The politics of uneven development

digitalart

With the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set to expire in 2015, the post-2015 agenda is generating a lot of commentary. In the media and among policy makers and civil society organisations,  there are a multitude of ideas about what the agenda should look like – what it lacked before, and where we need to focus our attention now. The MDGs constitute an important framework used to guide the development priorities of national and global bodies. They remind policy makers, heads of State and civil society that things like maternal health, gender equality and universal education are imperative to development. In other words, they highlight the link between people and development, and the importance of maintaining a focus that is not solely on the economic.

One country that has taken development discourse and action to heart is Peru. With its rumbo al desarrollo  or ‘course of development’ platform, the current government under Ollanta Humala has seen Peru positioned in the global spotlight. One of the most mineral-rich countries in the world, Peru’s course of development is grounded largely in the exploitation and exportation of natural resources like copper, silver and gold, and is heavily dependant on foreign investment. In a time of global economic instability, the International Monetary Fund (IMF)  commended Peru on its spectacular economic growth. Bill Gates even referred to it as ‘middle income’, suggesting that it doesn’t need aid the way that some other countries do. Most recently, Peru hosted the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Latin America, where the WEF Senior Director and Head of Latin America proposed that as one of the fastest growing economies in the world, Peru sets an example of the potential inherent to other Latin American nations.

Conflict

At the same time that Peru’s economic growth has been celebrated, the country has born witness to a series of ongoing social conflicts, many of which are located in regions rich in minerals. No small issue, as of August 2012 the Peruvian Human Rights Ombudsman cited 149 social conflicts related to extractive industries dispersed throughout the country. The majority of these conflicts involve indigenous and campesino (farm worker) communities, who have lived on and worked the lands in question for centuries. These communities don’t necessarily share their national government’s conception of development, instead generally envisioning a course based on promoting local agriculture and tourism.

The northern Andean region of Cajamarca is perhaps the most well known example of these social conflicts.  Starting in late 2011, the region gained international media coverage for the  violent and finally fatal clashes between police and the thousands of local citizens who stand in opposition to the proposed Conga gold mine – a reported $4.8 billion dollar project. Cajamarca is already home to the world’s second largest gold mine, Yanacocha, which was founded in the mid-nineties and is owned by the same company currently proposing Conga. Among other reasons, the largely agriculturist locals opposing the new project cite depleted and contaminated water sources due to existing extractive activity, and insist that water is more valuable than gold. Much of the national media voices concern that these social conflicts – and often their originating communities – are ‘holding the country back’ in its rumbo al desarrollo. State level politicians have been explicit in their interpretation of leaders of the Conga opposition as being against regional and national development – no small accusation given the international weight placed on achieving ‘developed country’ status.

Uneven development

What is most apparent to me in these debates is a lack of understanding. A couple of weeks ago I was chatting with an engineer who has worked in the local mining industry for nearly 20 years. He asked me, as a social scientist, to explain to him why locals oppose the Conga project with the determination that they do. He confessed that he really couldn’t imagine what their reasons would be – didn’t they understand that development was good for them?  In response, I cited what locals had mentioned to me, and what I thought was rather obvious. Home to the world’s second largest gold mine, Cajamarca lacks a modern and sanitary central market (a widespread complaint), suffers from water shortages, has roads in desperate need of paving, has a hospital that doesn’t treat cancer, and is constantly suffering a scarcity of teachers in public schools.  Less obviously apparent are the persistence of gendered violence, high rates of maternal mortality and rising childhood malnutrition.

In contrast, the capital city Lima is home to world-class private health clinics and international schools, multi-million dollar homes and offices and immaculately manicured green spaces. In the rural Andes and jungle regions, these things are harder to come by. Twenty years after the Yanacocha gold mine began production, the region of Cajamarca is still one of the poorest in the country, belonging to a group of departments that has a total poverty rate of over 75%. Quite simply, it doesn’t look like what one would imagine a top producer of gold to look like. And the vast majority of locals recognise this, noting the paradoxical nature of their reality.

These glaring contrasts are indicative of an uneven pattern of development and an unequal redistribution of wealth – or otherwise put, the benefits of development. While Peru may be rising the ranks of economically stable countries, this is not the case in measurements of equality. The Humala government has placed greater priority on boosting what it terms ‘social inclusion’. Traditionally marginalised groups are increasingly folded into large state programmes revolving around childhood nutrition and education and the provision of old-age pensions for those in the poorest national quintiles. Despite these investments, in 2012 researchers found that while overall poverty had decreased, inequality – particularly between rural and urban regions – remained the same or even increased. This means that rural communities, like those in Cajamarca, experience unequal – in this case poorer – access to quality health and education services, employment and infrastructure than urban centres like Lima. Social conflicts like those I refer to here arise from the recognition that this situation is unjust.

People first

The combination of sustained social conflict and statistics like the aforementioned should be taken to heart. Development cannot be just about economics – how many millions or billions of US dollars in foreign investment an opportunity is worth, what it might do for GDP. It can’t even be mostly about economics. It has to be first and foremost about people. About how people live, about their access to services, their ability to exercise agency on their own behalf, about their quality of life.  And it has to be matched by a commitment to equality, to a wilful desire to see all people benefit from a given economic project or process.

The current debates around the post-2015 development agenda represent an excellent opportunity for all national governments, corporations, organisations and agencies with stakes in development processes at home or abroad to stop and reflect. Where do their development related priorities lie and how does the course they’ve chosen to achieve it measure up in terms of delivering on equality? Are the concerns and issues of all communities, regions and populations similarly represented and attended to? Are issues of a social nature given the same weight as economic growth? The Millennium Development Goals are not perfect, and it is unlikely that what comes out of the post-2015 agenda will be either. However, they are an excellent place to start.

*Tara Cookson [2011] is doing a PhD in Geography. Picture credit: http://www.freedigitalphotos.net and digitalart.

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One response to “The politics of uneven development

  1. Very well thought through article and with interesting points to think about our near future. It’s also remarkable how this type of extractive development is done across all political spectrum. (from progressive to conservative govts.)
    Sociologist Maristella Svampa came up with a term that explores that: el consenso de los commodities (the commodities consensus, paraphrasing that of Washingotn) and wrote an excellent article that could perfectly compliment yours:
    http://www.nuso.org/upload/articulos/3926_1.pdf

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