What’s Happening Where We Travel: Environmental Edition
Pinks and purples reflected off the muddy, clay colored river, and the ripples from the boat made it come to life. It looked like a 3D pastel painting in “actual size” form. I was looking over the edge of the ferry, which dragged through the Marañón River and eventually connected with the Amazon River in northern Peru and beyond.
It was hard to imagine the river I traveled across in the middle of January, only one short month later, had a black mass of oil sludging through the Amazon, eventually reaching the Marañón.
While I was traveling, I witnessed places which frequently face environmental issues like this, often because of economic interests. Lengthy science articles and environmental world news were no longer so distant from me. The natural wonders and, more importantly, the people affected by environmental damages and natural disasters didn’t feel so far away from me once I had seen the places before the devastation I was watching play out.
Oil Spills in the Peruvian Jungle
Let’s start with the oil spill I just spoke about. Two pipelines in the northern jungle regions of Peru ruptured and spilled at least 2000 barrels of crude oil into various waterways, which reached the Amazon and the river I was on only a month before–the Marañón. Although 90 percent of it was eventually cleaned up, it was one of at least 11 spills in the area since 2010. Thousands faced a water quality emergency in a region where people rely on fishing and agriculture. The spill was ultimately a ‘small’ one, particularly in comparison to the 2010 oil spill in Gulf of Mexico which was over 3 million barrels. Regardless, how many small oil spills can a community handle? How many can the environment we rely on handle before something changes?
Flooding Due to El Niño
Moving towards the coastal regions of Peru, El Niño is to blame for floods that have left thousands homeless. Some highways were closed as a result of high waters and in the outskirts of Lima, heavy rains caused mudslides and destroyed homes. The people most affected live in shanty towns, where homes are made up of unstable infrastructure and are often in the most geographically vulnerable areas.
The current question researchers are trying to answer now about the global phenomenon is if El Niño, and its counterpart La Niña, will worsen and become more common as temperatures rise due to climate change. Now that climate change itself is accepted amongst the scientific community, how already existing weather patterns will change is the next step in adapting and preparing for the future. Until researchers can figure that out, this year’s super El Niño has already affected thousands in Peru alone.
Gold Mining and Its Effects on Clean Water
In the northern mountains between the jungle and the coast, gold mining is a threat to local communities. I spent a week in the village of Sorochuco, a few hours outside the city of Cajamarca. Painted outside the homes of residents in these villages was oro-no alongside agua-si, protesting against potential gold mining in the region and how it would negatively affect the water supply. While the gold in northern Peru seems to be a potential source of wealth and economic growth, the people who actually live in these regions often rely on subsistence farming and need clean water more than gold. Besides, its big companies which would reap the benefits from mining the gold.
But recently, a local resident from the Cajamarca region where I visited, fought back and won. Maxima Acuña de Chaupe won the Goldman Environmental Prize, one of the most prestigious prizes in environmental activism. After years of refusing to sell off her land to the US firm Newmont Mining and the Peruvian mining company Buenaventura, she has helped to protect two highland lagoons, freshwater supply for thousands of people, and her own farm where she grows potatoes and raises guinea pigs.
While refusing to sell her land, she received death threats and was beaten unconscious. The danger environmental activists face from this is an unfortunate and common problem across Latin America. In Peru alone, 48 people were killed protecting their land between 2002 and 2013, according to the NGO Global Witness.
These examples of places I’ve been are just a few of the environmental concerns Latin America and the rest of the world faces–not only putting the beautiful places we love to visit at risk, but damaging the livelihoods of the people who live there. Traveling teaches you, as any travel blog will tell you, about yourself, culture, food, and language (which is what I wrote about last month). But it can also teach you about what is happening in the world, making it personal, putting a human experience to the headlines we read.
In honor of Earth Day 2016, next time you travel, think about picking up a newspaper, asking questions, and finding out what the environmental issues are in the place you’re traveling to.
Article by Sydney Pereira