Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Orihuela: Green Policies Diverge in Chile and Peru

September 19, 2010

The South American countries of Chile and Peru have both enjoyed a boom in their mining industry, which is credited with supplying about two-thirds of national exports but blamed for environmental pollution.

However, the countries’ narratives diverge significantly when assessing how they have dealt with the contamination, according to a talk by José Carlos Orihuela, visiting fellow in international studies. State legacy, opportunity, and agency make crucial differences in formulating “green” policies.

“Environmental policy failure is not destiny,” said Orihuela, during his talk titled “An Environmental Resource Curse? Governing Air Pollution from Smelters in Chuquicamata (Chile) and La Oroya (Peru)” at the Institute last week. 

The concept of “a resource curse” – that a country brimming with resources will subsequently be crippled by enclave development, corruption, or violence – was chiefly dismissed in the study of the mines of Chuquicamata and La Oroya. 

“In Chile, it was a problem of the state and the state solved it,” Orihuela said, pointing to the decrease of air pollution in Chuquicamata. “In the case of Peru, you have a systemic case of weak environmental enforcement – but it doesn’t mean that it’s La Oroya’s destiny.” 

A state-owned company extracts copper in the Chilean mine of Chuquicamata, located 2,800 meters above sea level in the Atacama Desert. In the Peruvian case, copper, lead, and zinc are mined by a privately-owned company 3,700 meters above sea level in the Central Andes. 

“We also have two different sets of environmental controversies,” Orihuela said. The chief pollutants are arsenic and sulfur dioxide in the Chilean case and lead, sulfur dioxide, cadmium, and arsenic in the Peruvian case. 

But in Chile, the rates of air pollution decreased in the 1990s – thanks to the legacy of a strong state, the opportunity following the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, and the agency of green reformists in the Ministry of Mining.

At the same time, Peru was engulfed in a period of political turmoil that limited the implementation of environmental schemes. Attempts to reduce contamination in La Oroya suffered from a weak state, a preponderance of World Bank advising instead of Peruvian-led action, and constrained green reformers.  

“It’s the agents who make or see the opportunities,” Orihuela said. “Chilean technocrats, on average, think differently of their duties and capabilities if you compare vis-a-vis Peruvian ones. Because a Peruvian one doesn’t have this idea that his actions can actually take place and have an effect.” 

However, policy entrepreneurs in Peru can still have an impact, he added, as can the grassroots movements that have historically pushed much change in the country. 

“You needed much more agency from technocrats and politicians to make a green agenda possible,” Orihuela said.  

Orihuela spoke at the Watson Institute as part of the Graduate Program in Development’s Colloquium on Comparative Research.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Alexandra Ulmer ‘11