A letter from Jed Koball in Peru
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. -- Luke 2:7
As Rosa tapped on the microphone a pregnant pause filled the room. Then she spoke, and the truth was delivered.
This was not the first time that Rosa had told her story, nor would it be the last. But this time was different. This was a turning point.
Rosa Amaro is a lifelong resident of La Oroya, Peru. She has lived with contamination all her life. But when the lead smelter in her town was bought by a billionaire from New York over ten years ago, the contamination got worse. It burned her eyes; it scratched her throat; it caught her attention. And so she spoke out. With new and building evidence of increased pollution and resulting sickness in La Oroya due to the toxic emissions of the smelter poisoning the air, the soil, the water, Rosa spoke out.
And the company responded.
Blacklisting her small business, threatening to burn down her home and promising even worse, agents speaking in defense of the company made life more miserable for Rosa than the contamination itself. But Rosa did not back down. Organizing local citizens, she helped form the Movement for the Health of La Oroya. Today, she serves as its president and is the face of the effort to hold not only the company accountable for its irresponsible behavior but also the State of Peru so that it provides the specialized health care so dearly needed by the residents of La Oroya.
As so many of you have heard this story so many times before, you know that the presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy and its global partner Red Uniendo Manos Peru (Joining Hands Against Poverty in Peru) have been accompanying Rosa for over ten years now: demanding health care for the people, demanding cleanup of the environment, demanding justice for all. And for many years, Giddings-Lovejoy and the Red Uniendo Manos Peru have been successful in bringing international attention to the story and making the State of Peru more responsible in enforcing environmental regulations in La Oroya.
However, this past April, the path to justice in La Oroya took a maniacal twist. The owner of the smelter (the billionaire from New York) filed arbitration in an international forum against the State of Peru claiming that Peru is violating his rights as a foreign investor as stipulated in the Chapter on Investments of the Free Trade Agreement between the United States and Peru. He argues that the enforcement of environmental regulations in La Oroya impedes upon his right to make a profit; therefore, he is suing for $800 million – $800 million of Peruvian taxpayers’ money. This is more than the annual budget of the Ministry of Health, and funds that could be directed toward the health of Rosa and tens of thousands of others just like her.
But, this past October, on a sunny day in Lima, Rosa took her place at the table. The small auditorium inside the Congress of the Republic of Peru was filled with reporters, government advisors, concerned citizens and representatives from Giddings-Lovejoy and the Presbyterian Hunger Program. They were attending a conference organized by Red Uniendo Manos Peru and sponsored by its partner Giddings-Lovejoy presbytery. The theme of the conference was Free Trade Agreements and International Arbitrations with a specific focus on the lawsuit brought against the State of Peru by the billionaire from New York. The intention was not merely to awaken the public’s attention to the largest lawsuit ever brought against the State of Peru; the intention was to educate the government about how the Chapter on Investments effectively provides more rights for foreign investors than for the citizens of Peru, because that is exactly what is happening in La Oroya: a foreign investor (a billionaire!) is not only getting away with breaking Peruvian law, he is claiming to be the victim himself and profiting off of it!
Lined up to speak at the conference were a Peruvian lawmaker, a legal expert from Georgetown Law School, the Director of Red Uniendo Manos Peru and many others; but it was Rosa who won the day. It was Rosa who began to turn the tide.
Far too often over the course of human history the voice of the oppressed has gone unheard. Far too often the voice of the marginalized has been suppressed and silenced. But this day was different. This day the voice of Rosa, the voice of La Oroya, would be present at the table – present before the highest authority in the land. And they were listening.
And preparing the way for the voice of Rosa was mission in partnership – mission shared by the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy and Red Uniendo Manos Peru. Like a voice crying out in the wilderness, Presbyterians and their global partners preached repentance to the oppressors and spoke of a truth that would bring justice, righteousness and peace to the world. Rosa came to speak that truth – the truth of love that seeks out the lowly, the humble, the forgotten and lost.
It is this truth we celebrate now. The truth of our God who came into the world, born in a manger, in the lowliest of places… just as God comes to us and is with us today in our most lowly of places. But as our global partners teach us and as the story of our faith tells us, we know that it is not God’s intent for us to stay there, in the manger. God’s hope is much greater. God’s hope is for us to stand up. To overcome. God’s hope is that those on the margins find their place at the center, that those on the bottom rise to the top, that those who are last become first. God’s hope is that Rosa’s story be heard just as loudly, just as clearly as the words of Mary, who proudly sang out,
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. Luke 1:52-53
Friends, I’m here to tell you that on that sunny day in October, here in Lima, Peru the story was told. The story was told and the song was sung! And, it was heard!
A mere few hours after the conference ended, our global partners received a call – a phone call from the office of the Prime Minister of Peru. He wanted to meet with them and with Rosa to discuss a new strategy, a new plan for the health of La Oroya.
It fills my heart with joy to tell you that this new conversation has begun – a conversation with the highest authorities of the land – and Rosa, accompanied by Red Uniendo Manos Peru, is present at the table. Where it will lead, we can’t yet say… but for now we know one thing – the tide is turning. And it all began with a tap – a tap on the microphone, like a knock on the door. And from there, Rosa stepped inside, claimed her space and found her place. A place at the table. A place before the authorities. A place before the eyes of the world.
A place at the inn.
In the Spirit of Christmas,
The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 300
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 23
this is a great newsletter. thank you! I am a fellow mission co-worker serving in DRC. happy 2012!
Jed, that was so beautiful, and it brought JOY to my heart. God bless Rosa and all of those who suffer in Peru. God bless all of you for your hard work and kind hearts....Merry Christmas.