Q&A: La Oroya's future

By Anna Kramer
A view of La Oroya in March 2012, with the Doe Run Peru lead smelter in the background. Photo: Percy Ramirez/Oxfam America

Last week saw new developments in the decade-long effort to clean up La Oroya, Peru, a city that’s been named one of the most polluted places on earth. Oxfam is supporting grassroots activists in La Oroya as they call on Doe Run Peru Corporation (part of the US-owned Renco Group) to address health problems and environmental damage from its lead smelting factory in the center of town.

Sofia Vergara, community organizer for Oxfam’s Right to Know, Right to Decide campaign, has worked with the people of La Oroya since 2005. Below, Vergara explains the new developments and what lies ahead.

What happened last week, and why is it important?
The Doe Run Peru smelter in La Oroya has not operated since 2009, when the company began a bankruptcy process, saying that it lacked the funds to run the smelter. Doe Run Peru recently proposed a restructuring plan that would allow it to begin operations again, but without first taking the steps to clean up the environment that are required by law in Peru.

Last week, Doe Run Peru’s creditors, including the Peruvian government, voted to reject the company’s plan. By doing so, the government showed that it is willing to stand up to the company in defense of the people of La Oroya. This is a very positive step.

How will this affect families in La Oroya?
Without emissions from the smelter, people are breathing cleaner air. You can tell just by looking at pictures: there are blue skies now, and plants growing that weren’t there before. The children are not facing day-to-day exposure to contamination. A recent government study found that children’s blood lead levels have decreased compared to 2005 [when a study found that 97 percent of the children in the town under age 6 had elevated blood lead levels]. Most people in La Oroya want the smelter to reopen, but with adequate environmental controls installed first.

What happens next?
There are a lot of unanswered questions. The company has entered into what’s called “liquidation in progress,” which means that the smelter will not operate, but 3,500 workers can keep their jobs. Another entity will manage the liquidation for the next six months, but we don’t know who. The government and the creditors’ board have until May 25 to decide. That decision will play a big part in determining La Oroya's future.

For now, we need to make sure of two things. First, that the government’s process is clear and transparent. For example, Doe Run has a plan to build a sulfuric acid plant in La Oroya—a critical step for reducing toxic emissions. Residents want to know if that will still happen, and if Doe Run Peru will meet environmental requirements before reopening. Second, the government’s decision will have to take the environmental and health issues, as well as the workers’ rights, into account.

What about this ongoing conflict between workers and activists in La Oroya? With violent protests around mining now making news in other parts of Peru, how can we prevent violence from happening there?
In a recent statement issued by a coalition of Oxfam’s partners in La Oroya, they “call for all actors to prioritize dialogue and avoid any kind of confrontation, or acts of violence.” The government plays a key role in communicating with the population, making sure people know what will happen and how they will be protected. The company also has a responsibility to negotiate with the government in good faith, and to not put pressure on workers to create violence in the city.

In general, I think people in La Oroya have access to more information than they did in the past, which will help them understand this complex situation. Many have been put in a difficult position because they have to defend the source of their livelihood, and on the other hand they face the issue of contamination of themselves and their families.

What are Oxfam and its partners doing to support citizens’ efforts?
Local grassroots leaders like Rosa Amaro and Esther Hinostrosa have played a key role in defending the environment and human rights in La Oroya, as have representatives of the church. All of these groups have kept up their courage even in the face of pressure, violence, and threats.

Through its partners and allies in the area, Oxfam helps strengthen these local groups and makes sure they have access to information they need. We’ve also supported them as they raise awareness about the case in the US and Peru. That’s something Amaro told me herself: even though her life has been threatened, it’s important to communicate about this case as much as we can. That’s how we will bring about real change.

How have people in the US contributed?
A lot of people are taking action—people of faith, students, others. They feel a strong sense of solidarity with the families of La Oroya, and they are also concerned because Doe Run Peru is a US-owned company. Peruvian and Latin American communities in the US have also been very active on this case.

So far, more than 35,000 supporters have signed an online petition asking US Congress to support the people of Peru in the trade lawsuit [Doe Run Peru is suing the Peruvian government for allegedly violating the terms of the US-Peru Free Trade Agreement]. Thanks to efforts like this, 18 members of US Congress recently sent a letter asking the US Treasury and State Departments not to support the company.

What can people do to help now?
Follow our partners' coalition, La Oroya por un Cambio, on Twitter and like La Oroya por un Cambio on Facebook to get updates. Share the information with others. And tell Congress to stand with the people of Peru on the trade case, which is still going on.

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