In Lima, the capital of Peru, several ecosystems are threatened by the growing shantytowns. This has caused marginalized groups to be portrayed as a threat to biological diversity, writes Chakad Ojani, postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Uppsala University. Pictured: Improvised housing in southern Lima. Photo: Chakad Ojani.

Guest analysis

Environmental work in Lima collides with the city's vulnerable residents

In Peru's capital Lima, biodiversity is threatened by urbanization and the rapidly growing number of shantytowns. At the same time, the protection of unique ecosystems becomes a threat to the city's economically vulnerable residents. Environmental work must therefore cooperate with an uncompromising fight for equality and inclusion. It writes Chakad Ojani, postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Uppsala University. 

In recent years, several local organizations in Peru's capital, Lima, have begun to get involved in the protection of urban ecosystems. An example of such an ecosystem is so-called fog oasis ecosystems. These are found in desert landscapes where it rarely rains, but where there is plenty of fog, as is the case along much of the Peruvian coast. These ecosystems are home to a unique biodiversity and globally they are very rare.

In the coastal city of Lima, several of these ecosystems are located in the economically weaker outskirts of the city and they are currently threatened by the rapidly growing number of shantytowns. Among other things, the UN Development Program in Peru has pursued its environmental work by working with civil society organizations to try to change the legal status of the ecosystems, which in turn would make it easier for the judiciary to evict occupiers. The consequence is, however, that environmental work in some cases conflicts with people's right to a dignified life.

Lima has one long history of informal urbanization. As early as the early 1900th century, people began to move from the countryside to the capital in the hope of a better future. As a consequence of armed conflicts in the later decades of the century, this development would subsequently accelerate, and it continues to this day. In order to meet the demand for housing, the country's politicians have sometimes chosen a line based on neoliberal deregulation policies. Peru's former president Alberto Fujimori's time in power during the 90s is often cited as a typical example of this strategy. Migrants and economically precarious residents must simply try to build their own improvised housing, often along steep hills that rise out of the city's outer districts and sometimes coincide with the ecosystems that environmentalists are now trying to preserve. It may take decades before infrastructure such as water, electricity, and garbage disposal is finally in place in such areas. In the absence of other alternatives, a large number of people have nevertheless been forced to settle there.

Like other groups in the countryt both local environmental workers and residents share a sense of abandonment. On the one hand, environmentalists feel that the state is not making sufficient efforts to protect urban green areas. On the other hand, many residents are of the idea that it is just as well to occupy new land in areas next to their shantytowns, in the hope that these will eventually be formalized and thus be able to be sold on. In a context marked by state absence, social mobility is often unthinkable without these methods. In addition, there is a fear that other, informal networks of land speculators will catch up, and these rarely take an interest in questions about security in what are considered by many to be risky places to settle.

The result is that already marginalized groups are portrayed as a threat to the city's green areas and biodiversity. In addition, the ecosystems in question are home to species that are closely associated with what is unique to the region, for example the characteristic amancaes flower – an endemic plant that has been classified as endangered and has sometimes come to symbolize the city. A threat to these species and green areas is therefore perceived by local environmental workers as a danger to the city as a whole. This is an attitude that dates back to the very earliest migrations from the countryside, and has given rise to deep social segregation. The difference is that this segregation is now at risk of worsening and taking new forms, driven by contemporary concerns about environmental destruction and the climate.

The aggressive deregulation policy that Lima is strongly characterized by has found support in the idea that government regulation curbs people's entrepreneurial spirit. Ppoliticians and intellectuals has long emphasized that the informal sector should not be seen as a problem, but rather an untapped economic resource. By lowering the threshold for claiming ownership of occupied land, it has been hoped that the informal sector will eventually be able to be integrated into the wider economy. The assumption has been that with ownership also flourishes the opportunity for people to finance their business ideas. The deregulation policy has thus been seen as a method to combat poverty and exclusion.

critic has shown, however, that the marketization of society instead creates new forms of vulnerability. The informal housing market, as well as the conflicts that this gives rise to, is one of a number of different examples of this. This criticism is also asserted by the fact that local environmental workers, whose housing has recently been formalized, are now turning against other residents who hope to undergo a similar formalization process. Market-oriented poverty alleviation therefore not only endangers biological diversity, but also becomes a breeding ground for new types of conflicts between the city's already precarious inhabitants. By threatening Lima's surrounding ecosystem, the deregulation policy simultaneously risks deepening the urban injustices it intends to reduce.

It is undeniably the case that we need to find new ways of relating to the environment. At the same time, this cannot happen at the expense of already vulnerable groups, but these two aspects must go hand in hand. Focusing solely on one risks obscuring and even undermining the other, which is counterproductive in the long run. Therefore, methods are needed that take both the environment and social inequality into account. This is not only true in Lima, but in the world at large. 

This is a guest analysis. The author is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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