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Inter-American Human Rights Court delivers long-awaited justice for the people of La Oroya, Peru


It’s the first time an international court has held a nation responsible for environmental impacts generated by the private sector

July 3, 2024

Decades of toxic emissions from a nearby smelter in La Oroya, Peru, caused acid rain that burned the hillsides. (Photo by Jed Koball)

The Inter-American Human Rights Court recently found the State of Peru responsible for violating the rights of residents of the Andean town of La Oroya, who had been exposed to decades of toxic emissions from a metallurgical complex located in the heart of the town.

In 2006, 80 residents of La Oroya filed legal action in the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, claiming that the State of Peru has never taken adequate action to protect the residents’ rights to a healthy environment. Nearly 20 years later, the court has finally spoken.

“How great is our God!” proclaimed Yolanda Zurita, a longtime resident and activist for environmental health in La Oroya. “This ruling is very broad. Apart from reclaiming our right to environmental and human health, it recognizes us as citizens and aims to make the State and the private sector recognize our right to information, political participation and environmental activism.”

It is the first time an international court has held a state responsible for the environmental impacts generated by private sector industrial activity. In this case, the State will be held accountable for remediation, specialized health care and more.

Health and environmental studies have indicated that more than 900 square miles of land in La Oroya, regarded as one of the 10 most contaminated places in the world, and surrounding areas are polluted up to 4 inches deep with toxic metals such as cadmium, arsenic, lead and mercury. Nearly 99% of the children of La Oroya have had levels of lead in their blood.

The Rev. Ellie Stock from the Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy by way of its partnership with Presbyterian global partner Red Uniendo Manos Peru (the Peru Joining Hands Network) has accompanied and advocated for the residents of La Oroya for more than 20 years. In reaction to the court’s decision, she writes, “Justice has long been delayed for people in La Oroya, who have been suffering from lead and heavy metal poisoning caused by the contamination of the metallurgical complex owned and operated over the decades by both the Peru government and U.S.-based company Doe Run Resources and whose land, water and air has been desecrated. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights got it right: Justice will no longer be delayed nor denied.

Yolanda Zurita speaks to a group of visiting Presbyterians about the work of not only demanding that the authorities take responsibility for the contamination in La Oroya but that the residents take greater action in restoring the land that sustains them. (Photo by the Rev. Rebecca Kirkpatrick)

“In the decision to side with the citizens of La Oroya against the Peru government, it began the first steps of the journey to restore justice. It loudly proclaimed that people have the right to clean air, soil, and water and a healthy community, and it declared that that such blatant disregard for the health and well-being of the community is against both international and natural law, and reparations must be paid to restore the health of the community. This watershed decision will serve as a precedent for other communities oppressed and harmed by industrial extraction and governmental negligence.”

Zurita has long been a champion for justice, not only in La Oroya but throughout Peru, whose economy is largely driven by the mining industry. In 2017, she helped form the National Platform of People Affected by Toxic Metals, a national citizens group advocating for environmental remediation, specialized health care and more stringent environmental protections in the face of the extractive industry. In light of the precedent-setting decision of the court, she recognizes that “now it is our challenge to demand compliance with all of this, taking into account what kind of insensitive governments are shamelessly passing laws in favor of the powers of money at the expense of our people, our siblings most in need who suffer and whose blood is shed.”

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At about the same time the decision was handed down, the smelter at La Oroya once again started operations after it had been shut down for 15 years. View a brief clip of the operating smelter above.

Remembering that such work cannot be done alone but only in broad partnership, Zurita echoed the sentiments of many in La Oroya and beyond: “I am grateful for the accompaniment of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Red Uniendo Manos Peru, for valuing us and empowering us to be builders of good living for today and for future generations.”

The Rev. Jed Koball, a Peru-based PC(USA) mission co-worker, assists the Peru Joining Hands Network, an initiative of the Presbyterian Hunger Program.

Today’s Focus: Inter-American Human Rights Court of La Oroya, Peru

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Lora Limeberry, Accountant, Financial Reporting, Administrative Services Group (A Corp) 
Sara Lisherness, Deputy Executive Director of Mission Program, Presbyterian Mission Agency  

Let us pray

O God, empower us to be faithful to risk being in mission for your church, and to anticipate your generous provision. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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