each new Amazonian well is a double blow. It releases more fossil fuels onto the market and thus more carbon, and in clearing the trees to access it, removes a crucial carbon sink.
Much of Peru’s population lives in poverty. From an economics point of view, the oil and gas is the obvious choice. How we make the forest the economically rewarding option is one of the most important questions of the 21st century.
This story actually caught my eye for another reason. My brother Paul happens to be in the Peruvian Amazon at the moment, fortunately well inland from the current conflict. He should be on this boat, on the river in Lago Preto, looking for river dolphins for his dissertation. I did my dissertation in a library…