“We’re in Peru”

Recently, I came across the tumblr “Daily struggles of living in Lima.” The page features memes representing very real quirks of life in Lima, many of which resemble my experience. Given that familiarity, I smirked knowingly at a meme showing someone destroying the phone after receiving “one more text message from [telecommunications company] Claro.” I even went so far as to rhythmically exhale through my nostrils at a gif of a baby falling off a rocking horse to render the experience of a sudden stop on a bus. The url, “gringosinlima,” states the obvious: This blog is a space for the largely white expat community to make light of the quirks and annoyances of another culture. At the same time, the title seemed more than a little bit out of touch. Not only was the expat community based in snide shots at Peru, it completely ignored the actual struggles of the majority of the population in Lima.

My unproductive SJW indignation levels peaking, I was readying a takedown in the form of a pseudo-constructive blog post heavy on social justice buzzwords and half-baked pop cultural references.

Much of the year, I have not avoided discussing racism and xenophobia in my blog. It’s one small way I can challenge structural racism and more importantly work through how best to be a white ally.

In the case of this tumblr, a few moments in my daily life gave me pause before launching into a vindictive, semi-constructive post. First, I realized I identified with the frustrations in the tumblr too much to not feel somewhat hypocritical in my critique. Second, I had developed a habit quite similar to what motivated “daily struggles,” the phrase, “We’re in Peru.”

Like a more harmful and ignorant, “Thanks Obama,” my use of “We’re in Peru” became a way to pin every daily annoyance on my hosting country.

Why can’t I put the paper in the toilet bowl? We’re in Peru. Why does some food get me sick on a monthly basis? We’re in Peru. Why do the buses keep stopping in different locations? We’re in Peru. Why do the cobradores pack us three-wide in the bus aisle? We’re in Peru. Why do we always start choir 45 minutes late at minimum? We’re in Peru. Why do the artisans not warn us if they will not meet a deadline? We’re in Peru.

Not only are many of those experiences actually unrelated to Peru, they’re mildly hurtful at best.

Of course, I rationalized. If this helps me cope while I work at bigger picture problems it’s not an issue.

Except that thinking requires a lot of arrogance about the amount of good a few blog posts and assistance with Joining Hands can do. Plus, these actions can be enormously hurtful to those in my community.

Like the day I shouted in anguish “PERU!” in front of Lizbeth, David’s girlfriend as a bus flew by us instead of allowing us to get on at the designated stop location. Literally taken aback, she stepped away from me and took me to task. “Not Peru, Lima, and really just that one bus on one bus line.” I was taken aback, apologized and then rationalized that I’d say that about any country.

Later that week, my host mother, Isis, explained away high rates of petty theft in Lima with a pointed “We’re in Peru.” That is just the way Peru is, she meant, but I already know that considering how much I reminded those around me.

My coping habit was just hurting those around, those who have welcomed me, those who I have come to personally care about. Peruvians who are well aware of the issues within their country and do not need me reminding them.

Recognizing that, I could not honestly critique “Daily Struggles” without recognizing my own form of alienating Peruvians for my comfort. The “Daily Struggles” tumblr is out of touch by nature of the title, but I do not come from a place of moral authority. I do come from a similar place of having my own microaggressions that I need to name and end. I can speak from that place to those who are failing to recognize their own errors to help push them, even as I push myself even more.

New mining: Recognizing the premium on comparative advantage

Recently, I sat in on a presentation about an initiative, which Joining Hands supports, to create a more regulated or “new” mining system.

Joining Hands’ director, Conrado, offered the presentation to a group representing Joining Hands partner, the Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery. The plan privileges agriculture and water systems over mining. It also sets up a monitoring agency separate from that which grants mining concessions to investors. Overall, it creates a more sustainable system that will increase the expenses of owning and operating mining operations.

And so what?

The mountainside of La Oroya is scarred white from acid rain. Just one sign of the larger contamination in the area.
The mountainside of La Oroya is scarred white from acid rain. Just one sign of the larger contamination in the area.

That might seem a bit crass or lacking in nuance, but it’s where I’ve arrived after a considerable amount of thought. Of course, as this blog is my privileged space to spew my less than adequately researched thoughts and reflections, I’ll continue on with that practice.

First of all, the current system has created far too many La Oroyas, Lake Agrios, and Herculaneums. Evidently we need to change the issue.

Second, new mining uses Peru’s resources of precious metals to continue development through job creation and investment. Additionally, it recognizes Peruvian sovereignty over its environment, which is an integral, but non-economic part of development that many Peruvians seek.

Third, it helps internalize the social costs of mining into the market. New regulations will increase the costs of mining, which will then increase the prices for precious metals on the industrial and consumer market, which will reduce the quantity demanded. The amount of shift depends on the elasticity of demand, which I will not explore here, but the reduction in quantity demanded and overall sales reflects consumers taking on additional social costs. An imperfect mechanism regulations and taxes squeeze positive results out of greed.

Many argue that greed will instead shift jobs out of Peru to more investor-friendly environments. Low wages and lower health and safety regulations led to the outsourcing of manufacturing and telecommunications jobs to south and southeastern Asia.

That is real, except you cannot outsource minerals. As Conrado put it, minerals are in Peruvian soil and are not going anywhere until somebody sets up shop to take them out. Of course, companies may shift away to mineral-rich countries with lesser regulations, but it’s a finite resource. Plus, Peru will hopefully serve as a leader among mineral-rich nations to enforce new regulations.

Even if Peru goes ignored, the stock of minerals in less regulated countries will run out and soon. Then the options would be synthesis or Peru. Maybe the moon will be an option?

Admittedly, that’s not exactly realistic. More than likely, companies will continue to operate in Peru and find some way to meet the new regulations because they can.

It will be a bumpy ride for a bit, but that is better than the train wreck that is La Oroya or protests within Tia Maria. Plus, I pull knowledge of this movement from Peruvians working in the NGO-sector and from these areas. In spite of the stock they have in growing Peru’s economy, they have prioritized mining reform. I stand with them to push companies based in the Western world to comply.

Joining Hands Network Model: Example La Oroya

I realize I may not have really ever explained what Joining Hands is or does. If you’re a regular reader, you might be aware that it’s a development-oriented NGO. If you’re an occasional reader, you might know I work there. If this is your first time, you might be looking for the inevitable explain that follows this cliché introduction. Please, continue.

The Presbyterian Hunger Program founded the Joining Hands Network after realizing that localized development projects fell short of ending poverty. Sure these projects helped pull folks out of poverty and empower them, but it did little to address the structural issues like climate change, corruption or corporate privilege that foster poverty. That’s where Joining Hands steps in.

Joining Hands unites local, national and international efforts to resolve the same issue. In doing so, it answers the question: What can I even do from my home besides give money? Joining Hands offices work with partner organizations around the world to identify the root structural issues at the international level, which drive issues at the national level and create the problems manifested at the local level around the world.

Joining Hands model applied

I’ve been fortunate enough to hear Jed Koball, mission co-worker in Peru and one of my many bosses, outline Joining Hands’ model as it applies to Peru, specifically around mining. We start with La Oroya, which I have mentioned in writings before. In the 1920s, a mine and lead smelter opened in La Oroya and continued operating under up until a decade ago. Throughout the time period, poor regulation led to high levels of contamination.

In 1997, the Peruvian Government sold the smelter to Doe Run Peru, a subsidiary of the U.S.-based Renco Group, owned by the meanest of the famous Iras, Ira Rennert. That sale involved contractual obligations for Doe Run clean up the factory and the Peruvian state to clean up the local soil. Neither followed through.

At the local level, Joining Hands stepped in to raise awareness in La Oroya with the member organizations, FILOMENAS and CAMBIALO. FILOMENAS taught folks about environmental and public health issues and encouraged them to protest for better mining regulations. CAMBIALO provided programs to empower children affected by mining to tell their story and work for change in the future.

In 2005, Joining Hands arranged for a study by the University of Saint Louis revealed that Oroyeños, including children born recently, had 11 heavy metals in their blood including lead, arsenic and copper. This study marked a turning point in advocacy for La Oroya at the national level. Eventually, Doe Run closed down and the smelter stopped operating.

In an effort to get reparations in place for La Oroya, the director of Joining Hands, Conrado wrote an ordinance allowing for full medical coverage for those affected by mining activity. Though unanimously passed three years ago, the network and other partners are still pushing for implementation for those continuing to be affected by 90 years of contaminant buildup.

The issue does not stop at the national level though. Doe Run soon filed for bankruptcy. Rennert sued the Peruvian government, blaming the financial problems on unfairly high expenses to meet their contractual obligation to clean up the operation in La Oroya. The suit was possible via the Peru-United States Trade Promotion Agreement, which includes an investor-state arbitration clause. Investor-state arbitration allows companies to sue sovereign governments for taking actions that restrict their investor rights and prevent free trade.

In theory, this protects companies from countries that unfairly seize assets or raise taxes to oust them or get them to abandon their property. That would be unjust though most large corporations could handle the setback.

Unfortunately, like many seemingly sound theories, arbitration courts have worked against their purpose. Companies use this process to challenge environmental and public health laws. This is a practice that economists call “rent seeking,” the spending of money to allocate yourself more wealth than the market equilibrium. Imagine renting out the invisible hand to slap governments around a bit.

There are many such cases, which largely involve mining companies resisting environmental regulations. Canada-based mining company Pacific Rim (now owned by OceanaGold) is suing El Salvador for placing a moratorium on mining activity following a water crisis in 2008 due to mining contamination after granting Pacific Rim exploratory permits. British-based Philip Morris International Inc. and British American Tobacco sued the United Kingdom for for plain packaging of cigarettes as part of a public health movement.

Corporate lawyers handle the arbitration cases and losing countries are forced to payback large sums for lost profits. Worse than the economic setback is the nullification of relevant laws and an overall reduction in sovereignty for the state. If Peru loses to Doe Run it will call into question Peru’s right to enforce environmental regulations put in place as part of mining contracts.

In fact, that is holding up the sale of the lead smelter to a Chinese mining company. The negotiations are stuck on environmental regulations and awaiting the outcome of the Doe Run suit.

Joining Hands has identified investor-state arbitration suits as a vital issue for international advocacy by supporters from around the world. Right now, Peru is involved in negotiations for a 12-country multilateral trade agreement, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which encompasses 40 percent of the global economy. It will supersede all prior trade agreements and provides a clean slate for removing certain unjust trade provisions.

The TPP has been negotiated behind closed doors by heads of state and corporate executives. Leaked text indicates a similar investor-state arbitration clause to those that allowed Doe Run to sue Peru over its bankruptcy.

The TPP, as a U.S.-directed initiative, must first be passed by the U.S. before it can proceed for ratification by other countries. Our constitution allows us the Senate and House of Representatives to approve the “fast track” of treaties, wherein the President negotiates a treaty and then the legislative chambers vote for or against the entire document.

While more efficient, that puts legislators in a bind. Free trade is one of the more economically sound strategies out there and partnerships help facilitate cooperation and smooth out the kinks in trade. Specifically, the TPP could reduce customs expenses for Bridge of Hope. Of course, that is also a vote in favor of the questionable clauses rumored to be part of the agreement regarding state sovereignty, labor conditions, the environment, agricultural, and several other issues.

Unfortunately, the Senate has already approved “fast track,” but the House vote could occur as early as this week. If the House votes against the “fast track,” they can amend the agreement to remove clauses that are not the will of the people before passing it.

That will be a messier process. Once the Congress manages to get the wording fixed it will be sent to other countries for debate and they may also seek to refine wording.

I do not apologize for the lack of expediency though. We are not suffering so greatly in the United States that we will be unable to continue on without a new free trade agreement to bring down prices. Likewise, it will take time for developing countries to receive the benefits of the TPP, much of which would be overshadowed by potential challenges to sovereignty.

Personally, I’d rather get it right.

Joining Hands suggest that you in the U.S. write your congresspersons to vote “No” on the “fast track.” If that is accomplished, you can then step up to urge the removal of the international arbitration clause to remove a structural injustice that leads to La Oroya.

Please write a letter to your representative telling them to vote “No” on the Fast Track. Citizens Trade’s campaign offers an adaptable form letter. The effects of reshaping the TPP will ripple throughout the world and into the forgotten spaces like La Oroya.