A law explicitly designed to protect surfable waves. It sounds too good to be true; a dream conceived by barefoot idealists while mourning a lost sandbank. However, on December 8, this implausible piece of legislation came into existence, signed by President Ollanta Humala of Peru.
The “Ley de Rompientes” (Law of the Breakers) states that every quality surf spot along the Peruvian coastline should be protected from coastal development as important pieces of natural heritage. Waves apt for surfing are designated “inalienable property of the state,” free and open for the practise of wave riding.
We don't need permission to build stadiums, we only wanted to have an effective legal mechanism to help us protect our waves. Carlos Nehaus, President of the Federation of Peruvian Surfing
Drawn up in the year 2000, the law languished in the quagmire of legislative procedure for over a decade, lacking an effective system of registering individual breaks. However, thanks to a concerted push from the Federation of Peruvian Surfing, and the opening of a World Surfing Reserve at Huanchaco, the government were coerced into filling in the details.
"Waves take years, perhaps hundreds of thousands of years to form," says Carlos Neuhaus, principal lobbyist and President of the Fedration of Peruvian Surfing (FENTA). "We don't need permission to build stadiums, we only want to have an effective legal mechanism to help us protect our waves [...] It's very easy to damage a spot, it's almost impossible to reinstate or recuperate one.”
This land of leg-aching lefts has suffered more than most from ill conceived coastal developments, with quality spots such as Pacasmayo, Cabo Blanco and La Herradura all falling foul of the municipal firing line. "For many years we have witnessed the destruction of that which we love," says Nahaus. "The construction of groynes and other structures below fifty metres of the tide line irreversibly alters sea floors, disrupts the natural environment and shatters the main attraction of the region." Save the Waves and local initiatives have fought relentlessly against such developments, with notable success, however, to have concrete legislation to fall back on will make the these battles eminently more winnable.
The government have in recent years grown more receptive to the positive contributions of surfing, and in October 2013 the pointbreak of Huanchaco was officially designated a World Surfing Reserve, owing to its connection with the ancient seafaring tradition of the caballito de totora—the world’s oldest surf craft.
Surfing in Peru has been on of our most victorious sports, and people like to align themselves with winners.Carlos Antonio Ferrer, Huanchaco WSR Committee
"A series of events help to built the momentum," says Carlos Antonio Ferrer, from the Huanchaco WSR committee. "Surfing in Peru has been on of our most victorious sports, and people like to align themselves with winners. Several congressman offered their help and the Peruvian Navy also had an important role. Huancacho will be be one of the first beaches to get enrolled under the regulations of this law, so it will be not only emblematic but we hope to encourage other beaches to follow us and obtain the benefits of this law."
Elected in 2011, President Humala's environmental credentials seem sound. His government have introduced free solar power for the country's poorest two million citizens, and banned the cultivation of genetically modified crops. However, despite good intentions, Peruvian infrastructure remains haphazard at best, and ubiquitous rubbish tipping along the coast is but one of the issues facing the surfing community.
Over the past few years the local government in Buenos Aires has authorized the systematic dumping of municipal waste directly onto the beach. Carlos Antonio Ferrer
A recent Save the Waves report highlighted the extent of the contamination at Huanchaco: “It has become clear that the source of Huanchaco’s trash lives 10 kilometers to the south in the neighbouring community of Buenos Aires,” says Carlos Ferrer. “Over the past few years the local government in Buenos Aires has authorized the systematic dumping of municipal waste directly onto the beach.” For every statement of good intent, there are a dozen state authorised rubbish tips which leave Peru's points besieged by plastic detritus.
Save the Waves have maintained a presence in discussion throughout the lobbying process, adding international pressure to the domestic dispute. Looking beyond Peru, the Environmental Director of STW, Nick Mucha, would like to see similar legislation implemented across the border in Chile. “With regards to Chile, we are currently planning on having Punta de Lobos as the next World Surfing Reserve,” says Mucha. “We are working with a local committee to identify the core threats to Punta de Lobos and will develop a stewardship plan with them to mitigate those threats. As we move further along with them we might certainly explore whether a similar law might be feasible in Chile.”
The Ley de Rompientes is a significant step, but it does not guarantee an end to the woes of Peruvian wave riders. Implementation will no doubt be an arduous task, but if it succeeds, it could be exported as a tried and tested formula. Great ideas often flourish from unexpected places, and when it comes to wave preservation, Peru seems to be leading the way.