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A Big Step Forward Towards Health in La Oroya, Peru

 By Jed Koball, Mission Co-worker, Joining Hands Peru

After waiting all morning, the door finally opened at about half past noon. One by one we filed in and presented a letter signed by nearly 1500 people, including close to 500 Presbyterians, to Dr. Angel Unchupaico, the Governor of the Region of Junín.

As expressed in the letter, we had come so that the authorities of the government once and for all commit to providing specialized health care for the victims of heavy metal contamination due to mining activity in the town of La Oroya (in the region of Junín) and surrounding areas. Along with the letter, Conrado Olivera,the director of the Red Uniendo Manos Peru, or Joining Hands Peru, presented a proposal for a health program that would address not only the chronic and acute health problems facing affected communities but also tackle the environmental issues at its root.  

For over 15 years, this has been the principle cause of Joining Hands Peru together with its many allies in civil society and the church. And over the course of those 15 years, despite conclusive environmental and public health studies evidencing the problem, international press exposing the problem, and favorable decisions from the Interamerican Human Rights Commission attempting to resolve the problem, the federal government has continued to take no meaningful action.

To the contrary, what we have observed is an increasingly difficult political environment where the government continues to facilitate the efforts of foreign and national mining companies by weakening environmental regulations while also criminalizing the efforts of those who speak out on behalf of affected communities.

And as one might suspect, the fear of speaking out has only increased. And so with each new attempt to bring awareness to the highest authorities of the land and calling on them to take action in the interest of the people, the pathway to healing has been blocked. The door to resolution has been closed. It became apparent that we needed a new and creative strategy– a gospel strategy!

17One day, while Jesus was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting near by (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem); and the power of the Lord was with him to heal.

18Just then some men came, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; 19but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus.

Like the paralytic man and his friends in search of healing, we would have to make a door where there didn’t used to be one.  

And so it was in 2012, we assessed that a political solution to facilitate human and environmental health needed to be initiated at the local and regional levels where the authorities would not be able to turn a blind eye to the suffering of its people.

Joining Hands Peru drafted an ordinance that would require the Regional Government of Junín to implement a comprehensive and specialized human, public, and environmental health program for communities affected by heavy metals contamination. In August of that year, the ordinance was passed unanimously by the Regional Council. Unfortunately, despite this victory, the ordinance was never enforced and the health program was not implemented.  

Conrado Olivera on the far right presents the letter and health program proposal to Governor Uchupaico

However, with the election of Dr. Unchopaico in 2015 as Governor of Junín, we initiated a new effort to gain the cooperation of his office. This time we called upon our partners from around the world. 

Upon reading the letter, and after reviewing the health program proposal designed by Joining Hands Peru and partners, Governor Unchupaico expressed his commitment to working with civil society and the appropriate agencies of his government to facilitate the implementation of a comprehensive health program for Junín.  

Because of an ordinance imagined into being by Joining Hands Peru and eventually passed into law, there is a door where there didn´t used to be one. And because of the vocal support at the local and international level, that door has now been opened.

As Conrado Olivera expressed in a message of gratitude to all those in the Presbyterian Church who signed their name to the letter,Your support has allowed us to open a space of communication more directly with regional authorities that we hope will shine a light on the path.”

While there are miles to go, what we can affirm is that on that day seated in the governor´s office, we joined hand in hand – the church, civil society and affected communities – and took one big step forward. May we remain united as we continue down this path.


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