On Thursday (July 19), three experts will testify before a House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Subcommittee regarding mining contamination by Renco Group, a U.S. company, operating in La Oroya, Peru.
The three are Archibishop Pedro Barreto of Peru, Dr. Fernando Serrano of the St. Louis University (SLU) School of Public Health, and Rosa Amaro, president of the Movement for the Health of La Oroya.
For more than 10 years, U.S. Presbyterians have been involved with partners in La Oroya to raise awareness in Peru and the United States about air, water and soil pollution created by mining practices of U.S. companies in La Oroya.
In July 2000 Esther Inostroza of Filomena ― a development organization in La Oroya ― joined the Joining Hands Network (Red Uniendo Manos Peru) in Peru, a network of Peruvian churches and non-profit organizations who came together with Presbyterians in the United States to look at root causes of poverty in Peru.
Hunter Farrell, current director of Presbyterian World Mission, was the PC(USA)’s mission co-worker supporting this work in Peru and recalls Esther pleading with the network to help the 8,000 children in La Oroya who were suffering from the contamination caused by a smelter owned by a U.S. company.
“She surmised that all the development and church work in the world would not change the root cause of poverty and suffering, which was long-term health problems related to the smelter’s contamination,” says Ruth Farrell, coordinator of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, of which Joining Hands-Peru is a part.
Presbyterians from Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery ― in whose bounds the La Oroya mine operator is headquartered ― visited and saw firsthand the plight of people who want jobs but don’t want their community poisoned.
“These sisters and brothers simply wanted the U.S. company to invest in the improvements it had promised the Peruvian government it would do,” Farrell says.
The Giddings-Lovejoy Presbyterians began doing research about this company’s practices in the United States. They found that, as in Peru, Renco Group ― operating through Doe Run ― had to purchase 160 residential properties near its smelter in Herculaneum, Mo., in order to comply with EPA-ordered remediation of contamination there.
In 2006, Leslie Warden, whose home was among those 160 properties, traveled to testify before the Peruvian Congress about her experience with Renco.
In July 2002, Broad Street Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Ohio, sent a mission team that included a toxicologist, photographer and physical therapist to randomly test lead levels in La Oroya’s children. The horrific results of those tests led SLU’s Serrano (who is testifying Thursday) and the Centers for Disease Control to do a comprehensive study of contaminants present in the children.
SLU’s findings, first released in December 2005, put La Oroya on the map as one of the 10 most contaminated cities in the world, with contamination extending into the food-producing valley of Huancayo, 50 miles away.
Working with organizations in Peru and the United States ― including Earth Justice, Sierra Club, Oxfam, Institute for Policy Studies and Public Citizen — U.S. Presbyterians continued to press the issue. Peru’s National Mining Association called upon Renco to stop asking for extensions and implement the agreed-upon improvements in its La Oroya operations. Peru’s Congress stopped granting extensions and told the company to comply.
In October 2010 the company chose to stop operations and declare bankruptcy. Now Renco is suing the government of Peru for $800 million in the UNCITRAL, a U.N.-related entity that hears cases under free-trade agreements.
“This means that in addition to enduring years of contamination, Peruvians will see their country spend its limited resources on legal fees instead of needed infrastructure, education and health facilities,” says Farrell.
Current PC(USA) mission co-worker Jed Koball, who has worked with the Joining Hands Network in Peru since 2009, says the case “illustrates how so many causes of poverty are interlinked. In La Oroya, the issue was first protection of public health. Then the ongoing contamination became a human rights issue. Now, it is a trade issue.”
U.S. Presbyterians continue their relationships with people in La Oroya through visits, Skype exchanges between teenagers in La Oroya and in the U.S. and ongoing actions related to Renco’s lawsuit.
More than 300 Presbyterians have visited La Oroya and put in hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours researching, getting the word out and connecting with other groups in the U.S. who can help.
The PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness, along with others, continues to arrange visits for Presbyterians and Peruvian partners with Congress and the State Department, of which Thursday’s hearing is the latest.
“Although we are highlighting the role U.S. Presbyterians have played,” Farrell says, “every one of those Presbyterians will tell you it pales in comparison to the sacrifices Peruvians ― pastors, journalists, concerned parents and the list goes on ― make daily.
“In the face of such a lawsuit outside their own country, some would give up. But they continue to pray and advocate for a just resolution,” Farrell says.
“Archbishop Barreto and Rosa Amaro traveled 10 hours to be in Washington to testify and we Presbyterians, along with others, have helped make that possible by journeying with them these past 10 years and will continue to join our Peruvian brothers and sisters in prayer and action.”