New reasons for hope in pollution-ravaged Peruvian communities

Government implements specialized health care for those affected by corporate pollution

November 3, 2015

Toxic emissions and waste have resulted in high concentrations of lead poisoning in the small mining town of La Oroya.

Toxic emissions and waste have resulted in high concentrations of lead poisoning in the small mining town of La Oroya. —Rebecca Barnes

LOUISVILLE

A recent letter campaign aimed at securing new and improved health facilities for heavily polluted communities in Peru is being called a success. The campaign was launched as part of an ongoing initiative to address growing health concerns for citizens of La Oroya and other communities in the region of Junin that have been impacted by mining operations. A significant number of signatures on the letter came from the U.S. including numerous Presbyterians.

Extractive industry in La Oroya has polluted the land, air and water. The small mining town is home to nearly 35,000 people including 11,000 children. Toxic emissions and wastes from a polymetallic smelter have resulted in high concentrations of lead poisoning among children including arsenic, cadmium, sulfer dioxide and other heavy metals.

Joining Hands-Peru, also known as Red Uniendo Manos, is an ecumenical and democratic network established by 12 organizations and churches across Peru and is supported by the Presbyterian Hunger Program. For the past 15 years, it has worked to raise awareness about the health and environmental issues for residents in La Oroya and communities throughout the region.

“Joining Hands succeeded in 2012 in getting an ordinance passed that establishes a comprehensive human, public and environmental health care program for La Oroya and surrounding areas,” said Jed Hawkes Koball, a mission co-worker with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) who lives in Peru. “Since then, we’ve been trying to determine what a comprehensive plan would look like. But we still need the regional government to actually put public funds into the program.”

Koball says the letter campaign, with more than 1,000 signatures, including hundreds from Presbyterians in the U.S., pressured the regional governor to meet with Joining Hands.

“It was successful, opening dialogue that we have not been able to have in three years,” said Koball. “While not authorizing the necessary funds, the governor did ask that the law be modified to explicitly direct him to provide funding. He gave us the language needed and we are now writing the modification in hopes of getting the law passed by the end of the year.”

Joining Hands-Peru has three main concerns according to Koball. The group wants to ensure that people who have lived with the pollution for decades have specialized healthcare with new regional clinics. People want assurance that if new mining companies come to the region effective environmental regulations are implemented and enforced. Finally, the group wants assurances that future trade agreements will respect human rights and the environment.

“La Oroya is considered one of the top ten most contaminated cities in the world where more than 97 percent of the children between six and 12 years of age suffer lung and other health problems as a result of the pollution,” said Valery Nodem, an associate with the Presbyterian Hunger Program. “While progress has been made, there is still a lot to do and we, along with hundreds of Presbyterians who have visited La Oroya, support efforts of people on the ground who continue to work to ensure that the Peruvian government will implement all of the agreed measures.”

The metallurgic smelter blamed for the pollution and health problems is currently on the market after its owners filed bankruptcy. However, because of language in the free trade agreement between Peru and the U.S., the U.S.-based owner has filed suit in a foreign tribunal against Peru claiming that Peru’s attempts at enforcing unfair environmental regulations in La Oroya cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars in profit.

“It has been very difficult for us, over the years, to organize a people’s movement there because the company was very powerful and controlling. Because of the politics and the press, people were afraid to speak out,” said Koball. “We took a regional strategy of reaching people outside of La Oroya who were also impacted by the pollution and felt far less pressure to keep quiet.”

A new free trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is currently being negotiated between Peru, the U.S. and 10 additional countries. Koball says it will go before the congresses of each participating country next year. Joining Hands and others are seeking to eliminate a clause that allows foreign investors to sue local governments when they believe their profits are threatened by new and enforced regulations.

In light of the campaign’s success, Conrado Olivera, director of Joining Hands-Peru, sent a note of gratitude to supporters. “It is a joy to reach the heart of each one of you, to recognize how you have brought the most human issues of Peru close to you, especially those in La Oroya. Your support has allowed us to open a space of communication more directly with regional authorities that we hope will shine a light on the path.”

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For more information about supporting the children of La Oroya, click here