Interview With Marco Arana
The Peruvian human-rights advocate and environmental activist Marco Arana on the conflicts in his country, the influence of international stakeholders in the interplay of biodiversity and poverty reduction.
Rich in diverse ecosystems and existing species, Peru numbers among the countries with the highest level of biodiversity in the world. This abundance of flora and fauna is increasingly endangered by the excessive mining of raw materials and a lack of environmental protection measures. This results in massive cuts in the livelihood of the poorest segments of the population in particular.
Priest Marco Antonio Arana Zegarra has been battling for the rights of small farmers, miners, indigenous populations and for the conservation of biological diversity in his homeland for over 20 years. Arana received the Peruvian National Award for Human Rights in 2004 for his dedicated efforts, was named Hero of the Environment 2009 by Time Magazine and awarded the Aachen Peace Prize in 2010. With his Tierra y Libertad party, he is running for the office of President of Peru in 2011. In this interview Marco Arana talks about the current situation in his country, his critique and his vision.
You were named "Hero of the Environment“ by Time Magazine in 2009. At the time you were quoted as saying “saving souls in not enough.” What were you referring to?
In the conservative wing of the Peruvian church, the belief that the work of a priest should be limited to the spiritual and that only the deliverance of the soul can lead to true salvation is still widely held. For me the inspiration of Christian beliefs is that there can be no love for God without charity.
It is not enough to view the spiritual as separate from the worldly, especially not when it comes to the environment and human rights. We cannot enter the temple before we have done something to reduce the suffering of our brothers and our earth.
In the debate on environmental protection, biodiversity often comes up. What role does biodiversity play with respect to the environment?
In Peru we distinguish between biological and cultural diversity. Firstly I would like to point out that the majority of the diverse biological resources in Peru remain unexplored. Only around 5% are known. And yet it is very important to learn about and understand the biodiversity of our country better. The resulting knowledge could help us to improve medicine, production etc. Primarily it is important to invest more in science and in biotechnology in particular. I see a great deal of potential there with respect to sustainable development. As to cultural diversity, one of the international demands regarding climate change is to learn more from indigenous peoples on how to adjust to the environment. The cultures in the Andes, for example, plant different seeds at different ecological strata. This means that if changes occur at one of these strata, they can balance out the loss with the harvest from other strata.
At the moment, unfortunately, attempts are being made to push through a system of mass production and monoculture. But in the fight against climate change in particular, protecting biodiversity is as important as is conserving the diversity of cultures and their knowledge.
You were just talking about using biodiversity for scientific progress and in the field of medicine in particular. How exactly would that work?
I’ll give you one example: There is a special type of tuber in Peru called the “LLancón ”. It contains a type of sugar that is very useful in treating diabetes. Yet in our country nothing was done to begin research in this area, and the research ended up taking place in laboratories in Japan. Now they are selling those patents to us today. That means if we want to be involved in synthesising this sugar, we first have to buy the Japanese patent.
Another example: The French have modified genes in their tomato production to make them more resistant to cold. This process use a gene isolated from tomatoes that grow wild in the Andes Region. To this day, no one has been entirely successful is developing a completely cold-resistant tomato in the laboratory and every time there is a problem with genetic change, solutions are sought in the species diversity of our natural landscapes. We do not have to remain dependant on mining and hydrocarbons in our country when we are so rich in genetic variability.
In 1992 the UN passed the Convention on Biodiversity to protect and conserve biodiversity. Peru, as one of the few countries with megabiodiversity, also signed this convention. What has changed in Peru since then?
To be honest, almost nothing has changed. Peru has signed many international conventions, but if these are not followed by the needed national regulations, they are not applied. Another problem is that we in Peru have neither the technical and scientific abilities, nor sufficient economic resources. Peru is bringing up the rear in Latin America when it comes to investment in biotechnology. This is because our growth model is not based on biodiversity, but on the export of oil, mining products and the results of mass production.
To what extent does biodiversity play an important role for Peru’s inhabitants with respect to indigenous peoples?
First of all it is important to note that a high level of contempt, inequality and even racism dominates the political debate. The current president of Peru Alan Garcia, for example, referred to farmer coalitions as the “reverse gear” of development. As those who neither work nor let others work. During the Amazon conflict he said quite explicitly that the indigenous people living there could not limit the expansion of the oil and mining industry since they were not first-class citizens. To his way of thinking, there are first-class citizens who can insist on their rights, and third-class citizens to whom the state grants no rights at all. Indigenous peoples must therefore first fight for recognition and rights.
This is why the current situation in Peru is marked by a high level of socioeconomic conflict. For the recognition and conservation of biodiversity we need democratic decisions, not for rights to be trampled.
What exactly is happening to the indigenous people in the Amazon area?
The thing that allowed the conflict to grow so bitter and explosive was the “Ley de la Selva” initiated by Garcia. This allows state municipalities to expand their property. The earlier law read that all land owned by indigenous and farming communities was inviolable. These property claims were sacrosanct and could not be transferred to a third party. The guidelines today say that if just 50% of the members of a local council meeting are in attendance, even if this is just 10% or 20% of the total number of people affected, privatisation of the area can be decided. This nullifies the property rights of the communities. Ten of the regulations in the “Ley de la Selva” threaten the indigenous people who live in the Amazon area and this is what the protests were about.
The UN agreement calls for protecting biodiversity in part to help combat poverty. How do these two issues influence each other?
One example: The people of the Amazon and the ancient Peruvian Lima culture have succeeded in maintaining a wide variety of potato species for thousands of years. Each one reacts differently to the nutrients in the ground, to climate conditions and pests. This is not just the secret of the famed Peruvian cuisine, but also one basis for food security.
In Peru 70% of all agricultural production comes from small and mid-sized farmers. This is possible because they plant potatoes, yucca, quínoua etc. in one field at the same time. If just the yucca harvest goes bad one year, they still have potatoes. There is an important link between biodiversity and the fight against malnutrition in poorer communities. This is why it is so important to maintain biodiversity.
You are a candidate for the Tierra y Libertad party for the office of president in the 2011 elections in Peru. In your party’s programme you define yourselves as protectors of the environment. What sorts of concrete measures are you planning to do justice to this responsibility?
There are quite a few really. As our very first act, we want to turn economic policy inside out. The country’s economy must diversify. Peru’s primarily export-oriented growth model, based almost entirely on the extraction of raw materials, cannot continue. We have to try and develop in a different direction where the raw materials industry is just one of many components. Other branches such as tourism, trades, food service, forestation and biodiversity need to be promoted. Organic farming is also gaining importance as an issue. Politics should create more favourable conditions for growing organic coffee and cocoa.
Your party blames an “irrational economic model” for the destruction of the environment. What do you mean by this?
We are questioning the logic of a market in which all production is based on demand and profit as the ultimate goal. We are aiming for a market based on another understanding of economics, an economics that serves people and is in harmony with ecology. Not a system of exploitation…
...is that why you are calling for a human right to water?
In our party’s programme we suggest changing the constitution to include the right of every human being to have access to water. We also speak of the need to limit awarding rights for mining and oil drilling. Administrative conditions must be developed to determine where raw materials can be extracted and where not.
One gets the feeling that the environmental movement in Peru is solely a movement of farmers and indigenous peoples. What sort of role does the economic elite play here? Is there an awareness of such issues in this segment of the population?
Over the last few centuries, the economic elite have acted like marauders of sorts and turned the country into capital. While they were lining their pockets from raw material extraction, they have been siphoning off as much of this country’s resources as possible. This happened with gold during the Spanish conquest, saltpetre during the war with Chile, rubber during the thirties, etc.
The debate on ecological sustainability is taking place in Peru today mostly because the global environmental crisis affects all of us. Added to this is the fact that the country is under increasing pressure due to economic integration with Europe and the United States to enact certain international agreements. Peru felt obligated, for example, to create a ministry for the environment to fulfil the requirements of the free trade agreement with the European Union.
Those members of Peruvian society who have demonstrated their sensitivity to social and ecological issues are the intellectuals, students from the middle class. I think that with the awareness of young academics we can create a platform based on social and ecological equality. It will not just fall into our laps, but the process is already fully underway.
How can people be sensitised to this issue?
In many different ways. The media are one possible venue of course. Since the majority of media companies refuse to explore this issue for economic reasons, we have to work with alternative communication networks: the internet, cable TV, smaller newspapers, radio stations, etc.
One of the most important instruments for sensitising the wider public is education. We have already started offering courses to educate people about issues like human rights and ecological sustainability.
On a political level, Tierra y Libertad has opened discussion about ecological problems, the rights of indigenous peoples and biodiversity for the first time. When we founded the party, I was told “Marco, you’re crazy. This doesn’t interest most Peruvians.” The truth is that we have been expanding considerably in all parts of the country. We can now offer an alternative government option in regional parliaments and we are fighting for the option of becoming the national government. Even if we are not there yet, we will be in future. But what really counts is that the issues have entered the political agenda of the country.
By Alice Kohn and Laura Elisa Cwiertnia