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Peru: Monoculture Puts Iquitos Water at Risk

This is the third and final part of a series of three posts about the water problem in the city of Iquitos. See the first and the second.

In the first post of this series, we introduced some water-related issues in Iquitos and the controversy generated by the search and exploration for oil in the Nanay river basin. In the second post we delved deeper into the case of Conoco Phillips, and also show the actions being taken by organizations like the Water Committee to protect the river and Iquitos’ water supply.

In this third post, we will focus on the monocultures of the Nanay river and the problem this is causing between those who support this type of crop and those who advise against it.

The struggle for water in Iquitos is not without risks. José Álvarez, a researcher for IIAP (Peruvian Amazon Research Institute), published an article entitled “Monocultures in the Nanay? No thanks”, [es] wherein he discussed IIAP's reasons for advising against the cultivation of palm oil in the Nanay basin, especially in the Curaca stream basin, a tributary of the Nanay, adjacent to the Allpahuayo-Mishana National Reserve.

Reserva Allpahuayo Mishana, cuenca del Nanay, Loreto, Perú.

Allpahuayo Mishana Reserve, Nanay basin, Loreto, Perú. Photo by Maholyoak on Flickr. Published under Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Some of the reasons are:

- La cuenca del Nanay es la abastecedora de agua potable para la población de Iquitos y poblaciones aledañas, y cualquier alteración grave de la cobertura vegetal puede poner en riesgo la provisión de este vital elemento, tanto en cantidad como en calidad. Las plantaciones industriales de palma aceitera, además de implicar la tala de grandes extensiones de bosques nativos, requieren de altos insumos de agroquímicos y por tanto implican una grave amenaza de contaminación del agua.

- Las zonas donde se está planificando establecer plantaciones de palma están cubiertas en su totalidad por bosques primarios muy poco alterados, los que apenas han sufrido una mínima extracción selectiva de algunas especies maderables y de fauna silvestre. Es política del Estado Peruano, y un compromiso formal ante la comunidad internacional, proteger los bosques primarios amazónicos, como una medida para reducir las emisiones de carbono y para contribuir a mitigar los impactos del cambio climático.

- The Nanay basin is the supplier of potable water for the people of Iquitos and surrounding villages, and any serious alteration of the vegetation cover could jeopardize the provision of this vital element, both in quantity and quality. The commercial palm oil plantations, apart from involving the clearing of large areas of native forests, require high inputs of agrochemicals and therefore mean a serious threat of water pollution.

- The areas where there are plans to establish palm plantations are covered entirely by nearly untouched old growth forests which have experienced minimal and selective extraction of timber species and wildlife. It is the policy of the Peruvian government, and a formal commitment to the international community, to protect old growth Amazon forests, as a measure to reduce carbon emissions and to help mitigate the impacts of climate change.

But it seems this was not appreciated by some, who organized a group, supposedly “peasants” from the area, who came out to demonstrate in favor in cultivation of “palm oil” and attacking José Álvarez, carrying signs that read things like “trafficker of natural resources” and called for his expulsion from the national territory.

In a statement [es] in support of the researcher, a group of citizens of Iquito say that in talking to the demonstrators, they said they were told that Álvarez “was to blame for not promoting the cultivation of palm and that government loans had not been approved for this purpose” which suggested that the source of these attacks might be close to the regional authorities.

Not all opinions are against the cultivation of palm oil in the Nanay basin. The economist Víctor Villavicencio la Torre, who served as Regional Manager of Economic Development of the Regional Government of Loreto, is in favor, and writes [es]:

es imperativo adoptar o fijar una posición política regional respecto de la promoción y fomento para con un cultivo que, habiendo demostrado tener alta rentabilidad, bien puede constituirse en una alternativa para sacar de la pobreza, postración y miseria a cientos o miles de campesinos gracias a la alianza entre el Estado y la inversión productiva.

Esta alianza debe sacar del juego político a esos Organismos No Gubernamentales que reciben y administran el dinero proveniente de países que, digámoslo, son los primeros en atentar contra el medio ambiente y la biodiversidad de muchas naciones en el mundo.

It is imperative to adopt or establish a regional political position regarding the promotion and encouragement of a crop that, having proven to be very profitable, may very well be an alternative for hundreds or thousands of villagers to get out of poverty, struggle and misery thanks to the alliance between the state and productive investment.

This alliance should take out of the political game these non-governmental organizations that receive and administer money coming from countries which, let's face it, are the first to threaten the environment and biodiversity of many nations in the world.

He then reiterates what he argues should be the role of the State:

el Estado debe fijarse como meta inmediata revisar las leyes que regulan la actividad agraria y forestal, para con ello arrancar las banderas “progres” que exhiben estos “caviares” del medio ambiente y dejar de ser pasivos espectadores de las acciones agresivas que desarrollan.

… encontremos un punto de convergencia que evite que la gente del campo, cansada de tantas promesas de cambio, termine incendiando la pradera y trayendo a la memoria colectiva los sucesos funestos de Cajamarca, Espinar, Madre de Dios y Bagua. ¿Eso queremos?. En lugar de la protesta tonta y el grito estridente, batamos palmas para la Palma Aceitera que será como batir palmas para Loreto.

The State should set an immediate goal to revise laws regulating farming and forestry, in order to root out these “limosine liberal” environmentalists, and stop being passive spectators to the aggressive actions they take.

Let's find some common ground so we can avoid rural people, tired of so many promises of change, ending up setting the prairies on fire and bringing back to the collective memory the fateful events of Cajamarca, Espinar, Madre de Dios and Bagua. Is that what we want? Instead of silly protests and shrill cries, let's applaud for palm oil, which will be like applauding for Loreto.

By way of response, the aforementioned research biologist José Álvarez, published [es] another article entitled “Chronic Underdevelopmentalism” where he argues the following:

Hablan de que los conservacionistas han gastado decenas de millones en proyectos financiados por torvos extranjeros que buscan frenar el desarrollo de nuestra región. Sin embargo, sólo en los últimos 30 años que llevo viviendo en esta tierra, me consta que los promotores del fracasado modelo de desarrollo agropecuario-extractivista, a quienes llamaremos “subdesarrollistas”,  han gastado no decenas, sino miles de millones de soles: [...] proyectos agropecuarios fracasados, sueldos de funcionarios y consultores, e infraestructura agrícola improductiva (fábricas de harina de yuca, molinos de arroz, fábricas de leche, envasadoras de palmito, etc.) [...] La gran pregunta: ¿alguien impidió que se promoviese durante estos años en la selva la agricultura y la ganadería, sin restricciones, en las comunidades de Loreto? No.

They talk of conservationists who have spent tens of millions in projects financed by baleful foreigners who are trying to stop the development of our region. However, just in the 30 years I've lived on this land, I know that the promoters of the failed model of extractive agricultural development, who we will call “underdevelopers”, have not spent tens of millions but billions of soles [Peruvian currency]: [...] failed agricultural projects, salaries for staff and consultants, unproductive agricultural infrastructure (cassava flour mills, rice mills, milk factories, bottling of palm, etc.) [...] The big question: Did anyone prevent them during those years from promoting agriculture and livestock in the forest, without restrictions, in the communities of Loreto? No.

He adds:

Pero su inepcia no ha sido gratis: gracias estos presupuestos y proyectos, los ‘subdesarrollistas’ se han llenado los bolsillos con comisiones, viáticos, coimas, expedientes, consultorías, asesorías, puestitos burocráticos, estudios de factibilidad, planes de negocios, planes de inversión, anteproyectos, proyectos y viáticos, sin que los ribereños e indígenas hayan mejorado en nada su calidad de vida, más bien se ha deteriorado.

But their ineptitude was not free: thanks to these budgets and projects, “underdevelopers” have filled their pockets with commissions, travel expenses, bribes, records, consulting, advisories, cushy bureaucratic positions, feasibility studies, business plans, investment plans, blueprints, projects and per diems, without coastal or indigenous peoples having any improvement in their quality of life; rather it has deteriorated.

But businessmen continue to be very interested [es] in the business opportunities presented by the 620,000 hectares (approx. 1.5 million acres) in the Loreto region, which according to the Minister of Agriculture are available for planting, and they are doing outreach in this respect.

Moreover, academics and researchers continue to provide data and studies [es] about the dangers of palm oil cultivation for the fragile Amazon ecosystem. They claim that companies are even promoting the consideration of palm oil plantations as a reforestation activity, as well as the government incentives given to that crop.

Even President Ollanta Humala in a recent press conference mentioned [es] an Amazon area, the Alto Huallaga, as a “potential for agribusiness, for coffee, for cocoa, for palm oil, for planting fruit trees.”

As can be seen, there is no clear consensus among the stakeholders involved about what the policy should be on these issues that affect everyone. On one side are those who promote large-scale investments and on the other, those who defend the environment. Compounding the problem is the fact that dialogue about the matter doesn't exactly abound, and neither does clear and transparent information that citizens need.

Original post published in Juan Arellano's personal blog [es].

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