Spring has arrived in Lima, along with clear, blue skies. Standing facing the Pacific, the refreshing scent of a cool, salty breeze fills the air. The ocean glistens under the beaming rays of sun, its foamy white-crested waves roaring before crashing on the rocky shore. The calm inspired by this sight is one of the many perks of living in a city by the ocean, along with fantastic seafood, enviable surfing spots and postcard sunsets. In the otherwise colourfully chaotic metropolis that is Lima, being able to witness such a display of still, natural beauty is nothing short of astounding. I now grow increasingly worried about its future.
Lima is South America’s only capital city by the sea. Along part of its desert shore, a natural cliff 50 metres high extends parallel to the Pacific for just over 20 km, across 6 different districts. A superb example of Peru’s natural heritage sites, it has come to provide one of the most iconic scenes of the city.
Over the past decades, significant investment has been allocated to projects surrounding this attractive area, which locals refer to as the Costa Verde, or Green Coast. In the mid-90s in particular, Peru was enthusiastically embracing foreign investment after an economic hiatus due to the terrorist conflict endured over most of the 80s and early 90s, which deeply scarred the country. In this historical context, a specific deal took place. The sub-soil of a park sitting over the cliff and part of the cliff itself were conceded to a Chilean retail real-estate developer for a period of 60 years in 1995. The project encompassed the construction of a mall, parking lot, night-club, cinema, theatre, infrastructure to access the beach, green areas and a +250-room five-star hotel; covering a total space of 45,000 square metres. That is roughly the size of 8 American football fields. Of all the project’s components, the infrastructure to access the beach, green areas and the hotel have not been yet built.
In the spring of 2015, it was made public that the Chilean group wants to move forward with the construction of the hotel. Yet one very important fact has changed in the intervening 20 years. In 2010, the cliff was declared intangible by Lima’s Metropolitan Municipality. The Municipality of Miraflores, which awarded the concession, is choosing to disregard this. It is enabled to do so as, from a legal standpoint, the ruling cannot be pushed retroactively, meaning that the city ordinance stating that any work done on the cliffs must safeguard the natural landscape does not apply to this project.
I am baffled by the mixed response to this news. I would say about half of what I’ve read is hands-down for the construction of the hotel, even now, when it has been revealed that a water treatment plant will be built on the beach in the future hotel’s surrounding areas. Arguments range from “at least the hotel chain will undertake the upkeep of its part of the cliff” to “our authorities already granted the licenses, and the hotel industry will bring more jobs”.
What about the value of our city’s unique landscape? The identity it forges? Emotional bonds with this natural heritage have been built over a lifetime. Picnics shared with friends on parks atop the cliff. Countless sunsets colouring the sky with a palette of reds, oranges, purples and yellows I’ve witnessed from the boardwalks along it. The first time I surfed, I remember looking at the cliff right across the ocean from me. I can’t possibly be the only one to have these memories.
Surely a more substantial kind of gratification is to be found in the preservation of our environment than amassing wealth from selling off part of our heritage. The geology of cliffs is an incredible story that has unfolded over millions of years. How can we be so fast to put it in harm’s way in the name of economic development? We need to make a conscious attempt to attune to this part of our heritage by way of questioning the perilous decisions our authorities make about the landscape, and ultimately the socio-environmental future of our city. Not to mention the fact that Peru sits on the Ring of Fire, putting Lima under permanent tsunami risk. The cliffs and the constructions above it, regardless of their seismic-resistant structures, would be the first to be compromised in the event of a high magnitude earthquake that will inevitably happen in time.
Investment is all good and well and truth be told, Lima could use some sprucing up in the tourism department. This would generate jobs and, if executed correctly, a trickle-down effect that could benefit peoples’ livelihoods. Alternatives exist that consider not only the creation of value for shareholders, but for every stakeholder involved. The Certified B Corporations, for instance, are for-profit organisations that willingly comply with high environmental and social standards whilst fulfilling their market-based goals. Despite them only just starting to take off in Lima and the tweaking such initiatives might need on a larger scale to achieve a significant, measurable impact towards sustainability, their utmost value in my opinion lies in the fact that they represent a much needed systemic view towards business. Profit is not bad. But if it is only being maximised for one constituency (i.e. shareholders) like business-as-usual tends to do, then social and environmental aspects will continue to be overlooked. As a society, we should be far more invested in pushing for change.
In general, Peru is poorly prepared and apathetic towards civic cohesion and involvement. We have a tendency to stop cold in our tracks after the initial knee-jerk reaction of consternation news such as the construction of a massive hotel in our Costa Verde trigger in, apparently, not even all of us. We still have a long way to go concerning how to actively participate in ways that enable us to truly influence policy. A remarkable example of such participation in Latin America is the #RenunciaYa (Quit Now) campaign, which started as a peaceful protest in Guatamala earlier this year, spearheaded by a young middle class group when a report was published by a UN anti-corruption agency implicating high-profile politicians with organised crime. The political pressure exerted by the campaign, with over tens of thousands of supporters taking to the streets, has resulted in a wave of resignations, including the Vice-President and most recently, the President. It is a noteworthy illustration that sets a precedent for orderly civic participation in the region, and what it can achieve.
Time will tell if natural heritage in this case will be a casualty of our enduring habit to choose wealth over and in spite of, literally, everything else. I hope reflecting on the potential impact of this project will finally tip us over in the direction of action and away from an all too present convenient numbness. There is too much at stake not to.
A curious and extroverted limeña, Paloma enjoys listening to other people’s stories and sharing her own. Born and raised in Lima, she is (obviously) obsessed with Peruvian cuisine and will let you know about it. A BA in Communication for Development and a MSc in Environment and Development, sustainability is her passion. Paloma currently resides in Lima working as a development consultant for several private and public organisations. She will never say no to travelling, dancing or cookies.