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By María José Veramendi Villa

Even as the turbines of the Belo Monte Dam have begun turning, the fight for justice continues. The ongoing operation of the world’s third largest dam—corrupt and careless as it is—cannot stop us.

In fact, each new allegation of corruption and abuse only fuels our desire for justice for those who have been affected by the dam.

And our most important battle is now strongly underway: our case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which opened for processing at the close of last year. 

In it, we’re working to hold Brazil accountable for the countless human rights violations that have been committed in the name of the Belo Monte dam: the absence of consultation with and free, prior and informed consent of indigenous communities; the lack of adequate assessment of environmental and social impacts; forced displacement; and severe violations to the rights of indigenous peoples, riverine communities and residents of Altamira.

We’re in the process of getting the case admitted before the Commission, so they can establish—as an independent, international body—if these violations occurred and whether the State must respond for them.

As part of the process, Brazil had to respond to our allegations before the Commission. We received their response on August 9 and have just submitted our legal submission to counter their claims. 

We need to ensure Commission understands the importance of their role in investigating the human rights abuses that have been suffered due to Belo Monte.

Even as I write this, the State and dam operators continue to blatantly disregard the human rights of the people of the Xingu River basin, living in the dam’s shadow.

On September 1, for instance, the dam’s operating license was suspended yet again because sanitation systems in the city of Altamira—a legal obligation operators were required to meet long ago—were never installed.

Wastewater still floods the streets of Altamira, and threatens to turn Belo Monte’s reservoir into a stagnant pool of sewage.

Unfortunately, as with many legal decisions attempting to protect the rights of those affected, the suspension was overturned a few weeks later.

It’s clear the forces behind Belo Monte have no respect for the environment in which they’re working, and even less for the local people who depend upon the river and forests for their survival.

Many of the people we represent live in the neighborhoods of Altamira, and are exposed to raw sewage. Those who live outside the city have been displaced from their land, cut off from their primary water source, or have had their way of life destroyed. 

We must ensure the Brazilian State is held accountable for the immense environmental and social damage the dam has caused.

Rest assured, we won’t stop until we achieve justice for the people of the Xingú.

“Wake up humanity, there is no time left!”

Berta Cáceres, Goldman Prize acceptance speech, 2015

By María José Veramendi Villa (originally published in Disrupt&Innovate)

Being an environmental human rights defender in Latin America is not an easy task. On the contrary, it is one of the most dangerous jobs you can have. Whether you belong to an indigenous, afro-descendant, or peasant community, whether you are an independent activist or affiliated with a civil society organisation, you are at risk.

In its most recent report, On Dangerous Ground, Global Witness documented 2015 as the worst year on record for killings of land and environmental activists.[1] The report documented 185 killings in 16 countries, making Brazil (50 killings), Colombia (26 killings), Peru (12 killings), and Nicaragua (12 killings) the most dangerous in Latin America.[2]

Unfortunately, the murder of environmental defenders represents a tragic end of the road of a larger problem. We, as a society, all want economic and social progress and governments are mostly elected on this promise. However, increasingly States and various private actors are routinely complicit in actions that aim to silence legitimate voices and the work of environmental defenders. Threats, harassment, and campaigns to discredit or criminalize take a toll on the work of environmental defenders, who end up spending significant time defending themselves before often-complicit criminal justice systems, or even physically protecting themselves from attempts on their lives.

Several United Nations Special Rapporteurs and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have recognised the important role that environmental defenders play in our societies and, as such, have recommended that States protect them. Nevertheless, the level of danger has continued to rise. Environmental defenders such as Berta Cáceres, whose lives should be protected by precautionary measures recommended by the Commission, continue being threatened or murdered in plain view of authorities — often with the complicity of a State. The Yanacocha mining company keeps harassing Máxima Acuña with the intent of forcing her out of her house to make way for the Conga Mining project, even after a Peruvian Court determined that she had not violated the company’s property rights.

In La Oroya, a Peruvian Andean city, a metallurgical complex has operated since 1922. Dozens of victims of toxic pollution have been struggling for years to defend their health and environment, and keep seeking remedy in national and international courts. Their struggle has been plagued by attacks and campaigns to discredit them and the organizations that have assumed their legal representation. They have been labeled “anti-mining” and “anti-development,” harassed in the streets, and intimidated with hanging dead dogs in front of their houses.  

The list of such incidents in Latin America just keeps getting longer. Poorly planned and developed mines, dams, and other infrastructure projects are linked to them. As members of societies that strive for economic and social development, we need to stop pretending that these and other countless attacks against environmental defenders do not happen or have no impact on the financial, political and social costs that we all end up paying eventually. The costs will come and they will be high. Governments need to wake up now and take action to defend the defenders. There is no time left!

To the memory of those who have died defending something that should be precious to all but somehow is cared for by a few: our earth. 

[1] Global Witness. On Dangerous Ground, June 2016, p. 4. 

[2] Global Witness. On Dangerous Ground, June 2016, pp. 8 -9.  

The Brazilian government grandly inaugurated the Belo Monte Dam, which sits on the Xingu River in the midst of the Amazon. As an organization that legally represents affected indigenous and riverine communities, as well as residents of the city of Altamira, we consider there to be no reason to celebrate. The dam has been built by overlooking national and international standards that safeguard the environment and human rights. 

GET TO KNOW MORE about this injustice through the words of our senior attorney María José Veramendi Villa!



“The river is dead!” exclaimed Raimundo as we navigated in his motorboat from Altamira toward the big bend of the Xingu River.

From my perch in Raimundo’s boat, it was easy to see how bleak the landscape surrounding Altamira—the northern Brazilian city closest to the construction of the Belo Monte Dam—has become. The big island of Arapujá, located across from Altamira, has been completely deforested, causing a radical change in the currents of the river. Many of the smaller islands, previously inhabited by fishermen, are now completely submerged, only the tops of trees visible above the rising water.

I visited Altamira, and the indigenous and riverine communities nearby, with colleagues from Justiça Global. We came to update our case, and to inform those affected by Belo Monte of a new hope for justice: in December, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights opened the case against Brazil for human rights violations caused by the dam.

In January, Norte Energía, the company charged with the construction and operation of Belo Monte, opened the dam’s floodgates without warning communities living downstream.

They say the Xingu grew seven meters in just an hour. In some communities, the rising water flooded their riverside land, taking with it canoes, boats and items of clothing.

Destroying lives

The boat took us to a spot in the river where a large island once stood with a house in the middle. Raimundo Nonato had lived there. He raised animals and dedicated his life to fishing. It had been the perfect place to bathe in the river. It was there, in 2013, that Antonia Melo, leader of Movimento Xingu Vivo Para Siempre, baptized me as a defender of these waters. Now the island is under water, and all that remains to be seen are the tops of some fruit trees.

Leoncio Arara, an indigenous man from the community Arara da Volta Grande, says his community lives in fear of the river’s expected growth, the loss of their culture and way of life, and from the recent death of 16 tons of fish. They have seen cracks in the dike of the dam’s bypass channel and fear it will break, as the Fundão mining waste dam did in Minas Gerais. On our tour of the area, we also noticed discolored patches on the dike, which should certainly be a sign of alarm.

Leoncio said the fear keeps him up at night.

On the indigenous lands of the Arara da Volta Grande and Paquiçamba, the life of inhabitants has changed radically. They must now travel to the city (Altamira) to sell their harvest and to buy food. The changing environment has drastrically reduced opportunities for fishing and hunting, rendering their traditional subsistence lifestyle inadequate.

Leoncio says that his peoples’ traditional knowledge and community life are being lost.

Their homes are different, as is the formation of their village. Norte Energía has carelessly constructed houses that conflict with their culture, because of the location and materials used. Their community lacks even a well from which to retrieve drinking water, a condition that should have been met more than five years ago.

Pain, injustice and struggle

On our trip, we spent nine days in the area around the Belo Monte dam. We listened to so many stories of pain and injustice: of indigenous children that died from bad medical care in villages without access to the city; of indigenous people who left their villages to seek shelter in the city and now live in the overcrowded Casa del Indio, surrounded by filth and, often, conflicting ethnic groups.

We relived the stories of tireless struggle, like that of Socorro Arara, an indigenous woman whose home was destroyed, along with those of her relatives.

Socorro and her family all had to haggle with the company, as if their basic human rights were negotiable. Some received very little money in compensation, others the option of a prefabricated house in a neighborhood far from the river.

Socorro’s parents live in one of those neighborhoods. Behind their new cement house, they built a small home with the wood they were able to save from their destroyed home. It is there that they really live, by the light of small kerosene lamps, sleeping in hammocks. Electricity is not part of their lives.

Residents of Altamira live surrounded by the ironies of the third largest dam in the world. On February 28, Altamira and various cities in the state of Para were left without electricity. The cutoff, described by the receptionist at our hotel as routine, was due to testing on one of the dam’s turbines.

There’s not much time now until the Belo Monte begins operation.

If, for the countries of the region, Belo Monte represents the cherished dream of development, for me it represents a nightmare from which I’m dying to awake.

It’s a nightmare of pain and human rights violations, in which a beautiful, living river is quickly fading away. Going with it are the lives and the dreams of those who have long depended upon its clean and healthy waters.

Human rights are not negotiable. The victims of Belo Monte need justice now!

It is that dream of justice that I hope, one day soon, becomes reality.


I wrote these lines in honor of all the people who have dedicated their lives to defending our rivers and our life.


Part 1 of a 2-Part Series on the Human Rights Situation in La Oroya, Peru.

By María José Veramendi Villa

Juana[1] is tired. She and her neighbors have been waiting eight years for a ruling; eight years for a decision that could better their lives, clean their air, attend to their sick children and families.

What began as a courageous and hopeful quest for justice has become a discouraging waiting game. Since 2007, a group of residents in La Oroya, Peru, has acted as petitioner in a case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Community of La Oroya v. Peru.

For nearly a century, their city has been contaminated by the operation of a metallurgical complex (smelter) within its borders. The smelter has blackened the air, poisoned their bodies, and released toxic chemicals into the land and water.

La Oroya was once identified as one of the most polluted cities in the world. The severe contamination has, and continues to have, grave impacts on the health of the city’s residents.

Realities of La Oroya

When AIDA’s co-executive director Anna Cederstav first arrived in La Oroya in 1997, women were walking around with scarves covering their faces, a vain attempt to ease the pain of breathing. Juana explained that she had felt the steady burning in her eyes and throat—the effects of contamination—since she could remember, but didn’t pay it any mind.

Like most of the population, she thought it was normal. She didn’t really know what clean air was because she’d never experienced it.

AIDA has worked for nearly two decades with the community of La Oroya. In 2002, we published the report La Oroya Cannot Wait with the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law. That report began to reveal to the community the severity of the pollution and health risks they were facing on a daily basis. The community realized they had to do something.

Juana said it was in 2003, more than 80 years after the smelter began operating, that she became aware of the contamination. Through work with her parish, she was able to access information and learn about what was happening in her city. 

From there, she connected the dots—the respiratory problems in her family were, in fact, a result of her city’s extreme contamination.

The quest for justice

Residents submitted their case before the Inter-American Commission after their attempts at justice within Peru produced no remedy. A 2006 ruling by Peru’s Constitutional Tribunal against the State ordered it to adopt measures to protect the health of the community, but the State took no such action.

In 2007, the Commission urged the Peruvian state to carry out precautionary measures—a specialized diagnosis of 65 residents and treatment for those who showed irreversible damage to their lives or personal integrity.

Juana said receiving news of the precautionary measures was a happy moment because “we knew that we were winning something. At the beginning, everything went well and we believed that everything would be fixed, (but) with the passing of months—years—there were no answers.”

Then, in 2009, the Commission issued a report admitting AIDA’s petition, declaring that the State’s omissions in the face of pollution could, if proven, represent human rights violations. But still, nearly a decade after the petition was first filed, the victims await a decision, the precautionary measures have yet to be enforced, and the State’s responsibility for the acts have yet to be established. 

“It’s taking a really long time, and not all of us have the patience or desire to keep waiting,” Juana said.

Time affects the victims, wearing them out until they begin to waver and give up fighting for their right to justice. They become even more vulnerable as they face a city hostile to anyone who fights for their rights to life and health, a state that denies its responsibility and looks for any excuse to avoid assuming responsibility, and a company that wants to polish its reputation and use its economic power to manipulate the government. Where is the law in these cases? Where is justice?

Juana explained that leaving La Oroya would be impossible for her family, because there they have work. She remains committed to achieving change with the lawsuit. But that’s not the case for everyone. 

La Oroya contains thousands of stories of families whose lives were radically changed due to the city’s contamination and the subsequent damages to their health and lives.

There are those who had to abandon their homes because they did not see a future in the city, and those who have been unable to leave La Oroya because their entire lives and family are there. Then there are those who have suffered painful attacks and insults from their own neighbors in a community worried about losing jobs, but who march forward with the conviction that, one day, change will come and La Oroya will be a better and fairer place for them, their children, and their grandchildren.

I trust and hope that the law will deliver justice to salvage those years of waiting.

[1] The name has been changed to protect the client.

This blog is based on a longer article Maria José wrote on the case entitled La Oroya: A Painful Wait for Justice. It was published as Chapter 8 of DeJusticia’s book, Human Rights in Minefields: Extractive Economies, Environmental Conflicts and Social Justice in the Global South. Read the full account here.


By María José Veramendi Villa, @MaJoVeramendi

In Peru, every year around 400 children die of cold. I learned this dramatic figure a few weeks ago when I read a column titled “Dying from Indifference,” by Congresswoman Veronika Mendoza.

I asked with genuine indignation: How is it possible that children could die of cold in a country that prides itself on its mineral wealth, its great attraction for foreign investment, its tourism and culinary strengths? A country that hosts major world events such as the Conference of State Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change?

Besides the lack of political will from our leaders, who worry more about looking good in photos taken at grand events, the answer can be found in a key paragraph of Mendoza’s column: “Where could such political will come from if no one is moved, if no one is indignant that these children die, perhaps because they tend to be “somewhere else,” usually peasants, who often speak Quechua or Aymara?”

Regret before prevention

On July 18, 2015, the government issued a supreme decree that declared a state of emergency in some districts and provinces of the country, due to frost. The first paragraph of the decree states that “every year and on a recurring basis, between the months of May and September, our country experiences weather events related to low temperatures, such as frost in our highlands, as was observed in recent seasons with extreme temperatures well below 0 ° C ...”

If these weather events occur every year, why not prevent their impacts?

In 2004, information from the Tyndall Centre, University of Manchester, revealed that Peru is the third most vulnerable country to the effects of climate change, the main cause of such phenomena as increasingly intense frost.

Indifference to the violation of human rights

Indifference in Peru not only manifests itself in children dying of cold in remote communities, but also La Oroya, a city only 175 kilometers from Lima. In a context of extreme industrial pollution, the population, including children, has for many years suffered violations of the rights to life and health.

On August 11, a strike organized by the workers of the metallurgical complex in La Oroya, and the subsequent closure of the main highway that provides access to the center of the country, set off alarm bells in the city. Not bells that should sound when pollution limits are exceeded, but those of a long-neglected social demand.

The metallurgical complex, owned by the company Doe Run Peru, is for sale and in the process of liquidating. According to information released to the public, no interested party submitted a financial offer because Peruvian environmental standards are too strict. In response, the workers took control of the road, demanding that the State relax those standards so the complex can be sold and they retain their jobs.

The protest left one dead and 60 wounded. It ended after the signing of a five-point agreement, which does not mention the rights to life and health of the population of La Oroya.

In a city that has been subjected to unchecked contamination for more than 90 years, Doe Run Peru has continued to obtain extensions to meet its environmental obligations. In July 2015, the company obtained a further extension of 14 years for the complex to meet environmental standards. But what about the life and health of the people?

The State has not seen that environmental standards are met in La Oroya. Neither has it fully safeguarded the health of its inhabitants:

• The air quality alert system has not been activated properly.

• The doctors in charge of health and the heavy metals strategy are scarce and face the constant risk of running out of resources to continue working.

• The State insists on asking the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to lift the measures ordered in 2007 to protect the lives and health of a group of La Oroya residents.

Speaking Loudly

Children are as vulnerable to cold as they are to the effects of industrial pollution. However, the State only comes to their aid in times of crisis or when it is too late.

It sounds like a cliché, but children are our hope. Let us listen so they don’t die of cold and are no longer poisoned! Otherwise, we will also be victims of the disease of indifference. 

By María José Veramendi Villa, senior attorney, AIDA, @MaJoVeramendi 

I can get frustrated in my work as an environmental and human rights lawyer. 

It is frustrating to explain that the work we do on cases of human rights violations may not produce immediate results. It is frustrating to know that our work is a struggle that can take years to find justice for victims and induce change in state policies and our societies. It is frustrating to watch programs designed to protect human rights come under the influence of political interests. The dearth of resources for pursuing these cases is also frustrating. So too are the long waits for justice – or injustice.

Photo: From left to right, Josías and Alaíde during the hearing in Washington D.C. Credit: Andrew Miller/Amazon Watch.

So what do we do when we get discouraged? 

My answer is to return to the origins, the basics and the very reason for our struggle and commitment: the victims.

I relearned this lesson in March. On a trip to Washington D.C., I met two Brazilian fighters for the cause of their communities: Alaíde Silva and Josías Manhuary Munduruku. Alaíde had traveled for days from Buriticupu, a municipality in the northeastern state of Maranhão, and Josías from Jacareacanga, a municipality in the northern state of Pará, to participate in a hearing (in Spanish and Portuguese) before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. They came to present information on how Brazilian judges are continuing to use a law from the country’s 1964-85 dictatorship to violate their right to access to justice.

The law is called Security Suspension. It allows the federal government to request the suspension of judicial rulings. The government has used Security Suspension to invalidate rulings that favor the rights of indigenous peoples and other communities against the development of mega-projects like the Belo Monte hydropower dam in the Amazon. The government can do this on the basis that any adverse rulings to “development” projects are threats to national security or to social and economic order.

Photo: Josías and Alaíde along with part of the AIDA legal team and Brazilian representatives of civil society organizations. Credit: Andrew Miller/Amazon Watch.

At the hearing, Josías described an imminent threat to the Munduruku indigenous community of 11,000 people in 118 villages. The Brazilian government plans to build a hydropower complex (in Spanish) on the Tapajós River and its tributaries—and has not followed a law requiring it to consult the Munduruku and to obtain their prior, free and informed consent.

He said flooding from the project threatens to devastate his people’s land and the survival of their community and culture. He explained how a judge revoked a favorable court decision for his people, allowing the project to continue in open violation of their rights. “We want respect for our land, our river, our sacred sites, our cemetery. And want to be consulted!” Josías said. 

Alaíde spoke about a similar plight. He explained how Vale, a Brazilian mining company, is enlarging the Carajás Railroad to the detriment of 1.7 million people in 27 municipalities in Maranhão and Pará and in at least 100 indigenous, Afro-descendants, peasant and urban communities on the banks of the railway.

The railroad stretches 900 kilometers from the Carajás mines in Pará to the Ponta da Madeira Maritime Terminal in Maranhão. It transports iron, manganese, copper and coal. With the expansion, Vale will duplicate 115 kilometers of the line to increase transport capacity and the flow of minerals.

Alaíde said the impacts are vast. These range from the noise pollution caused by the grinding of the train wheels on the tracks and from the train horn, to the running over of people and animals, to the displacement of communities, villages and families without fair compensation. Alaíde provided details on how Vale terrorizes the population, co-opts leaders, intimidates people and spies on social movements, all in the name of meeting its own interests.

Photo: Traveling along the Xingu River with Joelson, to whom I dedicate this post. Credit: AIDA.

As with Tapajós, Security Suspension was used to revoke a court ruling that had favored the communities. That decision had ordered Vale to suspend construction and conduct an environmental impact assessment with a detailed analysis of all the existing indigenous and Afro-descendant communities along the railroad. But with Security Suspension, this ruling was overturned with the argument that suspending the project would affect the economic interests of the state.

These are just two examples of the impact of Security Suspension. There are many more instances in which the rights of communities and people have been affected by major “development” projects justified by “economic interest, public order and safety.”

We hope that cases like these will expose the impact that Security Suspension has on the human rights of hundreds of people and communities, and we hope that this will drive international organizations to call on Brazil to change this legal instrument.

Thanks to everyone who worked so hard to make the hearing possible. Thanks to our colleagues in Brazil without whose work and commitment Alaíde and Josías would never have been able to make the long journey. And thanks to these two Brazilian human rights fighters for a lesson that drives away the fog of frustration and allows the sun to shine again

I want to dedicate this post to my dear former colleague Joelson Cavalcante, who recently left this world to become a being of light. With him I visited the Xingu River in the Brazilian Amazon for the first time, and I will never forget his happiness and his big smile when, after a year outside his country, he could once again swim in those waters. In his memory, the fight continues.

By María José Veramendi Villa, senior attorney, AIDA, @MaJoVeramendi Photo: An opposition leader protests against Belo Monte. Credit: Christian Poirier/Amazon WatchPhoto: An indigenous family in Brazil's Xingu basin.

We won’t give up.

This is AIDA’s motto for defending the rights of local Brazilians who face forced relocation as construction of the Belo Monte mega-dam moves forward in the Amazon.

The Brazilian government is building the world’s third-largest dam on the Xingu River under the guise of meeting a growing demand for energy. One of the costs, according to official estimates, is the displacement of at least 20,000 people from indigenous and river communities. Their traditional lands will be flooded and their ways of life destroyed.

But the people of the Xingu won’t be drowned quietly. They have organized to stand up for their rights.

The government is so determined that it has hired spies to infiltrate the opposition movement. It has deployed public security forces to patrol the construction site and break up protests. And it plans to beef up controls in June and July, when global attention will focus on Brazil for the World Cup.

Now Brazil’s government wants to criminalize protests against infrastructure projects, even if the affected communities are only voicing their dismay that they’ve been denied a basic constitutional and internationally recognized right to have a say in what happens.

Throw in the towel?

Not us. With your donations, AIDA is working to ensure that the people of the Xingu will be assured the right to be heard, to be consulted, and to live in a healthy environment.

One focus of AIDA’s strategy is to tackle a legal instrument called Suspension of Security, which Brazil established during a military dictatorship. Higher courts have used it several times to “protect the public interest” by overruling lower courts, which, in the case of Belo Monte, have halted dam construction until the government consults and provides adequate protection and compensation for affected communities. Photo: Signs of protest at a city meeting on Belo Monte. Credit: María José Veramendi

At the sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 10, AIDA’s attorney Alexandre Sampaio will explain how Brazil is using Suspension of Security to violate the human rights of Brazil’s indigenous peoples. Additionally, we are advocating, through the preparation and presentation of legal briefs, for the Supreme Court to reject Suspension of Security and determine that the project was illegal from the beginning. We have also asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to analyze the human rights implications of Suspension of Security.Photo: Construction proceeds on the Belo Monte dam. Credit: María José Veramendi

AIDA provides all of its work free of charge to the people we help. Your donations through Global Giving provide the critical support that allows AIDA’s attorneys to pursue this challenging and important legal work, which empowers Amazon communities to defend their rights.

Please consider making another gift in support of this work, helping in our “never-say-never” fight against Belo Monte.

With great appreciation,

The AIDA Team




By María José Veramendi Villa, senior attorney, AIDA, @MaJoVeramendi 

When you start the descent by plane to the city of Altamira in Pará, Brazil, the darkness of the night is interrupted by the bright lights of worksites a few kilometers outside the city where construction of the Belo Monte dam is underway. That’s when things turn bleak.Photo: Xingu River, one of the largest tributaries of the Amazon. Credit: José María Veramendi

On a recent trip to the area I was able to see how the situation of thousands of residents – the indigenous, riverine and city dwellers of Altamira - continues to deteriorate. Their communities and livelihoods are being irreversibly affected and their human rights systematically violated by the construction of the hydropower plant.

When night becomes day

From the plane, the lights from the worksites are just momentary flashes. But for the indigenous and riverine communities closest to them, those lights have brought a radical change to their lifestyles.

José Alexandre lives with his family in Arroz Cru, a waterfront community located on the left bank of the Volta Grande, or Big Bend, of the Xingu River in the municipality of Vitória do Xingu. The community is in front of the Pimental worksite. His entire life has been spent in the area, where hunting and fishing are major activities. But everything changed when construction of the dam started.




By María José Veramendi Villa, senior attorney, AIDA, @MaJoVeramendi

Some months ago my colleague at AIDA, Haydée Rodríguez, wrote an interesting post in this blog called Plastic bag? No thank you (Spanish only). I confess that it shocked me to read the post because although I had a general idea of the harmful effects of plastic bags on the environment, I didn’t realize the profound damage they can cause.

This made me reflect on Peru, where plastic bags reign supreme, and where there is very little public awareness of their harmful impacts, that they poison and kill marine wildlife and pollute the environment, among other things. In most shops, almost all products are packed in plastic bags no matter how small.

Some statistics 

An investigation entitled the Study on the Perceptions, Attitudes and Environmental Behavior regarding the Unnecessary Use of Plastic Bags was carried out in two districts of Lima. The results, published in a July 2012 article on the Ministry of the Environment's website (Spanish only), found that 94% of the businesses studied used plastic bags exclusively to package their consumer products, while 60% used between one to three plastic bags for every purchase and 36% used three to six.

The article announced the launch of a campaign to reduce the use of plastic bags in the northwestern province of Piura, called “Healthy Living with Health Bags.” Other than this article, I couldn’t find any further public information on the campaign’s impact or whether it had changed people’s behavior, something that would have made it possible to gauge if the campaign had the potential to be replicated elsewhere in the country.

The day to day

In most Peruvian supermarket chains, plastic bag usage is exaggerated. Sometimes checkout assistants pack small items in separate plastic bags, generating a huge amount of unnecessary plastic.

A few months ago I visited a well-known Lima supermarket and asked the clerk why they didn’t attempt to cut down on plastic bag usage. I suggested that the supermarket should charge money for plastic bags as an incentive for people to bring reusable bags made of cloth. He said, “Oh, if we did that people would stop coming… There are people who ask us to use more bags or double bags, and if we didn’t, they’d call us stingy.”

Attitudes like this illustrate the disregard that various sectors of Peruvian society have for environmental protection.

Biodegradable bags?

In 2007, Peru’s largest supermarket chain, Grupo Wong, which owns the Wong and Metro supermarket chains and is now owned by Chile’s Cencosud, introduced the use of biodegradable bags, a practice then replicated by other supermarkets in the country.

Photo: A logo used to identify products made with biodegradable plastic. Source:

Wong bags come with a caption that reads, “This bag will biodegrade without leaving any contaminant residues.” The manufacture of the bags “includes a special additive that causes the bag to disintegrate into smaller pieces when it comes in contact with oxygen, sunlight and friction, a process which then allows microorganisms such as fungi or bacteria to feed on its remnants, converting the bag into water, biomass, salt minerals and carbon dioxide, just as we do when we exhale air,” Wong says on its website.  

A real alternative?

The bags used by Wong supermarkets seem ordinary enough. The difference is the special additive ingredient that accelerates the disintegration of the bag. “This means that the plastic is broken down into smaller particles that are so small that you can’t see them. In the first phase, the waste cannot be assimilated with plants (Spanish only)”. Inapol, a Chilean maker of conventional and biodegradable plastic bags, says that while “a conventional plastic bag takes about 300 years to biodegrade, our bags that contain the special oxo-degradable additive reduces this time to approximately two years, depending on the external factors that accompany the process.

Exchange of contaminants

According to a European Bioplastics study, the additives in the oxo-biodegradable bags consist of chemical catalysts thatcontain transition metals like cobalt, magnesium and iron, among others. In this process the disintegration of the plastic bag is caused by a chemical oxidization of the plastic’s polymer chains, triggered by UV radiation or heat exposure. According to the study, the waste would eventually biodegrade in the second phase.  

Photo: An area polluted with plastic bag waste. Source:

The study points out that the breakdown of the biodegradable plastic bag is not a result of natural biodegradation but of a chemical reaction. The waste remnants remain in the environment, something that does not present an adequate solution to the problem. It only transforms visible waste particles into invisible contaminants.

There have been significant advances and an increase in awareness in the business community on the need to take care of the environment. But doubts remain about the natural biodegradation of plastic bags such as those used by Wong supermarkets, and whether they present a real sustainable solution for the environment.

As Peru is such a creative and perse country, why shouldn’t it adopt alternatives to plastic packaging such as reusable cloth bags and recycled materials, and employ their use across the country? Isn’t this something to think about?

We must change our mentalities for things to improve. To paraphrase Haydée, we need to say, “No thank you” to plastic bags. We should learn to reuse and recycle so that we can take care of what we love and, above all, where we live.


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