Day by Day, Across the Decades

The Struggle for Environmental Health Continues in La Oroya and Beyond

By Jed Koball | Mission Co-Worker Peru

The elders of La Oroya who helped plant nearly 20,000 trees over the decades take a well deserved rest as they appreciate the beauty of the life they have tended.

It has been nearly ten years since the plant shut down. In June of 2009, the metallurgical smelter in La Oroya, Peru stopped full operations, as its US based owner, The Renco Group, Inc., claimed its investment was no longer profitable.

After entering a bankruptcy and liquidation process (to date, after numerous rounds of auctions over the past several years, the plant has still not been sold; a subsequent round of auctions will take place next year), the largest and most complex smelter in the Western Hemisphere has only occasionally operated at partial capacity to demonstrate to potential buyers that it is still functional.  However, its minimal operations have largely given a reprieve to the fragile bodies of the thousands of infants, children, pregnant women and elderly folks most at risk to ingesting its toxic fumes.

When fully functioning, the smelter would emit up to two thousand tons of lead, arsenic, and cadmium into the air each day, making La Oroya one of the most contaminated cities in the world, leaving 99% of the children with extreme levels of lead in their blood and nearly 1000 square miles of soil contaminated up to four inches deep.

It has also been nearly ten years since I arrived in Peru to accompany our Joining Hands partner Red Uniendo Manos Peru in its ministry of accompanying the effected people of La Oroya and addressing this grave injustice. This story is not about me, but it is through the lens of my experience that I recount where we’ve been and where we are going.

My arrival in Peru happened to coincide with a turning point in our work. Certainly, I was not responsible for the shutting down of the plant nor the conditions that led to its shutdown. But, I do believe the ten years of the Presbyterian Hunger Program´s faithful partnership with Red Uniendo Manos Peru prior to my arrival did in fact have something to do with what unfolded when I got here.

For ten years our Joining Hands partners called attention to the environmental degradation and impacts on the health of the people in La Oroya, especially children and women. For ten years, Presbyterians joined our partners in substantiating the claims of injustice and strategically pressuring the Peruvian government to defend the people and the land they occupy. For ten years, they told the story together far and wide to whomever would listen, building an international contingent of outraged and sympathetic voices of all stripes.

We must be in sacred accompaniment, on bended knee, in the toxic soils, planting trees side by side with the defenders of the Earth.

Such pressure led to increased enforcement of environmental protections in La Oroya that The Renco Group, Inc. ultimately held responsible for its failed investment.

So, what has happened in the ten years since? And what might the next ten years bring?

The shutting down of the plant and the subsequent filing of bankruptcy exposed other levels of injustice. The Renco Group, Inc. filed an international lawsuit against the State of Peru, claiming its enforcement of environmental regulations led to its loss of profits and thus violated the company´s foreign investor rights as stipulated in a free trade agreement between the U.S. and Peru.

What quickly became apparent is that this was no longer about the behaviors of one greedy and shameless company, but rather it was about a global system of rules of commerce designed to protect and defend such companies. And so, our work became that of understanding the system and strategizing to re-write the rules so that such trade agreements seek not to defend the shameless, but rather the helpless and the vulnerable. But, that was not all.

The acute economic impact on La Oroya due to the shutting down of the plant generated fear throughout the mining sector and the economy at large. A State that once sought to enforce environmental regulations shifted gears and began to relax environmental regulations, with the hope of finding a new buyer for the smelter and thus stimulating the mining-centric economy for increased earnings.

Profit will not pave the path forward for the human race, only harmony will.

Thus, what also became quickly apparent is that this was no longer about one government or even one State in relation to one company, but rather it was about an economic model of wealth creation that generates enormous power for industry (in particular extractive industries like mining) to be able to manipulate governments at the expense of the Earth and to the detriment of marginalized populations that seek to defend it.

And so, our work became that of uniting voices of peoples and populations throughout Peru that are directly impacted in health and livelihood by the extractive industry towards establishing specialized health care, effective environmental regulations, remediation and recuperation of lands and alternative models of development that focus on the preservation of local resources. It is this work that defines our partner´s campaign for Human and Environmental Health.

These past ten years have witnessed the tireless efforts of our Joining Hands partners in collaboration with courageous voices from La Oroya and allies throughout the land in developing both a regional and national strategy for Human and Environmental Health. This strategy and campaign recognizes that just and joyful relations among humanity are directly tied to a just and joyful relation with the Earth. Wealth creation models of development that exploit the land are obsolete. Profit will not pave the path forward for the human race, only harmony will.

Today, due to the efforts of our partners, the Region of Junin (where La Oroya is located) has a unanimously passed Human and Environmental Health Program that is now being designed. Today, due to the efforts of our partners and allies, the National Congress of Peru is debating a bill of law to establish a national program for environmental health that responds to the severe health impacts from mining activity. Today, due to the efforts of our partners with the support and accompaniment of Presbyterians, the limits of materialism and the impacts of consumerism are being discussed in new ways and in new circles in relation to human conflict and division across race, nationality, religion, class and more.

In the distance, the acid-rain washed mountain peaks of La Oroya set the back drop as the tops of a few thriving trees planted twenty years ago defend life in the valley.

But, something else has become apparent over these past ten years in La Oroya. Plants are starting to grow again. Trees are staying alive. And more so, medical evidence shows that lead levels have decreased by half among children. Life is being restored by the mere absence of toxic fumes in the air. But, the risks are still real, as the soil is still ridden with toxic metals.

To see a path forward, it helps to look back – not just ten years, but twenty years.

It was at that time, when our work and ministry first began in La Oroya, that a small group of elders on the outskirts of La Oroya began planting trees. In the face of climate change that they knew would be greatly exacerbated by the toxic output of the smelter, they sought to defend the land, the water and ultimately themselves through the reforestation of the lands their ancestors have occupied for generations. They have planted nearly 20,000 trees – day by day across the decades, digging and watering and tending to precious life. Some have withered away. Some are barely hanging on. And, some are thriving.

With increased support, so much more is possible. I believe this is the way forward – in La Oroya, in Peru, throughout the world.

We must be in sacred accompaniment, on bended knee, in the toxic soils, planting trees side by side with the defenders of the Earth. Yes, our advocacy must continue, but it must continue from a place of deep humility. It must continue from where the God of Incarnate Love would lead us – the God whose birth in a stable we celebrate in these Holy Days. What other Hope do we have?

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