This article was first published in THE ENVIRONMENTAL FILES, The Viking News, February 25, 2004 (Volume 73, No. 3), a bi-weekly publication of the State University of New York, Westchester Community College.
By Taffy Lee Williams
Golden Incan temples and colorfully clad Andean peoples herding wooly llamas on grassy hillsides: these are the images commonly evoked at the mention of Peru. But this pearl of South America, like many developing nations today, is facing an enormous challenge to dig itself out of a centuries-old apathy toward environmental protection.
The problems are widespread. There are no sewage treatment systems; raw human waste is discharged into Peru's rivers and streams even in Lima, a city with 9 million people. Trash collection is established in urban areas, but public services are poor at best. Outside of city centers, refuse piles up in slums and suburbs; people unwrap purchased items and immediately toss the packaging material onto the ground as trash collecting is for the most part not done. Imagine seeing miles and miles of beaches covered not with clean sand but with bottles, cans, batteries, tires, appliances and all the discardings of a modern society with 24 million people.
On February 10, 2004, the Environmental Club of WCC and the New York Whale and Dolphin Action League sponsored a presentation by Mundo Azul (Blue World), an environmental advocacy organization working in Peru. Stefan Austermuhle, Executive Director, presented an oceanographic background and then described conditions in this developing nation.
Peru, a land brimming with biodiversity, contains four fifths of the earth's possible ecosystems, everything from lush rainforests and tropical wetlands to coastal deserts. The Andes Mountains, created by the collision of the Pacific and South American tectonic plates, cuts through the land leaving a productive Amazon valley to the east and dry beaches to the west. Peru is home to one fifth of the world's bird species, 10% of all mammal species, over 50,000 vascular plants and millions of insects. Rich upwelling areas along Peru's 3,500 km coastline, where the southern Humboldt and northern tropical currents collide, have blessed Peru with the second largest fishery in the world. Some 1,000 species of fish and 40% of the world's cetacean (whale and dolphin) species are part of its amazingly diverse environment.
Oddly, Peru is not known for its marine biodiversity but for its annual 8 million-ton fishery. However, 99% of Peru's marine catch is not for human consumption. It is ground into meal and oil to make fish meal for fish and shrimp farms in the US and abroad.
A closer look at Peru's fish processing industry reveals some disturbing information. It takes three to four tons of fish to make one ton of fish meal, and the waste generated is enormous. 30,000 tons of fat per year is discharged from the seven processing plant into the Bay of Paracas, the equivalent waste from a city of 75,000! The once biologically productive sea bottom is covered with a greasy gelatin-like material several inches thick, leaving 90% of the sea bed biologically dead. Data from other bays, where up to 50 processing plants dump their waste, has never even been collected.
Beyond this backdrop looms Peru's environmental demise as overfishing and development claims one acre and species after another. The fish meal industry, once dependent on sardines, shifted to anchovies when the sardine population collapsed. Now the anchovy catch is dwindling, driving the fleets into catching mackerel and larger species higher up on the food chain. Unfortunately, as the sardine and anchovy population goes, so goes the sea bird, marine mammal and larger fish populations. Sea otters, penguins, sea turtles, dolphins and others that feed on those fish, have been decimated as well. In just fifty years, guano bird numbers have plummeted from 28 to 1.8 million, a 95% decline.
Expansion by the growing human population is turning wetlands into building lots. Two thirds of Peru's mangrove forests have been deforested to build shrimp farms. Besides the fish processing sludge, waterways receive a shocking amount of mining waste and slurry. The notorious pesticide, DDT, banned in the US, is widely used on Peru's agricultural lands. Farms are irrigated by flooding the lands; as the waters recede they carry a load of DDT into the rivers, streams and eventually out into the oceans.
The presence of trash in Peru is a huge problem. With seemingly no sense of garbage disposal, Peruvians simply toss their waste out, everywhere. Roughly 30% of the refuse ends up on the beaches; the rest lands in the waters and ocean sediments of coastal regions. Flashlight batteries, each of which can contaminate 175,000 liters of water, oil filters, used electronic equipment, medical waste, every imaginable item, are commonly seen on the shores. Working overtime, a group of 70 fisherman participated in a week-long dive for trash (in one of Mundo Azul's conservation projects) and retrieved over 30 tons of garbage.
Mundo Azul tells us, "Poverty is the main reason for the illegal hunting of marine mammals and birds for human consumption." Illegal harvesting is common in this land where fishing is the primary livelihood. Although there is an international movement to ban the practice, shark finning was common until the shark populations dropped. Sea turtles, mollusks, and shore birds have also been hunted mercilessly. In one fishing boat 2,000 slaughtered guano birds were found headed to market to be sold like chickens. When Peru's fish populations began crashing in the 1970's, dolphin hunting increased. (Illegal dolphin killings began when European settlers demanded dolphin meat for snacks.) Before laws were enacted, 15-20,000 dolphins were killed annually. Today, there are still conservatively 3,000 butchered and sold on the black market each year. Rare Amazon River dolphins, revered in spiritual traditions by Peruvians, are being hunted for the illegal trade by non-indigenous Andean settlers who have no allegiance to the sacred ways. Enforcement of laws protecting these species is almost non-existent.
Ironically, it may be the dolphins that help provide relief in this tragic situation. An internationally booming dolphin and whale watching industry is attracting more and more of Peru's fishing fleet operators, while providing attractive economic incentives to abandon unsustainable fishing practices and protect marine habitats. Mundo Azul's work includes encouraging the new marine industry while reaching out to Peru's people through environmental education programs that are so desperately needed. The response has been encouraging, especially where it's needed most, among the young people.
Mundo Azul's presentation and eyewitness accounts confirm what environmentalists around the world already know: that often outnumbered by the many issues at hand, in Peru and elsewhere, an enormous task is facing the human race if we are to facilitate the successful survival of life on earth. For more information and to find out how you can help visit http://www.peru.com/mundoazul/.
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