-By Becky Schroeder, NRSD
In spring 2014, eleven other American University masters students and I were selected to perform our capstone graduate research investigation on the hot topic of Corporate Social and Environmental Responsibility, specifically with regard to Chinese Investment in the Peruvian Mining Sector. We received valuable real-world experience working for our client, the World Resources Institute, throughout the semester and conducting field work in Peru.
I studied in the Natural Resources and Sustainable Development program at AU’s School of International Service, but our team had a wide range of academic expertise, spanning environmental policy, natural resources management, human rights, corporate social responsibility, trade and economic development, and Latin America. We incorporated each of these themes into our lengthy final report, available here.
Our research is relevant and timely. As China continues rapid growth and industrialization, its reach extends across the world to satiate its growing appetite for natural resources. Peru is well-poised as a case study for corporate social and environmental responsibility in investment, since its notably neoliberal economic policies welcome foreign investment. Peru has also recently received international environmental attention – as the soon-to-be host country for the 2014 UNFCCC Climate Change
Conference, COP 20; for environmental and social devastation resulting from illegal gold mining, which was not related to our investigation but permeated discussion of mining in the country; and for a national environmental regulatory framework which, while there, we saw weakening before our eyes.
We divided our investigation into case studies of three Chinese mining operations in Peru, examining mines with different lifespans, histories, and public perceptions. My team’s was a long-established iron-ore mine which has become notorious on a national scale, another a recently-established copper mine which has grown to be lauded as a positive example of corporate social responsibility (yet was temporarily shut down for polluting Andean lakes shortly after our field visit), and the last an iron-ore mine still in the planning process and beginning phases. The communities we chose were different than those often brought to mind with the phrase “mining in Peru.” There is no illegal gold mining near our sites, and the communities we studied are not opposed to mining in general, like some Peruvian environmentalist and indigenous communities are.
Our group spent five days in Lima, the capital of Peru, where we met with academics, nonprofit organizations, and several government ministries. We then split off into the three groups and went to our case study mines – one group flew to Arequipa – a regional capital and second-most industrialized city in Peru, another climbed the majestic Andes to reach the small town of Morococha, and my group set off down the stark desert coast to San Juan de Marcona, close to the famous city of Nazca.
Each of us had a different but equally extraordinary experience in the field. One team was able to meet in person with the CEO of the company they studied. Another had the opportunity to catalog a conflict between a mining company who had built a whole new town for residents who had been living in dangerous conditions in a polluted town close to a mine, and a small number of residents who resisted relocation. My team found ourselves being interviewed one night on a local mineworkers’ television station. And some of us even made it, however briefly, to Macchu Picchu.
My practicum experience left me with important academic lessons, such as how incredibly integral fieldwork is to elevate academic case studies to the next level; critical professional lessons, such as how to anticipate and take into account unique intricacies (like varying cultural norms) when executing projects; and equally valuable life lessons, such as when one is warned not to even brush one’s teeth with the water in Peru, it would be wise to listen.
We remain engaged in our research even after our practicum ended and many of us have graduated. Some of us have continued to present about our research at events, and all of us still share new developments and articles about our topic. I strongly encourage future AU students to take advantage of this amazing opportunity, as I couldn’t imagine my graduate experience without a practicum to complete it.