A letter from Jed and Jenny Koball serving in Peru
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As the double-decker bus maneuvered a U-turn in the middle of the two-lane mountain road, rocks pelted the windows from outside. Inside, Conrado Olivera, director of our global partner Red Uniendo Manos, looked at the angry protestors with trepidation and compassion. On the outskirts of the central Andean town of La Oroya, they were protesting (by shutting down the highway) the Peruvian State’s inability to resolve a decades-long dispute regarding the operations of a foreign-owned metals smelter that has been polluting the town, leaving it one of the ten most contaminated cities in the world. Conrado was on his way to a gathering with regional authorities and local leaders from La Oroya to discuss plans for a specialized human and environmental health program. But on this day he would be turned back.
This is one of more than 200 social conflicts in Peru today, more than half of which are related to mining activity. Just last week a group of protestors from Cerro de Pasco who are calling for stricter environmental controls for mining activity in their city were walking hundreds of miles from their mountain town to visit national authorities in Lima only to be confronted by National Police, who reportedly called them “dogs” and threatened them with violence unless they turn around. And just yesterday, not far from Cusco, 4 unarmed protestors were shot dead by the National Police, dozens more were injured, and nearly 30 were detained in makeshift jails because they were calling attention to falsified documents used by another foreign-owned mining company to get a multibillion dollar mining project approved by the state.
The particular conflict in La Oroya is one that our partners have been addressing for more than a decade. After so many years of continued pollution, health concerns and uprising from the people, it begs the question: What have we achieved? Quite a lot, frankly. Twenty years ago no one spoke of the crisis in La Oroya; today it is an internationally known story. Twenty years ago the state did little to develop and enforce environmental regulations in the town; today such regulations are debated in the news and on the ground. Twenty years ago few spoke about the rights to health and environment; today it is on the agenda of politicians and the public at large.
In the days following the stoning of the bus on the outskirts of La Oroya, Red Uniendo Manos initiated a letter campaign. The letter was addressed to the Prime Minister of Peru, the Regional President of Junín (where La Oroya is located), and the Regional Council of Junín. The letter was with regard to a regional law requiring a specialized health program for people affected by heavy metals contamination in La Oroya; three years ago Red Uniendo Manos led a public campaign to get the law passed. The law was passed, but it was a program that was never implemented. The letter was demanding that a program finally be designed, funded and implemented, and that its focus be not only human and public health but environmental health as well. We helped circulate this letter, and more than 500 of you signed it from the U.S. When the letter was delivered to the Regional Council as part of the petition to gain their support for the program, they unanimously approved that the Regional Government provide financial funding. And next week Conrado will make the bus trip again on his way to hand-deliver the letter to the Regional President—the next step on the long walk to justice.
Progress is slow. But, progress is certain. This is what our faith and the prophets throughout time tell us. This is the hope that sustains us. What else is certain is that your participation matters. This is the prayer that moves us—the prayer that you will continue to join with us in the long walk. For those who accompany us through financial support, we thank you and we ask that you continue to support us in this way. For those who stand with us through action right where you are, we thank you and we encourage you to keep fighting the good fight. And for those who join hands with us in prayer, we thank you and want you to know that we hold you in prayer, too.
With Hope and Gratitude,
Jed and Jenny Koball
The 2015 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 54
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