Oil, water and democracy: when governments sell out on environment
When the Peruvian government axed environmental protections to make way for foreign mining and fossil fuel investment last month, the implications for the country’s Amazon rainforest and indigenous communities resounded across the world.
In a law passed on 11 July 2014, Peru slashed fines for environmental damage, offered tax breaks to foreign mining companies, approved mining and fossil fuel extraction in new protected areas and rendered its six-year-old Ministry of Environment powerless.
Two years earlier and some 5,000 miles north, Canada passed a similarly chilling bill that amended 70 laws and significantly weakened the country’s environmental safeguards, from protection for fish and species at risk, to assessments of the environmental and social impacts of development projects.
Two countries, two economies, too much to lose
Half a world apart, Peruvian and Canadian environmentalists and indigenous peoples have battled for decades to defend some of the world’s last pristine ecosystems and a diversity of cultures. But they’re up against railroading political and business agendas that are borderline unthinkable.
In 2012, Canada signed the Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA), an investment deal that would allow Chinese companies to sue Canada in secret tribunals if Canadian policies – including environmental and human rights laws – threatened their profits.
The FIPA was signed without vote or debate, its ratification into law on hold thanks only to Vancouver Island’s Hupacasath First Nation, who argued that they were not consulted about decisions impacting their resources before the deal was signed.
But no matter. While FIPA looms, other dark politics are at work.
Two weeks after Peru slashed its environmental safeguards, the Canada Revenue Agency threatened to strip well-known charity Oxfam Canada of its charitable status (and therefore its ability to raise tax-deductible donations) on the grounds that “preventing poverty” was not a valid goal. It’s the latest move in mounting efforts to hamstring environmental, human rights and other charities from activism that could challenge government agendas.
The Canadian government has already silenced its federal scientists by controlling if and what they can reveal publicly about taxpayer-funded scientific research. Among those muzzled were biologists who discovered a new virus in British Columbia’s wild salmon stocks – findings with big implications for the international trade of farmed salmon.
Death by a thousand cuts
Troubling enough on their own, these actions all echo a much graver trend: promoting resource extraction at any cost.
Canadian policies have helped pave the way for extracting and exporting from Canada’s ‘tar’ sands, one of the world’s largest deposits of unconventional oil. The Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, a highly controversial project passed in June, plans to carry bitumen (a dense, viscous form of petroleum) from the tar sands to British Columbia’s north coast for shipping to Asian markets.
Peru, meanwhile, has opened up 70% of the Peruvian Amazon to oil and gas concessions, much of it very recently, and is poised for an oil boom that could rival the last rush of the 1970s.
Oil and water
Decades of oil spills, drilling and extraction the Peruvian Amazon have led to widespread contamination by pollutants including lead, mercury and cadmium – affecting large wildlife and likely entering the human food chain.
Oil exploration also cuts roads into pristine rainforest, giving access to illegal loggers, poachers and settlers, and putting increasing pressure on ecosystems and indigenous people.
If completed, Canada’s Northern Gateway project will carry bitumen in pipelines through the Great Bear region, one of the last unspoiled temperate rainforests in the world. It will also bring hundreds of tankers each year into sensitive coastal waters, home to five species of Pacific salmon, humpback and orca whales, dolphins and porpoises.
At Canada’s core, the tar sands have already demolished, degraded and contaminated land, water and resources that aboriginal peoples have rights to.
Tragedy of the global commons
Indigenous communities in Canada and Peru have lived in harmony with land, water and wildlife for millennia. In a matter of years, resource extraction for international interests has threatened not only these resources, but their way of life, their culture and their health – not to mention the identity and wellbeing of societies as a whole.
Both countries’ decisions will also impact the world, through fisheries, pollution, fossil fuel production, greenhouse gas emissions and the loss of important species and ecosystems.
But between railroading laws and Orwellian silencing, it seems there’s little room left for land-use planning, for democracy or even for freedom of speech.
Have we really become so short-sighted as nations and as a global economy that we can’t think beyond the next boom (or bust), to the legacy we leave for the next generations?
Shouldn’t developed nations like Canada set an example for developing economies to follow? Shouldn’t we put in place policies that protect natural resources, human health and global climate systems rather than squandering tomorrow’s resources in a short-sighted race?
Because that’s what democracy and economic resilience are really built from.
Main image credit: kris krüg/Flickr.