Translated from Spanish by Annie McDermott
AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN
With this book, the celebrated Peruvian journalist Joseph Zárate has created a work of reportage on the environmental and human costs of the demands of globalisation. Published in Spanish in 2018 as Guerras del interior, an English translation has just been released by Granta. Wars of the Interior isn’t my usual fare, but it seemed to be more than topical, and I’ve not yet covered Peru at all in my sofa-bound tour of global culture.
The book is divided into three sections, focusing on three principal commodities: wood, gold and oil. And it is full of righteous anger at the injustices wrought against ordinary, often illiterate and thus essentially powerless people by the large logging and mining companies. These behemoths replicate against often indigenous, peasant people the same inhumane brutalities that were enacted by colonial rulers in the past.
Reading about the absolute lack of environmental concern shown by loggers, the corruption, and the amount of environmental damage caused by the production of everyday commodities made me feel I should stop buying completely. It certainly made me feel guilty for the amount of books I buy, and for the piles of proofs that I print out for work (I just can’t keep sufficient focus if I read them on screen).
“A map is an instrument of power”, and the apparently empty land (or “silences”) mapped by official cartographers based in the capital, Lima, can frequently obscure areas of rainforest or land attractive for mining where native communities have traditionally made their homes, which is then parcelled off piecemeal and sold off to massive corporations. Communities unused to official bureaucracy, unable to read and write, who have perhaps never travelled to a large town or city before or even traversed a paved road are ill-placed to take on these companies. Maps say different things, and the bureaucracy in Peru doesn’t acknowledge the way peasants have exchanged land for centuries, or recognise their documentation as legitimate. And troublemakers are at genuine risk of assassination. Criminal links are widespread in these industries. For example, according to the World Bank, 80% of wood exports from Peru have illegal origins.
Peru is the greatest exporter of gold in Latin America, and the sixth largest exporter worldwide. But gold is a rare metal:
“If we collected all the gold collected throughout history – 187,000 tonnes, the World Gold Council estimates – and melted it down, it would barely fill four Olympic swimming pools”.
The mining of gold is also intrinsically wasteful and toxic. “To end up with an ounce of gold – enough to make a wedding ring – you need to extract fifty tonnes of earth, or the contents of forty removal lorries,” writes Zárate. Later he tells us that “whole mountains disappear in weeks”, and that mining enough gold for a pair of fancy earrings “produces some twenty tonnes of waste, which includes chemicals and poisonous metals” – specifically cyanide, since a wash of cyanide and water is used to dissolve the rock that surrounds the precious metal.
The final section discusses the oil industry, and shares evidence that the corrupting forces of capitalism have resulted in the misuse of both environmental resources and people. Children are coerced to help clean up oil spills with promises of the money for electronics, while the chemicals used to “clean” the rivers are accused of simply causing oil residues to disperse to the bottom.
By tackling these important but easily overlooked issues through a work of reportage, the impact on communities and the natural world really hits home. Not an easy read, but no doubt an important one. Whether it will make any difference at a grass roots level remains to be seen.