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INTERVIEW OF THE MONTH – LUCÍA RUIZ: “There are answers for the Amazon that need to come from the Amazon itself”

Lucía Ruiz - Ex-ministra de Meio Ambiente e Recursos Naturais do Peru

Peru’s Former Minister of Environment, Lucía Ruiz¹, highlights the importance of looking at the territory in developing a bioeconomy in the region

The possibilities for sustainable development, the consolidation of an economy based on biodiversity resources, and the exchange of experiences among the countries of the Amazon were some of the topics discussed with the former Minister of Environment of Peru, Lucía Ruiz, opening Instituto Escolhas’ 2021 interview season.

Lucía, a lawyer specialized in business administration, sustainable development and legal research, has more than 25 years of professional experience, 20 of them dedicated to the management of natural resources, especially water resources. In 2018, she was appointed Deputy Minister of Strategic Development of Natural Resources of the Ministry of Environment and, in 2019, she became Peru’s Minister of Environment (both during the presidency of Martín Vizcarra). She is now a member of the Board of Directors of the Peru’s National Superintendency of Sanitation Services (Sunass).

In her conversation with Instituto Escolhas, Lucía analyzed international agreements, especially the Letícia Pact (a cooperation agreement for the protection of the Amazon that was celebrated in 2019 in the city of Letícia, Colombia, against the backdrop of the forest fires that were consuming the biome²) and addressed the need for an integrated vision of biodiversity certification in climate change.

“Instead of looking just at the climate change convention, biodiversity convention, or desertification convention, we need to look at the whole ensemble. You cannot think of biodiversity and climate change as separate things,” commented Lucía regarding the Biodiversity COP (CBD-15), which will take place in May in China.

Other highlights of the conversion included the peculiarities of deforestation and environmental conservation in the countries of the Amazon, ways of engaging small and large companies in sustainable development projects, and the need to strengthen local governance for the region (with “answers that need to come from the Amazon for the Amazon”).

Check out the interview below.

 

INSTITUTO ESCOLHAS – The Amazon biome covers nine countries across 6.7 million kmand is home to more than 30 million people, including 350 indigenous groups. It is true that a strong work of regional cooperation would bring great benefits to the region, but how is it possible to promote common understandings and criteria among all Amazonian states about the development of the Amazon and the preservation of the forest?

Lucía Ruiz – First of all, I should emphasize that it’s extremely important that there be an absolute respect for the individualities and responsibilities of each government, but it is impossible not to understand that there is only one Amazon biome and, therefore, that the impacts that we can have among us are significant. Respecting the sovereignty of states, we need to work together if we are to really address this type of issue.

The Amazon is full of biological diversity, but also of cultural diversity. Many people depend on these [natural] resources. In addition, perhaps the borders are not as well marked as they appear to be. We have a Western education, but our countries and our populations have very deep relationships that cross borders, as does our biodiversity. We need biological corridors that transcend state borders, because they allow the maintenance of our biodiversity, especially in cases of certain umbrella species³, such as jaguars.

Biodiversity shows that we need this interconnection, which also concerns cultural diversity and links. Peru and Ecuador’s indigenous populations have very strong relationships with each other and are always moving between the two sides of the border. In Peru, there are still indigenous populations in voluntary isolation who also live very close to the borders. Our citizens who live in cross-border areas in the Amazon have different needs than those who live in cities, especially in cities outside the Amazon ecosystem.

Peru has very well-defined Amazon areas, with its high Andes and its coastal region, and we are discovering the Peruvian Amazon. We don’t look at the Peruvian Amazon and see its full potential because we have always focused on the Pacific coast and the high Andes. The Amazon is a different world, and now we are discovering it. But you can’t equate patterns on the coast or in the high Andes with those in the Amazon. A long distance separates the coast and the Amazon, and there are needs in the Amazon that must be recognized from the point of view of the Amazon, whether Peruvian, Ecuadorian, Colombian, or Brazilian. Certain answers cannot be given from the [national] capitals; they should be provided from the Amazon itself, and according to the needs of this ecosystem.

 

INSTITUTO ESCOLHAS – In your view, are the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO)  and the recent Leticia Pact already fulfilling part of this role of promoting common understandings among Amazonian states?

Lucía Ruiz – The Letícia Pact emerged in light of this integrated vision of the Amazon, since forest fires, which were the trigger for the creation of the Leticia Pact, showed that it was not just an issue in Brazil, but rather that support from other countries was also important. Peru helped Bolivia [to fight fires in the Bolivian Amazon]–of course, at the request of Bolivia–preventing them from becoming uncontrollable. The Letícia Pact is a response to specific concerns triggered by the fires, but it goes beyond that issue. The Leticia Pact may also be a response to the fact that solutions were not being found via ATCO, which is very important: it is a solid, old, and valuable institution.

However, perhaps ATCO’s pace is not the pace that the Amazon needs. Sometimes very quick responses are needed, and institutions as formal and structured as ATCO are unable to provide them. Another interesting thing is that ATCO has to be–and indeed, it is–a non-politicized institution. This is because, in our Amazon region, the language and the entire Amazon ecosystem may be subject to different political views, depending on the governments that are in power.

In the Amazon, it is important to have a supranational institution like ATCO. This de-politicizes decisions, but on the other hand it also slows them down–the responses end up being slower. What is happening today is that we have very slow times and responses that never arrive, so there is a lot of frustration–not only from states, but also from users.

If so many things unite us, what we should have is normative approval of certain themes. We should have plenty of binational work. We should have joint binational agendas for cross-border issues, and we should have a space like ATCO, but something that is also attractive to technical staff, so that, from a political perspective, work plans are drawn up every five years, yet with concrete plans featuring annual goals, reviews, and indicators. Otherwise, it’s just international bureaucracy.

 

INSTITUTO ESCOLHAS- Deforestation, for various reasons, is one of the main challenges for most, if not all, countries in the Amazon. In Peru, what are the main causes of deforestation, and how have you been working to make economic activities that put pressure on the forest more sustainable?

Lucía Ruiz – The question is interesting, because we talk about deforestation, but the causes are not necessarily the same. In Brazil, one of the drivers of deforestation has to do with agriculture, the production of palm oil and soybeans–something that Peru does not have. Bolivia also has to deal with soy, etc. In Peru, the drivers are different. We don’t have vast cattle ranching areas. It’s not that they do not exist. We certainly have some cases, but our strongest driver of deforestation, in terms of the number of outbreaks, is small-scale migratory agriculture. In terms of area affected, it’s illegal mining. And we have another factor, which is infrastructure–infrastructure that features planning but is not necessarily implemented accordingly. At this point, we are seeing a very strong negative impact from a specific project, which was previously called Iirsa Sur: an interconnection between Bolivia and Brazil via the southern highway.

In the Amazon–at least in Peru–wherever there is a highway, there is a lot of migration and, thus, widespread deforestation. Small migratory agriculture, which is our main cause of forest clearing, advances significantly each year. In 10 years, we reached an average of 150,000 hectares of deforestation per year, which includes this type of agriculture and the impact of infrastructure, but it is also the result of illegal activities such as mining, for example. Migratory agriculture clears forests in small spots and in a very dispersed manner. The felling of the forest by illegal mining, as has taken place in Madre de Dios, which borders Brazil and Bolivia, causes a large stain in just one place. There, we have 13,000 hectares of terrible deforestation in a single place, due to one type of economic activity, and we very much fear that this will be replicated in other parts of the Amazon.

What has happened twice in recent years, but which we are trying to avoid, is widespread deforestation due to investments in monoculture. Another driver has to do with the Mennonites. The Mennonites are a religious group that has a presence in Bolivia and is dedicated to agriculture–but it is an agriculture in which, when the Amazon trees are perceived to be an obstacle, they end up being cut down. The Mennonites have cleared large areas of forest. We are not used to joint deforestation of large areas, unless it is for infrastructure. We are more used to migratory agricultural models of one hectare, half hectare, five hectares–not something that big. So, when it’s big, it’s visible.

 

INSTITUTO ESCOLHAS – Thinking of other ways to combat deforestation, do you believe that we have the necessary spaces and instruments of cooperation among the Amazon states to develop a bioeconomy, which keeps the Amazon forest standing even as it generates income for the local population?

Lucía Ruiz – Currently, I don’t think that there are many spaces for cooperation, but there is an opportunity to create them. Peru, in particular, is strongly committed to the standing forest, not only by the Ministry of Environment, but also by the Ministry of Agriculture, which now understands that the Amazon requires a different approach. We have many indigenous peoples, we have a sizable population in the Peruvian Amazon, so we are seeking to add value to the work of indigenous populations in these areas, promoting basically sustainable activities. We also have forestry concessions–in the case of companies, of course.

However, what is under consideration is the consolidation of an economic trajectory based on new products–so-called superfoods, which are plentiful in the Amazon– especially so as to increase added value. We have certain limitations and, therefore, a number of challenges. In the case of the Amazon, I believe that these challenges essentially involve access to energy. Sustainable energy options were not developed in the Amazon as they should have been, and to solve this problem, traditional solutions are promoted (such as bringing energy from elsewhere), when we could have sustainable energy in the region itself. But this is something that the Peruvian government is carrying out, from small to large scales.

Here’s a good example of what happens on a large scale, which is Natura–a Brazilian company with an international presence. Natura provides added value to the forest and has a triple impact because it involves women, involves alternative products, and entails a standing forest. In Peru, cosmetics are developed on a small scale. They are not like Natura; they are small-scale, but they also offer opportunities to keep the forest standing. What has had a major industrial impact in Peru is a company called AJE. This beverage and soft drinks company decided to make a bio product line with camu-camu (Myrciaria dubia, a sour berry native to the Amazon) and aguaje (a palm oil that Brazilians call buriti). That is, using products from the Amazon, from protected areas and, therefore, working with communities.

So there is a mix of opportunities: working in Peru, carrying out bioeconomy initiatives and promoting the economy around and within protected areas–and in native community spaces. We are trying to foment this type of initiative. We must always look at the opportunities involving the standing forest through small, medium, and large scale markets, and we are identifying emblematic cases at each of these levels in order to be able to better promote them.

 

INSTITUTO ESCOLHAS – And how is it possible to work at scale in the bioeconomy business, reconciling the activities of big and small actors? Are there any examples of programs for the Amazon that were implemented while you were in Peru’s Ministry of the Environment and that you believe can be replicated by other Amazon countries?

Lucía Ruiz – What’s interesting is that the Amazon countries always have similar initiatives taking place, which we are getting to know among ourselves. Brazil has the Forest Grant Program (Programa Bolsa Floresta⁴), which supports families so that they do not clear the forest. Ecuador has the Friendly Forest (Bosque Amigo) program, if I’m not mistaken. In Peru, we have the National Forest Conservation Program. I don’t know if that happens in other countries, so I’ll speak for Peru: in Peru, you can have an initiative, but you also need to have a territorial approach, otherwise you end up having several parallel interventions in the same space and, instead of adding up, they compete with each other.

For example, we work on the national issue of forest conservation, supporting communities so that they can also see at what scale they are. Some communities receive this money and only have the opportunity to make sustainable food, basic things for improving food and production for their own consumption. Others can go a step further and develop some medium-scale economic activity, such as cocoa or sustainable medicinal activities. And there are those who get to export with the investment they receive, because they are more experienced, because they have a larger structure, because there are other funds helping them out.

Our countries have similar mechanisms, each with its own name. The point is that I hope that it’s not just about giving money, but rather that there is an understanding on the other side. It should be recognized that not everyone can export. There are people who will have to stay only in their own consumption, at the level of minimum supply and, along the way, there may be other spaces where they can help. If it’s really about export issues, this must be sustainable, because it’s not about having a momentary boom followed by having nothing.

In Peru, we are trying to develop these visions of territory, and protected natural areas play a very important role.  These protected areas have a new opportunity to work with communities within the area or in the buffer zone, trying to support them in economic activities in terms of distances and accessibility. This has to do with tourism, which has to do with butterflies, which has to do with game meat, which has to do with some economic activity that can bear fruit. One of them brought together  AJE (the beverage company) with the communities of a protected natural area and allowed the company to explore the buriti in that area. Therefore, with these communities it is no longer just about government support.

The government cannot do everything. Support also comes from the private sector. It’s important to understand that the support of a private sector actor is also fundamental for sustainability and, when this happens, the government’s role  becomes that of a watchdog. I always use the example of Natura because I imagine that what the state does is to inspect the information that is passed on, such as the work performed with communities or women, which also strengthens the company’s image abroad. Thus, each of us plays a role in this situation of supervision and financing, and we can do a really interesting job working together.

 

INSTITUTO ESCOLHAS – As you mentioned, one of the key discussions in the Amazon has been around projects such as roads, hydroelectric dams, or other infrastructure-related ventures. If, on the one hand, this brings investments to the region, it also results in numerous challenges, such as environmental and social problems. What are the main risks in infrastructure projects in the Amazon, and what is needed to bring improvements to the region without harming its people and ecosystem?

Lucía Ruiz – I don’t believe that investment itself is bad. Investment is important and good, but it must be sustainable and transparent. At the moment, I know that in Ecuador and other countries, many Chinese investments are being questioned due to corruption issues, just as in Latin America in general, Brazilian investments were questioned due to corruption issues. That’s why it’s important to understand that investments must have at least two pillars, which are sustainability and transparency.

Unfortunately, in Peru, a highway in the Amazon implies corruption or deforestation, when there are other alternatives. So the first thing we have to put on the table without fear is: what improvements can be made? There is a very good expression used here in Peru, which is “culturally relevant” [in Spanish, pertinencia cultural].  This expression typically is used to talk about food, jobs and work, but it can also apply to investments. Relevance means: is the investment good for that area? For example: you want to build a hydroelectric plant in the Amazon, but instead you could install solar panels.

Why build a reservoir and flood thousands of hectares when you could do the same in a different way and with solar panels? Are there any interests behind this? It’s really interesting to consider what the answers are, according to the reality of the area. I believe that the Peruvian Amazon deserves to be developed with environmental relevance. You cannot develop it as you would like to develop a city on the coast or a city in the mountains. It has to develop as an Amazon city deserves to be developed. Therefore, energy options, transportation options, infrastructure options must have an Amazonian relevance–a relevance to the context and the environment.

Here, we have been receiving Chinese investments in waterways that may negatively impact the spawning of certain fish species and, therefore, harm indigenous communities that live off fishing. It’s not enough to say that a waterway is important; it’s necessary to say how we are going to proceed so as not to impact people there. It’s not enough to say that you need a road, you have to say why and how it will negatively impact the people who live there. So transparent and sustainable investments, with unique Amazonian relevance, are needed. Otherwise, it won’t work.

 

INSTITUTO ESCOLHAS – One of the important laws for the development of the bioeconomy is the Law of Access to Genetic Heritage and Associated Traditional Knowledge⁵, which regulates the principles of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) for research and development with native species of each country, considering the due benefit-sharing. What care should we take when seeking and researching Amazon species and when in contact with traditional communities?

Lucía Ruiz – The Amazon has a diversity of incredible opportunities. Genetic resources are one of them, and traditional knowledge is part of them. Perhaps within this logic of non-standardization, but rather of homogenization of standards, norms, guidelines, etc., we need to talk a little more about the issue of access to genetic resources, so I brought up the example of buriti or aguaje, which are elements that we share and about which we can also share knowledge and lessons.

We have incredible opportunities, and we run the risk of missing the boat because we may not have enough spaces for knowledge exchange. We don’t carry out enough binational work on certain products. We have sporadic binational offices, and we frequently dialogue with Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia, but not with Brazil. With Colombia, Peru decided to carry out a joint research project in Putumayo, which is our border in the North, in order to join forces, pool budgets and obtain better results. Our cultural and biological diversity is similar. We share a lot in the Amazon, and we don’t take advantage of the joint initiatives that exist around it.

For example, in the case of freshwater dolphins (called botos in Brazil), they are found in Brazil, Colombia and Peru. Sometimes, they say, the dolphins reach Bolivia. But take Brazil, Colombia and Peru: if we make a common effort, draw up common work plans with common indicators and deadlines, there is an opportunity for us to continue working hard. In relation to paiche–the fish you call pirarucu–when Brazil allowed the sale and Peru did not, it became an illegal activity in Peru but not in Brazil. This is the kind of thing you have to be very careful about in order to be coordinated.

In Peru, we have concha negra (“black shell”), a mollusk that comes from the coastal maritime areas that we share with Ecuador. If the product is banned here and you pick it up on the other side, it’s a problem. You have to work together with a strong intercultural dimension; you need to understand that this issue involves a very delicate space and you have to seek to jointly enjoy the benefits.

If we join forces so that our scientists can obtain shared information, we can open up important opportunities in each of the countries. The sovereignty of each state also means that governments have different positions or views at certain times, and that’s why we have to look for what unites us, not what sets us apart. It’s not about whether a government is on the right or the center or the left, or whether this country has more money than the other. The important thing is that, adding up, 1 + 1 can equal 3.

 

INSTITUTO ESCOLHAS – On the same subject, how is Peru’s access and benefit sharing system (ABS)? Do you think it has worked properly? What is the importance of having a common understanding among all countries in the Amazon about access to the biome’s genetic resources, as is already the case with the Andean countries? 

Lucía Ruiz – First, it’s important to emphasize that Peru’s initiatives with Andean countries is still a work in progress. Of course, we have been working on this for many years, but the benefit-sharing part is still being developed. We are aware that we are a megadiverse country. We are aware of our wealth of culture and traditional knowledge.

Normatively speaking, we respect traditional knowledge. We respect the issue of genetic resources, but we should always be a little more careful about how to address it. I don’t think we look enough. So, when I say that it’s in progress, it’s because it’s still being worked on. If this worked regionally, it would be much better, because there would be minimum criteria between countries. They may not be specific criteria, it is true, but there could be similar minimum criteria for countries to address these issues.

Yet the issue of genetic resources generates a certain unease due to the concern with sovereignty, and this is absolutely respectable. It’s like when you talk about the Amazon and say “but it’s mine, don’t mess with it,” but nobody is entering the other’s territory. When we speak in terms of access to genetic resources, traditional or Amazonian knowledge in general, we could have valuable minimum common denominators, great lines of work that we can talk about, advance and learn from each other, without harming sovereignty or promoting disrespect.

We have a law on access to genetic resources, we have a law recognizing traditional knowledge, but we still need to clarify the regulatory part. We have a rule, but the rule is so complex, so complicated, that we need to work on it–not to lift protections, but rather to speed up the way we obtain results. Protection is super important, but if we make rules that are so tangled that nobody understands them and nobody can implement them, what can we expect?

 

INSTITUTO ESCOLHAS – In a few months, in May, we will have the CDB-15 (the COP for Biodiversity), which, like the Climate COP, brings a series of goals and agreements between countries that should have been accomplished by 2020, such as the Aichi Targets. What can we expect from the CBD-15? Is it possible that the postponement of the conference, caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the recent election of Joe Biden in the United States will bring about significant changes in the results of the meeting?

Lucía Ruiz – I believe there will be changes, yes. Biden’s situation in the USA is interesting because of what can happen, but not just in terms of the conference. In addition to COP-15 and whether or not the Aichi Targets have been achieved, I think it’s time to take another look at things: instead of looking just at the climate change convention, biodiversity convention, or desertification convention, you need to look at the whole ensemble.

I understand that not everyone wants to be under the umbrella of climate change. But forgive me–this is the main one. You cannot think of biodiversity and climate change as separate issues. Of course, I would love to see good results [at CBD-15]. The year 2020 was supposed to be the super year 2020, with the revision of the Aichi Targets and the goals of the Paris Agreement. But the truth is that I hope for something that will be very difficult to achieve, which is the existence of an integrated vision of certification of biodiversity in climate change, and that the three conventions begin to see all the communicating channels that exist between them instead of thinking about new Aichi Targets, or, in this case, China’s new targets, which will be defined.

In other words, what we need to do is think about how far we’ve come on this with protected areas and other tools. But we’re running out of time. We’re out of time. The  pandemic has shown us this, as has the issue of climate change. So I hope that the convention will bring results, but it will also show in practice how we can distance ourselves from the desertification process. They need to start thinking together about how to make their channels communicate, because otherwise we are lost.

 

¹ Equivalent to the Ministry of Environment in Brazil

² The governments of Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Guyana, Peru and Suriname participate in the Leticia Pact.

³ The term “umbrella species” refers to species that have the same ecological requirements as other species in the same ecosystem. Thus, their protection helps, whether directly or indirectly, other species that rely on the same habitat.

Since 2008, the Forest Grant Program (Programa Bolsa Floresta – PBF) has rewarded traditional populations that make a formal commitment to zero deforestation through four components: income, association, family and social. The PBF refers to a public policy in the state of Amazonas that is implemented by the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation (Fundação Amazonas Sustentável – FAS): http://www.fundoamazonia.gov.br/pt/projeto/Bolsa-Floresta/

Law No. 13,123, of May 20, 2015.

⁶ The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), signed in 1992, is an international multilateral treaty on the protection and use of biological diversity in the signatory countries. The next CBD meeting will take place in May 2021, in China.

no original, a sigla ATCO se refere à organização do Tratado de Cooperação da Amazônia, mas no texto foi omitida a palavra Organização.  Então aqui acrescentei Organization (que, de muitas maneiras, vai além do tratado em si, pois contém arcabouços e mecanismos desenvolvidos após o acordo).