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Story Publication logo September 24, 2015

Pope’s Encyclical Draws Support from Peru’s #1 Environmental Official


Image by Justin Catanoso. Italy, 2015.

Latin America's first pope derides our "throw-away" culture while offering a stern prescription for...


Manuel Pulgar-Vidal is only the third person to hold the title of Minister of the Environment in Peru, though he's the longest-serving cabinet member of President Ollante Humala. The ministry is a mere eight years old, but the smooth and dashing Pulgar-Vidal, 52, has wrestled to raise the visibility of the office and increase its influence to offset the far more powerful ministry of mining and extraction.

A lawyer specializing in environmental law and policy, Pulgar-Vidal chaired COP20 in Lima in December 2014, the United Nation's 20th annual climate summit. Whatever modest success the Lima summit could claim — a pledge by 196 nations to voluntarily submit carbon emissions limits to be agreed upon at COP21 in Paris — it was due in no small measure to Pulgar-Vidal's determination not to let delegates leave, and at times even sleep, without an agreement.

Pulgar-Vidal's is popular, but not universally so. His international peers admire him, and he will play a significant role in Paris. He clearly relishes the public aspects of his job, and the place he occupies on the world stage of climate policy. But he is generally disliked by extraction industry executives who see his regulations as too strict, and distrusted by environmentalists who see him as too compliant to industry.

A 1986 graduate of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, yet a self-proclaimed non-practicing Catholic like most in the Peruvian elite, Pulgar-Vidal granted me an hour-long interview to discuss his views on Pope Francis' recent controversial encyclical on climate change, environmental sustainability and better treatment of the world's poor. We also discussed perhaps the most controversial extraction projects in Peru — the first mine ever approved in the farm-rich valley of western Arequipa. What follows is a transcript, edited for length and clarity.

MONGABAY: You've read Pope Francis' encyclical. What are you immediate impressions?

PULGAR-VIDAL: Before our COP20 meeting, we had received a lot of good political signals that gave us momentum. For example, the big announcements for carbon reductions by the U.S. and China.… I see this papal encyclical as a good opportunity, a good signal to create that momentum this year on the road to COP21 in Paris.

For the first time, the Pope is focusing on climate change and the environment. And I think that is a good signal — to have the church [take a position on] a very big threat to mankind, and on a threat that can create more vulnerability for poor people.

Also, this encyclical is very sincere. That biblical reference to Genesis and how we have misinterpreted it — that man cannot dominate the earth. It is interesting to hear the Pope say we need a better way to interpret the Bible. This is our common garden. It is an amazing text.

MONGABAY: When you mention momentum, whom are you thinking about?

PULGAR-VIDAL: Momentum for international formal debate. We have changed a lot in how we have made decisions since the first COP in 1995. Now as we near COP 21, there is probably more action outside the negotiations than inside the negotiations. So the encyclical could push countries in the right direction to make good decisions. In that way, it could help a lot.

It is interesting to have the leader of a specific church — the majority church, but still only one church — saying something that also is well received by other religions.

Pope Francis is taking more action, creating awareness and responsibility in this direction. I believe that soon other churches will come out with similar documents. This will create more momentum for awareness. It is in our hands [as world leaders] to take action.

MONGABAY: In the U.S., there is great opposition to the papal encyclical from conservative politicians and Republican presidential candidates. In Peru, not every politician believes the Pope should be playing this role either.

PULGAR-VIDAL: It's very difficult for some people to accept, because it was written by the leader of a religion. But I can tell you, it doesn't read like a religious text. It is written with the language of a poet, with the precision of an engineer, and by a leader with the moral authority to have influence. I think it has been well received by some not only because of his leadership and openness, but also because the language does not pretend to be a religious text.

MONGABAY: Your thoughts on COP21 in Paris later this year.

PULGAR-VIDAL: We are going to have an agreement in Paris. Obama is in his second term. And I am completely sure that Obama doesn't want to fail in this objective, even though he has this very big fight with his Congress.

China is having more power and wants to play in the big leagues. But with its domestic problems with pollution, they need to show they can make the changes that are necessary.

France will be pushing hard for success, just like it did here in Lima. In terms of the developing countries, look at what Peru and Mexico have done. I think the political moment is key, and that's why this papal document can be so very helpful.

MONGABAY: So you see the Pope playing a political role in Paris?

PULGAR-VIDAL: Popes do that do that all the time — political in the good sense.

MONGABAY: How has the encyclical been received by President Humala's administration? Has the cabinet discussed it?

PULGAR-VIDAL: No, no, no. Here in Peru, the society is having a very different relationship with the church. [Peruvian Cardinal Juan Luis] Cipriani, presents the [conservative] Opus Dei approach, and is said to not be too close to Francis. He is not driving awareness. That's why I haven't heard a discussion in the cabinet or other places.

But we [the ministry of environment] will organize a discussion of the encyclical with a different church to try and discuss the content of it. The idea is to have all kinds of churches talking about it. I will be there. The idea is to raise its visibility.

MONGABAY: Will this Catholic document assist you in the creation of new environmental policy you can carry out?

PULGAR-VIDAL: Sure, a lot.


PULGAR-VIDAL: It is very clear in its content. Take the Pope's approach regarding GMOs, for example. We have a GMO moratorium here in Peru. We are going to take a new look at that during our bicentennial in 2021. The questions the Pope has raised for us, they will be important to our discussion on the issue.

MONGABAY: I spoke recently with the prominent Peruvian economist, Richard Webb Durarte. He said he believes the encyclical is sound on the science, but naïve in its economic analysis and recommendations.

PULGAR-VIDAL: I have heard the criticism. They say the Pope is too critical of capitalism. But I don't think he [Pope Francis] is trying to start an ideological debate. But I do hear critics say that the biggest problem when it comes to climate change is overpopulation. The Pope does not see this as a problem. So people are saying, "Why should we believe the pope when he denies this fundamental fact?" Still, I think it's good to have the debate.

MONGABAY: Peru's vast tropical rain forests are critical to helping keep global warming from accelerating. Yet they lie atop billions of dollars in fossil fuels and precious metals. Will you use the authority of the encyclical to protect more of the Amazon from drilling and extraction?

PULGAR-VIDAL: I don't use the word protect. We are trying to create balance. We do not want to stop economic activity. The idea is to grow and also have social considerations. I don't think the encyclical is trying to support a movement to stop economic activity, or to say you Peru, "You don't need mines." The encyclical should be used as a way to raise awareness of the social and environmental sensitivities, but not in a way to stop development.

MONGABAY: Who will manage that balance and environmental protections?

PULGAR-VIDAL: The government. The role of the government is not just to promote investment and development, but to decide how much we should have before environmental damage is done.

Look, we are creating a new national park in the Amazon on the border with Brazil. It will be nearly 900,000 hectares (2.22 million acres). It will be big, but it won't be our biggest national park. We have developed this park [to conserve it] from the oil sector and other industries.

I am Minister of the Environment four years now. I know the importance of preservation and investment. For Peru, it is important to balance both.

MONGABAY: The fact that Peru is 75 percent Catholic, that most politicians and business leaders are Catholic, will the encyclical help align the interests of the government and the church to work more closely on environmental issues at the local and national level?

PULGAR-VIDAL: No. We can use it as a way to raise awareness. But we don't need it to create an alliance with the church. It is a good text, written by a good leader. And we can take some ideas from it, but that's all.

MONGABAY: Do you see the Catholic Church taking more of a leadership role in different parts of Peru to push back against deforestation and illegal mining?

PULGAR-VIDAL: In some places, yes. The Jesuits in the north, they created an organization that is very active already in environmental protection. In the center of this is [Huancayo Archbishop Pedro] Barretto. He is very active against the smelting plant in La Oroyo. Elsewhere, it depends on the congregation. But the Jesuits, yes. Padre Gaston Garatea [at Catolica Universidad] is active. He is trying to be an actor to solve conflicts, like in Tia Maria [ where farmers have protested and stalled an approved $1.4 billion copper mine for six years in southern Peru].

MONGABAY: Where do you stand on the Tia Maria mine in Cocachacra, which some call the most contentious environmental battle in Peru?

PULGAR-VIDAL: This would be the first mining in the Tambo Valley. [You need first to] understand the relationship between the company and people of Arequipa [the department in which Cocachacra is located]. The reputation of the company [Southern Copper Corporation of Mexico, is very poor] — they polluted a lot of water in other places. Their smelting emitted sulfur dioxide. People claim that toxin creates a lot of problems. The history there and environmental reputation of Southern Copper makes this very difficult.

MONGABAY: But you think it's safe to go forward.

PULGAR-VIDAL: I think so. The company failed the first EIA [Environmental Impact Assessment]. But they made changes and have passed the EIA. Many people don't understand the mining process. There will not be a smelting facility [in Cocachacra]. They will use a system with no emissions. There will be no tailing pans [mountains of extracted waste piled high on site]. It will have less sulfur dioxide pollution. It will be an open pit, but it won't use water from the Tambo River or valley. The company will build a desalination plant using water from the Pacific Ocean. I think that is the best way. I think there is a lot of misinformation in this.

MONGABAY: So even with Southern Copper's poor track record of environmental protection, you seem to trust this company.

PULGAR-VIDAL: I never want to say I trust any company. I say, if the EIA is good, and the plan is good, we can deal with monitoring of environmental impact.

MONGABAY: Your office will do that?

PULGAR-VIDAL: (Agitated tone) This interview is becoming political! From the encyclical to Tia Maria.

MONGABAY: Will your inspectors stay on top of what's happening at Tia Maria? Will monitoring be close and violations be issued? Will they blow the whistle if Southern Copper doesn't keep its word?

PULGAR-VIDAL: Yes, sure. We have raised three times the fines for violations of the rules when it comes to extraction. We have improved our capacity to monitor mining, oil and gas and fishing. We have improved the capacity to have more monitoring during the year. I think this is working very well. For any violation of the law, we will issue the fine.

MONGABAY: Paragraph 144 of the encyclical talks about countries that pass environmental laws but then fail to impose them. You seem to be saying that's the not the case in Peru.

PULGAR-VIDAL: In Peru, that was probably true not too long ago. Many companies used to avoid the payment of these fines. One year ago, we finally got a good law. You have to pay your fines. Sure, many in the business sector hate me and this ministry. We are accused of stopping investment. NGOs say we are too promoting of mining. I think that is a good balance.

MONGABAY: COP20 had some modest measure of success. You refused to let the delegates leave, or even sleep much, until there was an agreement. What role do you want Peru to play on the world stage going forward?

PULGAR-VIDAL: It is very difficult to answer that. I think that when we had decided to host the COP, that we thought three things:

First, a more domestic focus. [Work to change] the development paradigm in our own country, and show the world we can do that. We have created more awareness and people see it.

Second, we have not only pushed a climate agenda in a good way, but [do so as] part of the development paradigm agenda. We want a green economy. We are entering a different world.

And third, what we are doing with the French is working together [helping them prepare for COP21]. In the past, the former president of the COP did not work with his successor. We will work very closely with the French. A developed country, and developing country; a good balance.

One more thing. We will have a new president in Peru next year. The government changes on July 20, 2016. We have planted the seeds for the future. I hope the new president continues with our environmental policies. It is important for the country.


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Environment and Climate Change

Environment and Climate Change
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