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Peruvian Archbishop faces new death threats

Archbishop Pedro Barreto has been told to pick out his coffin more than once.

In our mission, we will not stop working for the people.

—Archbishop Pedro Barreto

But a new threat arrived on March 2, just days after the Archdiocese of Huancayo stated its opposition to re-opening a toxic multi-metal smelter in the Andes without first installing appropriate pollution controls.

The lives of both Barreto and Paula Meza Porta, the director of the El Mantaro Revive project, were threatened.  A complaint has been filed with Peru’s national police.

Both the El Mantaro Revive project and Uniendo Manos, as well as other organizations, work together for the health of the community in La Oroya, Peru.

Archbishop Pedro BarretoThe government enforced a three-year shutdown of the La Oroya facility after the company pled financial woes in 2009 and after banks cut off credit to Doe Run Peru, a subsidiary of the Renco Group, a New York-based company owned by billionaire Ira Rennert whose multiple U.S. operations have been repeatedly fined by state agencies and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

According to the Global Post, Renco’s 2011 global sales were almost $8 billion.

Renco is requesting a third extension to its environmental agreement, a condition of its purchase of the smelter from the state in 1997. Arsenic, lead, sulfur dioxide and cadmium are among the contaminants emitted by the smelter’s smokestacks which are located in the Mantaro River Valley, a resource-rich region in Peru, where, other mining operations function as well.

In a study done by St. Louis University in 2005, more than 90 percent of La Oroya’s children had excessive lead levels in their blood.

“We cannot remain silent because this new attempt to sidestep its responsibilities is a complete disregard of the dignity and health of the people of La Oroya and the workers of the Metallurgical Complex who are obligated to work in lethal conditions,” the archbishop said in a public document. The National Council of Evangelical Churches of Peru (CONEP) said that “providing an option between health and work, as proposed by several political leaders in order to resolve the problem, is not only irresponsible but also perverse, because what really is in play is the life of people that the State has an obligation to defend over any other private economic interest.”

Barreto isn’t a newcomer to threats for speaking his mind on the conflict between the extractive industries and sustainable development in Peru. Two years ago, he was told that if he kept talking, he’d “face the consequences.” Seven years ago – after helping to shape a regional table for dialogue on the extractives – another telephone threat came. Four years ago in La Oroya itself, it was reported that a coffin was carried with his name on it during a public procession.

He said that there is no way for the church to back out of facilitating conversation between the government, mining companies and poor communities who live in resource-rich regions. Ninety-five percent of Peru’s natural resources remain untapped, he says. How to tap such wealth needs to be a public conversation so that people, especially poor people, and the environment, are assured protections that were ignored for the bulk of the last four centuries.

“If the church doesn’t do this transparent dialogue, conflict will grow,” said Barreto, who believes that there are two paths into the future and Peru is at a crossroads.

The first road is the old road, where the self-interest of mining companies dictates the lives of communities and the priorities of governments, further angering poor Peruvians who do not benefit from the profits and who are often harmed by the consequences of bad water and filthy air because of mining contamination.

“The harder road is between the state, the mining companies and their neighbors – to be able to look at responsible exploitation of Peru’s natural resources, putting the quality of life of the indigenous, of townspeople and of taking care of the air and the environment [onto the agenda],” he said, adding that the church’s social doctrine has historically enabled it to respectfully engage all parties in a conflict.

Debate about operations of the Doe Run Peru smelter has gone on for more than 10 years now, but decisions keep moving further away from the local community in Peru where the grievance originated. The Renco Group has also filed an $800 million suit against the state, alleging that enforcement of environmental standards negatively affected the financial performance of Doe Run Peru, violating their investors’ rights as stipulated in the U.S.-Peru free trade agreement.

“People can get tired,” the archbishop agreed, adding that it is why it is important to work together in groups locally and internationally. “I also feel like we’ve won a lot. Not only on the national level, but globally,” he said.

Barreto said that because of public pressure, Peru’s problems with global warming are internationally recognized, listed only behind Bangladesh and Honduras in terms of attention.

In the press release issued by the archdiocese after the threats against his life were public, Barreto said, “We hope that the light will soon shine upon such cowardly attitudes because they want to silence the truth and the life. We will not back down; we will continue to move forward in the way, defending life. Neither will we be afraid.

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