As UNFCCC Convenes in Peru, Free Trade and Extractivism Undermine Climate Justice

Teresa K. Miller | 12.03.2014

Between December 1st and 12th, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) parties will meet for the twentieth session since the framework’s adoption in 1992. Peru, host country for the conference, provides an apt case study regarding the contradiction between the discourse on regulating greenhouse gas emissions on the one hand, and the global dominance of free trade agreements (FTAs) on the other. FTAs have facilitated the privatization, deregulation, and growth of extractive industries around the globe, an expansion that has had tremendous climate, environmental, and health impacts. FTAs have also enabled the emissions-heavy, long-distance transport of food produced through industrial agriculture.

In their present form, FTAs directly negate efforts to reduce greenhouse gases by disallowing domestic preference and thus making illegal many local mitigation efforts. [1. Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 65, 71, and 126.] They also exacerbate poverty and food insecurity while increasing food-transport and agriculture-related emissions. Real change is needed to confront this systemic economic-food-climate crisis.

Agroecology offers a solution to all three of these issues by restoring resilience to local economies, fostering independent food production, and turning arable land into a net carbon sink rather than emitter. However, as the case of mining industries in Peru illustrates, the displacement of small farmers by extractive industries and the promotion of carbon-intensive, globalized industrial food by FTAs threatens the potential of employing agroecology as a solution to climate change.

Free Trade Agreements Erode State Sovereignty, Expand Extractivism

Mining has a large carbon footprint, degrades ecosystems, displaces residents, and threatens human health with a host of pollutants. But in the face of these environmental and health threats, even countries that might regulate extractive industries have little recourse under the current system of free trade because FTAs transcend national laws. The Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), for instance, has allowed mining companies to sue the government of El Salvador for impeding their “right to mine.” When Indonesia attempted to regain control of its mineral resources and prevent further loss of mining profits to foreign corporations, multinational companies brought suit and forced exemptions to Indonesian law so that they could continue with business as usual.

Signs point to more, not fewer, free trade agreements. Though President Obama criticized NAFTA during his first presidential campaign, he has prioritized approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

There is a fundamental disconnect in Peru hosting the UNFCCC to address climate change at the same time that it is a world leader in extractive industries. Primary metals production is extremely carbon-intensive as “greenhouse gas emissions—overwhelmingly carbon dioxide—are associated with the consumption of energy at every step in the production chain, from exploration through mining to the production of refined metal.” [2. M.J. Farrell, “Carbon emissions from base metal mine sites,” Mining Engineering, April 2009, accessed November 23, 2014, http://www.minecost.com/Carbon_Emissions_ME.pdf.] In addition to its climate impacts, more immediate impacts threaten the health of Peruvian mineworkers and communities: miners frequently use mercury—a neurotoxin—to amalgamate gold, and a Carnegie Institute for Science study concluded that every year 30 to 40 tons of mercury are dumped in Peru’s Madre de Dios region alone, leading to dangerously high levels in 78 percent of residents’ bodies. [3. “Fact Sheet: Illegal Gold Mining in Madre de Dios, Peru,” Amazon Conservation Association, accessed November 23, 2014, http://www.amazonconservation.org/pdf/gold_mining_fact_sheet.pdf.]

Yet signs point to more, not fewer, free trade agreements. Though President Obama criticized NAFTA during his first presidential campaign, he has prioritized approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Concurrently, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is under negotiation between the United States and the European Union, an agreement that could require the reversal of small farmer supports, and consumer and environmental protections in Europe.

climate march 2009Addressing a Symptom, Not Root Causes

In 1992, the original UNFCCC meeting in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, occurred as Peruvian mining deregulation began under President (dictator) Alberto Fujimori and just prior to the creation of the World Trade Organization. [4. Håvard Haarstad and Arnt Fløysand, “Globalization and the power of rescaled narratives: A case of opposition to mining in Tambogrande, Peru,” Political Geography 26 (2007): 295; and Lewis Taylor, “Environmentalism and Social Protest: The Contemporary Anti-mining Mobilization in the Province of San Marcos and the Condebamba Valley, Peru,” Journal of Agrarian Change, 11(3) (July 2011): 420.] Fujimori’s successors Alejandro Toledo and Alan García built on his legacy of privatizing the state-owned mining enterprise Vale do Rio Doce and opening Peru to foreign investment in extractives, including copper, gold, and zinc mining, many of which are now controlled by companies from Canada, China, and elsewhere.

Preceding the UNFCCC summit in Lima, the Peruvian government cracked down on illegal miners, who have caused the loss of 50,000 hectares of carbon-capturing rainforest in the La Pampa region alone in the last six years. Illegal mineworkers themselves, however, are not at the heart of the problem, but are rather a symptom of local economies destabilized by neoliberal policies. While significant profits flow to foreign corporations—which may obscure illegal supply chains by mixing gold in Swiss refineries—many small miners are lured by a subsistence wage five times greater than that offered for agricultural work—or labor under conditions of debt bondage.

Peru’s multinational mining concessions dwarf the land area damaged by illegal small miners. More than 1,000 indigenous communities have petitioned the government to certify their ownership of 20 million hectares under threat of extractive degradation: over 40 percent of the country’s land area is earmarked for mining and other extractive industries, while indigenous peoples and local communities inhabit 96 percent of those concessions. Given the much greater impact of legal multinationals compared to illegal small miners—and the fact that tropical deforestation accounts for approximately a quarter of global CO2 emissions [5. Paulo Moutinho and Stephan Schwartzman, eds., Tropical Deforestation and Climate Change, Amazon Institute for Environmental Research, 2005, accessed December 1, 2014, http://www.edf.org/sites/default/files/4930_TropicalDeforestation_and_ClimateChange.pdf.]—why hasn’t the government focused on the real perpetrators of environmental damage?

Addressing the root causes of climate change requires acknowledging that “free” trade is not free but rather shifts costs from corporations to governments and marginalized communities, and grants inordinate power to multinational corporations.

While Peru’s crackdown on artisanal and small miners does little to address the central problem of expanding extractivism, 2014 has been a year of climate activism demanding substantive, structural change. Grassroots movements have been coalescing around the theme of “system change, not climate change.” The September UN Climate Summit, for instance, sparked an unprecedented march by more than 400,000 activists in New York City, with solidarity marches around the world.

To address the root causes of climate change, UNFCCC countries must tackle the impact of multinational investment, including extractivism. To do so would require acknowledging that “free” trade is not free but rather shifts costs from corporations to governments and marginalized communities, primarily in the Global South, and grants inordinate power to private multinational corporations. This is not an unintended consequence, but an inherent characteristic of FTAs, which have found traction through the precursor of IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs in the 1990s.

Chiapas farmerSmall Farmers Combat Climate Change with Agroecology

Many small farmers and indigenous peoples have successfully resisted corporations trying to open new mining claims. Some resistance has been peaceful, such as blockades in San Marcos and a public referendum in Tambogrande, Peru, while other protests have resulted in deaths of both protestors and police. [6. Lewis Taylor, “Environmentalism and Social Protest,” op. cit.: 420-421.]

Small farmers’ direct action has prevented some climate-damaging extractivism, but even their vocation—small-scale, knowledge-intensive agriculture—holds the potential to combat climate change when paired with low-external-input, agroecological methods. While industrial farming contributes approximately a third of total global greenhouse gas emissions [7. See, for example, Miguel A. Altieri et al., “The Scaling Up of Agroecology: Spreading the hope for food sovereignty and resiliency,” SOCLA’s Rio+20 position paper, May 2012, accessed November 23, 2014, http://www.weltagrarbericht.de/fileadmin/files/weltagrarbericht/The_scaling_up_of_agroecology_Rio.pdf; Anna Lappé, Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do about It (New York: Bloomsbury, 2010), xv and 10-11.]—and up to 57 percent by some estimates—small, agroecologically managed farms can absorb more carbon than they emit, while yielding countless other local ecological and economic benefits. [8. Miguel A. Altieri, “The Scaling Up of Agroecology,” op. cit.; Anna Lappé, Diet for a Hot Planet, op. cit., 8 and 136; and Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything, op. cit., 134.] Unlike industrial agriculture, agroecology emphasizes local ecological processes [9. See, for example, Miguel A. Altieri et al., “The Scaling Up of Agroecology,” op. cit.] rather than external inputs to increase yields of a single crop. Monoculture farming represents another kind of extractive industry, which depletes soil fertility and reduces biodiversity. By contrast, agroecological methods increase diversity and fertility over time.

Monoculture farming represents another kind of extractive industry, which depletes soil fertility and reduces biodiversity. By contrast, agroecological methods increase diversity and fertility over time.

Agroecology also encourages natural insect predation rather than pesticide use; accumulation of biomass to build topsoil to prevent erosion; natural nitrogen fixation rather than synthetic fertilizer use; interplanting of multiple crops to encourage resilience rather than relying on a single, vulnerable species; and leveraging topographical features, tree canopy, and mulch to hold water and minimize irrigation needs. [10. See, for example, Miguel A. Altieri et al., “The Scaling Up of Agroecology,” op. cit.; Anna Lappé, Diet for a Hot Planet, op. cit., 130-131; and Jules Pretty, “Agroecological Approaches to Agricultural Development,” Background Paper for the 2008 World Development Report, World Bank, accessed November 23, 2014, http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTWDRS/Resources/477365-1327599046334/8394679-1327599874257/PrettyJ_AgroecologicalApproachesToAgriDevt%5B1%5D.pdf.] Even the “new” agricultural carbon sequestration technology of biochar has its roots in the Amazon, where indigenous peoples as early as 450 BC built up soil fertility through the addition of charcoal, creating what is known as terra preta. [11. Etelvino H. Novotny, et al., “Lessons from the Terra Preta de Índios of the Amazon Region for the Utilisation of Charcoal for Soil Amendment,” Journal of the Brazilian Chemical Society 20(6) (2009).] Applying generations of small-farmer knowledge tailored to specific bioregions, agroecology advocates site-specific rather than one-size-fits-all solutions.

But agroecology is also a political project, focusing on community problem-solving and local resources rather than top-down technological fixes. In this way, it runs counter to Big Philanthropy-biotech partnerships, such as the Gates Foundation’s AGRA project in Africa, which promotes proprietary seeds paired with synthetic inputs to address food insecurity. [12. “How does the Gates Foundation spend its money to feed the world?,” GRAIN, November 4, 2014, accessed November 24, 2014, http://www.grain.org/article/entries/5064-how-does-the-gates-foundation-spend-its-money-to-feed-the-world; and Eric Holt-Giménez and Miguel A. Altieri, “Agroecology, Food Sovereignty, and the New Green Revolution,” Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 37(1) (2013), 90-102.] Instead, agroecology harnesses decentralized community power, fostering strong local economies and food independence—unlike the FTA-abetted industrial food system, which exacerbates wealth disparities and fosters dependence on food imports.

Furthermore, communities that can feed themselves and have sustainable economies do not have to rely on destructive jobs in extractive industries to survive. In order for agroecological practices to heal a broken system, however, we must change our approach to international trade. Even binding UNFCCC agreements will mean nothing if environmentally and socially destructive multinational enterprises undermine them through FTAs.