La Oroya speaks to Washington

By Chris Hufstader
The metal smelter in La Oroya, Peru, has been operating since 1922, and is credited with making the city one of the most polluted in the world. Photo by Percy Ramirez/Oxfam America.

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The four-hour journey from Lima to La Oroya, Peru, takes you through a pass at 18,000 feet above sea level. I first did the trip in a taxi in 2001, and I remember the snow-capped mountains on that day in early June, and feeling like my head was in a vice.  I had never been that high before.

What I saw in La Oroya made my head hurt even more: It is one of the most polluted cities in the world, primarily due to a metal smelting facility operating there since 1922.

I met with a range of people from the community who described the public health crisis. Lead pollution particularly was affecting virtually all the children living near the plant, most of whom had very high levels of it in their blood. My altitude headache was nothing compared to that.

Since then the owner of the plant, a company called Doe Run Peru (part of an American company called Renco Group), shut down the plant and has been trying to renegotiate the environmental clean-up commitments it made when it bought the plant in 1997. We are hearing that the government of Peru is allowing another company to operate the parts of the facility that they say can comply with environmental regulations. The groups working to defend the rights of people in La Oroya to live in a safe environment are hoping that whoever runs this plant will comply with all the environmental standards if and when it becomes fully operational again.

Struggle to speak out

My colleagues and I have been working to find ways for the people of La Oroya to get their message out to people in power, so they can defend their right to live in a clean environment. On July 19th, they had a major success here in the US: a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights.

Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) organized the hearing. “Environmental damage in Peru is our concern, not just because we care about suffering people outside our borders – we absolutely do,” he said in his opening remarks. “But it is also our responsibility to make sure that our own companies aren’t at fault.”

Two people from La Oroya gave their testimony: Monsignor Pedro Barreto, the Archbishop of Huancayo, cited the environmental problems and raised the larger question about the purpose of economic development: “The Church is not opposed to mining or development, but it does ask the question: Development for whom? Mining for the benefit of whom? At what cost?”

Rosa Amaro also testified. She works with the Movement for Health in La Oroya (known as MOSAO), and has been threatened on numerous occasions for speaking out in favor of a cleaner environment. “Supporters of Doe Run have thrown stones at me, threatened to burn down my house, and threatened my life…When they see us in the street they shout ‘Death to MOSAO.’ We have no protection from these threats.” Her security concerns did not prevent her from traveling to Washington to testify.

To detail the toxic life people in La Oroya are leading, Dr. Fernando Serrano from the University of St. Louis delivered findings from studies that show people are living with pollution levels of the most toxic metals three to six times higher than the US average.

Keith Slack from Oxfam’s office in Washington, who has written extensively on mining-related conflicts in Peru, made recommendations for Peru’s government to improve respect for basic human rights and strengthen environmental standards. He urged the US government to support Peru’s defense of an $800 million lawsuit brought against it by Renco Group. “[The]US government should encourage all American companies operating in Peru and elsewhere in the region to ensure that they are following the highest possible human rights and environmental standards,” he concluded. “Their behavior is a reflection on the US as a whole.”