As the planet gets more and more ravaged, the mind can begin to glaze over at the cumulative general statistics — so much rainforest lost, so many glaciers melted, so much less oil left. Joseph Zárate’s masterly new book reminds us that when it comes to fighting on the front line of the environmental wars, it’s all in the detail, and that nothing is quite as simple as might at first appear.
Some years ago I went to a remote area on the border between Peru and Bolivia where a meteorite had landed on a small village and caused mass poisoning. The hospitals had filled up both with the locals and with the police who had been sent to investigate. Given that meteorites are not known to contain toxic materials, this seemed curious to say the least.
What had really happened was that the red-hot meteorite had landed close to a small stream that meandered down from the hills and had sent a cloud of water vapour up into the air and over the community. Unbeknown to the locals, that stream had long been contaminated by illegal gold miners using arsenic in those nearby hills. What had poisoned them was not the meteorite but a vastly increased dose of what had slowly been affecting them for years in their water supply without anyone noticing. Their early mortality and liver problems had been put down to the hardship of the villagers’ lives.
Zárate goes in search of other such stories in his native Peru, a country that combines immense natural beauty with resources which multinational corporations are only too eager to exploit: timber, oil and gold. Illegal logging in the Peruvian Amazon does far more long-term damage to the planet than the cocaine industry which runs alongside it. Yet while the eradication of coca plants has been pursued with extreme vigour, often with American support, and Peruvian jails are full of drug-smugglers, not a single illegal logger has ever been convicted — even though 80 per cent of the wood exported by Peru has unlawful origins. Just a cubic metre of mahogany can sell for $5,000 in the United States. One Peruvian judge dismissed a case, asking: ‘How can I send someone to prison for taking 70 logs if there are still millions of trees in the rainforest?’
Members of the large Asháninka tribe have done their best to resist the loggers. Rather like the English, they try not to get angry, because when they do they get very, very angry. One community leader, Edwin Chota, attempted to confront the loggers and was killed by them, along with three of his companions. Zárate spent time with the dead man’s family to understand the tribe’s world view, which is one both of community ownership — the concept of owning land individually or by a corporation is foreign to them — but also one in which they recognise the existence of evil. They saw the illegal loggers as demons, kamári, malevolent spirits who had come to destroy them.
But it is gold which has always exerted such dangerous power in Peru, ever since Atahualpa tried to ransom himself from the conquistadors by filling a room with the stuff. To end up with an ounce of gold, enough for a wedding ring, you need to extract 50 tons of earth and then leach it with cyanide. Whole mountains can disappear in weeks. Yet somehow an illiterate 50-year-old farmer, Máxima Acuña, who found that her lake was sitting on top of a gold deposit, managed to resist the mining companies with remarkable success, if at great hardship to her own family.
Zárate’s strategy is to describe, as he puts it, ‘not just such social conflicts, but rather the human questions at their heart’. By doing so, he casts light on the true complexity and emotional cost of what is happening in Peru. Unless we can make such connections, we will only have the statistics.