Peru, indignant about desecration. Indifferent about impending extinction

Arial view of Nazca Hummingbird

Peru has gotten a surplus of largely undeserved attention for a prominent United Nations climate conference, as well as for, let’s acknowledge, their many strategically placed wildlife sanctuaries on land that either cannot be easily developed, is militarily strategic to the interests of the state, or will contribute directly to tourism 1.

The outrage expressed by Luis Jaime Castillo 2, vice-minister for cultural heritage, on behalf of the Peruvian government against the individuals representing Greenpeace is, I believe, the peak of hypocrisy and a grotesque diversion from attention which should go towards the greater failures of Peru.

Perhaps because of the tepid outcome of the international conference, and  meanwhile conveniently spurred on to a much greater degree by the embarrassment to national sovereignty induced by a few people representing Greenpeace, yet another career politician, Peru’s environment minister, Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, found it necessary to declare the climate conference “a success” 3.

I have to think that Peru’s government agents and diplomats would simply have no choice but to make a declaration like this, regardless of the outcome. Pulgar-Vidal said further 3, with some chilling euphemism, that his country had “given a new urgency towards fast-tracking adaptation and building resilience across the developing world”.

This phrase, “fast tracking adaptation”, sounds like “exciting new development”, as does “building resilience across the developing world”. It sounds dynamic, in the manner of an effective executive who has finally cleared the road and sidestepped impediments. As with any other vague pronouncement from ministers of power, we have to ask who will be forced to adapt and for whom is this resilience being built?

Pulgar-Vidal continues, in answer to these hypothetical and unasked question by adding, “not least by strengthening the link to finance and the development of national adaptation plans.” 4. At least finance is safe.

Greenpeace should not have apologized. The Peruvian government plans to sue Greenpeace 5 6 7 when they should be thanking them instead! Greenpeace gave the Peruvian government a rare gift: The opportunity to appear victimized and effective, simultaneously. But, I hear in these public pronouncements just as much impotence in the anger expressed by the Peruvian bureaucracy over an inability to protect these “treasures” as much as public shame from having been publicly outed for fully neglecting to actually protect anything! 8

In a manner best characterizing nationalistic chauvinism, the authorities are “seething over the episode, which they said had scarred one of the country’s most treasured national symbols.” Well, that particular “most treasured national symbol” is in reality something a lot less tangible and much more fragile than some ancient piece of grand artwork. I’d be upset, too, if I was an ineffectual, corrupt government trying to exploit the land and the poor without anyone finding out.

This CLASlite map shows the areas along the Madre De Dios river damaged by small, clandestine gold miners between 1999 and 2012. Credit: CLASlite Team

Meanwhile, the land areas that can be induced to give up their near continuous streams of wealth 9 don’t evoke nearly the same level of public indignation when destroyed. Precisely none, actually. Mr. Castillo might sincerely believe that the Nazca Hummingbird was “in a pristine area, untouched. Perhaps…the best figure.” 2 The “perhaps” suggests that he may not actually know!

The world hears little outrage (again, “none”) when many such similarly un-restorable “national treasures” — yet another parcel of rain forest, yet another field or river — is utterly obliterated by gold prospecting and cattle production and strip mining and lumber. Those treasures won’t ever be restored: Upon the clear-cut road to “strengthening the link to finance and the development of national adaptation plans”, no “urgent plans” are forthcoming to similarly sue anyone for the dumping of mercury into Peruvian rivers or removing forest from the top of a watershed that would have actually prevented runoff from washing away the rest of the “national treasures” on the Nazca high plain. 8 10

Eduardo Salhuana, the head of the Madre de Dios Miners’ Federation, said, in the context of Peruvian government vows, that “with the arrival of COP20 11 they’re going to lie to the whole world because nothing has improved here. Lawlessness reigns and the state is absent” 12

“They stepped on our hummingbird” 2

Blanca Alva, a director at Peru’s culture ministry said in 2012, speaking of the roughly 120 to 180 yearly reports, “squatters are the biggest threat to Peru’s more than 13,000 archeological and heritage sites”. 13

By drawing attention to a few “activists”, guilty of, at most, leaving footprints and taking pictures of themselves doing so, the Peruvian government can only hope to move attention away from their own inaction and their own inability to govern. Moving attention away, meanwhile, from the quite nearby Panamerican highway directly crossing the very same Nazca plain and offering immediate and convenient access to this so-called “pristine area”.

People, and the governments pretending to speak for people, do seem to get a lot more excited about human-made artifacts than they do about the very surface of the world on which these artifacts sit. It feels a little patronizing for me to say it like this; it might be worth repeating, though, that this incredibly thin and increasingly vulnerable layer of dirt, water, and air in which we all play out our incredibly important and short-lived dramas, is also incredibly fragile, despite its robust appearance. We do get more excited about these artifacts, as I mentioned, than about the divergent blame heaped liberally by powerful actors upon foreign intruders and upon the impoverished of their own nation states 14. Foreigners can be leveraged for propaganda; the poor can (at least) be enslaved and exploited. Wildlife cannot even be induced to purchase commodities and can’t convincingly be blamed for anything!

A Brief digression

As a point of interest (speaking of wildlife just now) I wonder how many people in the Peruvian government are aware of, much less get terribly exercised about the fact that, of the many species of hummingbirds (speaking, too, of hummingbirds) endemic to North and South America, of the several listed as under some threat, at least four are endangered (probably many more), two are critically endangered (again, probably many more), and at least one will never be seen again, now killed off 15.

By asking whether any in the Peruvian government “get terribly exercised”, I mean to ask whether they are equally enraged to the point of at least calling a press conference and demanding some explanation, getting the world stirred up to a froth about the permanent loss of yet another hummingbird, or something to that effect. Let’s not kid ourselves. The “critically endangered” hummingbirds on lists we can all see for ourselves will absolutely be gone soon. All of them. The rest on those lists — the “vulnerable” and “threatened” — aren’t far behind; just a deforestation or one more mercury-soaked, river delta or an oil glutted wetland away, to join the already fantastically long, ever growing list of species destroyed just in the last two hundred years.

No press conferences will be called.

These individuals I described — just to digress a tiny bit further, if you would bear with me a moment longer — individuals, like the Western Black Rhino (destroyed finally just a few years ago), the Formosan Clouded Leopard, the Pyrenean Ibex, the Japanese Sea Lion, and on and on and on and on, were individuals who had preferences, behaviors, a personal reality. They were their own “treasure”, so to speak. And they had an experience of reality which was treasured by no one. They spent their days simply being and doing what they and their ancestors did for millennia. Worse than merely existing no more, by our reckoning, they are also actually known of by the very species responsible for their deaths! What of those who were not known and were yet decimated silently and anonymously? Those individuals, too, will never exist again. And certainly no lawsuits are pending, even for an entire species. No “diplomatic outrages” will hit the newsstands. Hardly a word on their behalf, in fact, except from a few “activists” who, I’m disappointed to say, can be made to cower and apologize at the word of a grey, bureaucratic suit.

Perspective

I mentioned all of that stuff about the delicacy of our world and the value of an individual, albeit not a human individual, for the purpose of perspective. As to the matter of the aforementioned human made artifacts, the activists would have done no more damage to this site (which is not “irreparably damaged”, incidentally!) than the damage that has been done already and is being done now by rich and poor alike within Peru. Really, how different would it have been had these activists been squatters instead and had taken backhoes to the field on which, instead, a few footprints were laid down?

And, even if they had taken backhoes to those fields? If they were to rub the paint off the fabulous Lascaux caves? Bulldoze every one of the Pyramids? Topple every stone at Stonehenge then grind those stones to powder? What if they were to aggressively and cruelly plant trees in the middle of Machu Picchu? What of it? There exists a fairly high, statistical chance that no one will be around to see any of these artifacts in another couple centuries 16 17 18, unless, I suppose, the larger organisms of this world, living on its thin, partly-habitable (mostly not inhabitable!) surface, can somehow quickly “evolve” a strategy for breathing carbon dioxide and methane — or, worst case in the short term, simply end up with a world of massive deserts, novel diseases and no resources remaining 19 20. What do we treasure most at the brink of nothingness? 21


Series Contents:

Nazca Scandal

Greenpeace Handed Peru the Perfect Distraction: Peru should be held responsible
Peru, indignant about desecration. Indifferent about impending extinction
F*ing Lovers of Science: Verbatim Repetition About Peru

Arial view of Nazca Hummingbird


  1. http://www.sernanp.gob.pe/sernanp/contenido.jsp?ID=665 
  2. William Neuman,“Peru is indignant after Greenpeace makes its mark on ancient site”, New York Times Saturday, 2014-12-13 (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/13/world/americas/peru-is-indignant-after-greenpeace-makes-its-mark-on-ancient-site.html
  3. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2014/12/14/climate-change-deal-reached/20390775/ 
  4. http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/climate-deal-struck-after-marathon-talks-indias-concerns-met/article6690841.ece 
  5. (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-30412336
  6. William Neuman 2014-12-14 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/14/world/americas/peru-plans-to-charge-greenpeace-activists-for-damage-to-nazca-lines.html?_r=0 
  7. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/dec/10/peru-press-charges-greenpeace-nazca-lines-stunt 
  8. Shafik Meghji, “Flooding and tourism threaten Peru’s mysterious Nazca Lines”, The Independent, 2004-07-17 (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/flooding-and-tourism-threaten-perus-mysterious-nazca-lines-6165413.html
  9. (http://www.rappler.com/science-nature/environment/76388-gold-ecological-disaster-peruvian-amazon
  10. Ed Yong, “Gold-Mining In Peru Is Much Worse Than Anyone Thought”, National Geographic (online), 2013-10-28. “The mines are also expanding faster than anyone had thought—from a rate of 2,166 hectares per year before the gold price boom of 2008, to a current rate of 6,145 hectares per year. Those estimates are around 40 percent higher than any previous ones for the region, and they mean that gold mining is now the biggest cause of deforestation in the region, beating out logging or farming. (And that’s ignoring the fact that mining increases the odds of ranching, farming, bushmeat hunting, and environmental damage in nearby areas.)
    (http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2013/10/28/gold-mining-in-peru-is-much-worse-than-anyone-thought/
  11. “Conference of the Parties”, twentieth session concurrent with the “Conference of the Parties”, tenth session, serving as the “Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol” (http://unfccc.int/meetings/lima_dec_2014/meeting/8141.php
  12. http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2014-11-28/news/56540302_1_peru-energy-and-mines-gold-reserves 
  13. Mitra Taj “Pigs and squatters threaten Peru’s Nazca lines” Reuters August 15, 2012 Accessed on August 15, 2012. (http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/08/15/us-peru-nazca-squatters-idUSBRE87E0R520120815.) 
  14. Blame goes where there is a place to put it, so I suppose it is in the better interests of some parties to keep a few token poor around so that some of that blame can be put somewhere. 
  15. Hilary Osborne, “Rare hummingbird faces extinction”, Guardian Monday 2007-05-14 (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2007/may/14/colombia.conservationandendangeredspecies
  16. Chris Mooney, “The world’s climate change watchdog may be underestimating global warming”, The Washington Post 2014-10-30 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/10/30/climate-scientists-arent-too-alarmist-theyre-too-conservative/
  17. Glenn Scherer, “Climate Science Predictions Prove Too Conservative”, Scientific American 2012-12-06 (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/climate-science-predictions-prove-too-conservative/
  18. Robert J. Meyer, “Why We Under-Prepare for Hazards” (essay), The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania (http://lema.smeal.psu.edu/risk/files/2012/04/Meyer-Chapter.pdf
  19. Catherine Brahic, “World on track for worst-case warming scenario”, New Scientist 2014-09-22 (http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn26243-world-on-track-for-worstcase-warming-scenario.html
  20. Paul R. Epstein, Evan Mills (editors) “Climate Change Futures: Health, Ecological and Economic Dimensions”, The Center for Health and the Global Environment, Harvard Medical School (2005)
    (http://coralreef.noaa.gov/aboutcrcp/strategy/reprioritization/wgroups/resources/climate/resources/cc_futures.pdf) Note ‘Key Points’ on page 7 
  21. Avital Ronell, Stupidity University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago (2003) p.297 
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