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A letter from Jed Koball in Peru

August 2011

A group of girls reading cards.

Vanesa and her friends read letters of support from kids around the world.

A friend once told me that in order to capture your audience and gain supporters for your cause, you should be able to tell your story in the time it takes to burn a matchstick. That is, take a matchstick, strike it, start talking, and by the time the flame starts to burn your fingertips you should have said all that you need to say. Basically — make a long story short.

Suffice it to say, I’ve burned my fingertips quite a few times. More than a few, to be honest!

I’m not known to be a person with the gift of gab, but when I begin to untangle the web of confusion that is the infamous case of “La Oroya, Peru,” it’s hard to know where to begin and where to end.

In July I was invited to speak at the World Mission Matters conference at the Big Tent in Indianapolis, Indiana.  One of our Peruvian partners, Esther Hinostroza, accompanied me; together we shared the latest happenings in La Oroya and how we are addressing the root causes of the problem.

The problem — as so many of you already know — is that La Oroya is one of the 10 most contaminated cities in the world — yes, the world! In fact, 99 percent of the children (about 11,000 children) have severe lead poisoning. The cause of the contamination is a lead smelter owned by a U.S. corporation called Renco Group. Long story short: there are children in Peru who are suffering at the hands of a U.S.–based company.

For 10 years now the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), together with Joining Hands in Peru, has been addressing the issue, creating public awareness on an international level. And, over those years, the PC(USA) has been highly effective, gaining attention through major media and ultimately leading the government of Peru to begin enforcing environmental regulations so that the company would be held accountable for the mess it has created. Long story short: the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been successful in addressing the root cause of this problem.

A group of people around a table with a cake, celebrating.

Esther celebrates with the kids following a successful campaign in the streets of La Oroya.

However, when I arrived here in Peru in 2009, the scenario changed. First of all, the company said it was going bankrupt. In fact, it even petitioned for a $150 million bailout from the government of Peru! Fortunately, the bailout was denied; however, it did eventually lead to the temporary closing of the plant—which on the one hand is good because it provides temporary relief from the air contamination; on the other hand it is bad because it affects the local economy, and more, it paralyzes any cleanup program. Long story short: the children are still at risk and no one is being held accountable. 

The second thing that changed upon my arrival in 2009 was the enactment of the U.S.–Peru Free Trade Agreement.  Initially that doesn’t sound so bad, right? Nor does it sound related. Unfortunately, it is very related and in this case, very bad. Because of loopholes in the Free Trade Agreement, the U.S. corporation, Renco Group, is now suing the State of Peru for $800 million, claiming that Peru’s attempts to enforce environmental regulations and a cleanup program led to the bankruptcy of the plant. Long story short: the company is not only avoiding its responsibility, it is also claiming to be the victim.     

When Esther and I shared this story at the Big Tent, the response we often received was, “It’s like David versus Goliath!” Indeed it is! Goliath is this big corporation with a billionaire owner from the United States, throwing his weight around, avoiding his responsibility, manipulating laws, making people suffer. Who am I to stand in his way? Who am I to fight this monster?

It’s in moments like this that I give special thanks to God for our partners like Esther. If you were to visit Esther in La Oroya it is very likely that you would hear her recite from Scripture words from Paul’s second letter to Timothy:

“…God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, rather a spirit of power…”

2 Timothy 3:7

Esther has preached these words through the actions of her life, and she teaches these words today as she empowers those who suffer most—the children of La Oroya. 

Jed Koball at his computer, with a group of kids at a table.

Jed works with the kids of La Oroya in broadcasting their message through the internet.

Today I can say that I know David. In fact, I have met David. He is a 10-year-old boy named Aldair who stands in front of the plant in La Oroya, declaring that this company is the source of the contamination that is affecting his body. He is an 8-year-old girl named Vanesa who passes out ribbons and balloons along the streets of La Oroya, proclaiming a new day when the environment will be clean. He is an 11-year-old boy named Brian who shouts from the front steps of City Hall that he and all children have the right to breathe clean air. David is a group of kids who have found their voice. David is a movement fighting for change, for justice. David is a spirit of power… and it is spreading, fast!

Long story short: The story is not over. In fact, this story has really just begun. Because this story is our story—the story of voices united for change, the story of partnership in mission, the story of lives offered for others. It is the story of our faith. It is a spirit of power.

As you can see, I often need more than a matchstick of time to get my point across. But if I have to burn my fingertips a time or two, I think it’s worth it.

And if you think it’s worth it, too, I encourage you to take a little time yourself and learn more about it.

To read about Esther’s presentation at Big Tent, see the news story here.

To see Aldair, Vanesa, Brian and other children from La Oroya finding their voice, watch the video online.

In the Spirit we share,

Jed Koball

The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 300

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