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A letter from Chenoa Stock in Bolivia

June 28, 2012

Standing up for Life

A bird nose-diving for its prey. A dragon lazily doing the backstroke. A gargoyle, on its haunches, on the lookout. These are the sights I saw in the clouds as we drove under the grand, open sky of the Oruro pampas (prairie lands) on a beautiful, sunny day in April. As we continued along the seemingly endless dirt road, on the outskirts of this mining city, 123 miles south of the capital, La Paz, I felt what it was like to be in the middle of the beauty of the Universe, of God’s creation—surrounded by nothing but nature, where the clouds float on the horizon that runs its unbroken line until reaching the magnificent, protruding Andean mountains—and all basking in the sun’s ever-stretching rays.

I was not alone on this journey to the Oruro pampas, and I was actually not there to take in the never-boring, ever-stunning vistas of Bolivia. I drove along this road so I could better understand how mining companies in this area are slowly destroying the seemingly infinite nature that surrounded us. This journey was initiated by a connection our presbytery partners in San Francisco and Cascades (Oregon) made with Dr. Fernando Serrano, a professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at Saint Louis University. Dr. Serrano is no stranger to the Joining Hands family, as he played a significant role in the human health study that was carried out by Joining Hands Peru in 2005.  This first independent health study provided JH Peru with the foundation of evidence that helped bring them to the place they are now in their campaign in La Oroya—holding Doe Run Peru accountable for the contamination of La Oroya, Peru, and the surrounding communities.

UMAVIDA, the Bolivian Joining Hands partnership (Uniendo Manos por La Vida—Joining Hands for Life) is currently supporting one partner organization in Oruro, CEPA (Center for Ecology and Andean People), and a community organization, CORIDUP (Coordinator in Defense for the Basins of the Desaguadero River and the Uru Uru and Poopó Lakes), in their campaign that is calling for a fair and equitable environmental government audit of the Kori Kollo open-pit gold mine. This is the first audit to be carried out in Bolivia to investigate the contamination of the Kori Kollo mining operations, located 45 minutes outside of Oruro, which supposedly is in its closing stages but continues to extract minerals to this day. After more than three years of delays and postponements, the audit is now in its third and final stage of collecting information and writing reports, but CEPA and CORIDUP realized that human health was not included in the collection of samples, only land and water. With Dr. Serrano known in our Joining Hands family and his expertise and work in human health, he was invited to Oruro with the objective of learning more about the situation there and its mining contamination and for planning possible joint actions.  With this intention, Dr. Serrano and I traveled to Oruro for a week to meet with CEPA and CORIDUP workers, as well as affected community members, to hear their stories and experiences, and see how we could develop solidarity work together. We traveled to mining operations within the Oruro urban areas, as well as those outside, accompanied by Don Felix Layme, president of CORIDUP, Don Jaime Caichoca, the engineer for CEPA, and Jhonny Terrazas Flores, a member of the CEPA Environmental and Social Justice Unit.

So there we were, driving along the fresh, expansive pampas, on our way to see the Kori Kollo mining operations with our colleagues, when all of a sudden our beautiful landscape began to be invaded by out-of-place power lines, darker, polluted water, and salinated land, probably from the tailing/waste deposits of the mine.  As we approached the mining site, we slowly were able to see, growing from the horizon, the great mountain of land that had been created in order to excavate and extract the pit that was before us.  We were of course not allowed to enter the operation area, but as we drove along the perimeter of this mountain of land we were able to see the great amount of water that was used to dampen the waste to prevent it from blowing and contaminating the surrounding areas—a slightly ironic idea, given the contamination that simply comes from the mining operations on a daily basis.  Nonetheless, the water poured and sprayed out in excessive amounts on that mountain.

After some technical explanations of the mine by our accompaniers, we continued on our way through the neighboring town, seemingly abandoned, where we learned that the church was closed due to the mining operations. Apparently these operations do not affect only the natural environment, but everything that is in and around it also—community, jobs, faith, hope.

We drove further out, following along the edges of salinated land and arrived at Toma Toma, a community greatly affected by the Kori Kollo mine. Though we happened to arrive on the day that a majority of the local officials had traveled to Oruro to discuss community matters with the government, we were able to talk with some local women who were very open about describing the effects of the mine. Primavita, one of the more animated women, told us that their water was constantly contaminated (if they even had any that day), that they sometimes had to travel long distances to collect water, that the growth of their crops and their livestock were affected greatly by the contamination, and that, in spite of having talked with the government, nothing has changed to improve their lifestyle and livelihood. As the children played soccer behind us in the community schoolhouse, I wondered how all of this would affect their future lives.

Throughout his visit Dr. Serrano carried out interviews, both in Oruro and La Paz, on different TV stations and on the radio, in addition to giving a conference on human health and his studies and results in Peru, making comparisons to the situation in Oruro. As we await the final report of the audit, supposedly to be released June 30, we—UMAVIDA, CEPA/CORIDUP, Dr. Serrano, our presbytery partners, and Joining Hands staff in Louisville—have discussed action plans for how we can widely distribute the audit as well as hold the government and mining company accountable for what is found in the results and bring them to the table for discussions. It is, as I see it, the definition of partnership advocacy.

Upon seeing the different mining sites in and around Oruro throughout his visit, Dr. Serrano had much to say, but one phrase that stuck with me is “Esto no es vida” (“This is not life”).  This is not the full and abundant life about which Jesus preached. This is not the life we, as an intricate part of God’s Creation, should be promoting or supporting, despite the fact that such disregard for environment is so embedded in our society. Companies are exploiting the environment for profit, not for life.

Thankfully, there are voices standing up for life. UMAVIDA has recently carried out a Water School for our youth in La Paz and El Alto, based on the themes of water rights, the water problems of Bolivia, and what we, with our own local actions, can do to raise awareness and make a change. One of those actions was a stand-in on the main street of La Paz on June 20, marking the inauguration of Rio+20 in Brazil. Our voices were heard: “To defend water is to defend life,” “We don’t want our environment to be sold,” “Mother Earth is dying.” Perhaps it was only a few groups of people on one street in Bolivia, but that’s how changes are made—one voice at a time, one audit at a time, one campaign at a time. Who knows who will be the next voice—perhaps those affected children playing football in Toma Toma, Oruro. One can only hope our partnership actions reach that far.

Chenoa Stock


Here is a private link to see the photos of Dr. Serrano’s visit:


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The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 24

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