U-C: What I See

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Case study from La Oroya, Peru on creating global community


At just above twelve thousand feet above sea level - near the pass between Lima and Huancayo - there is a small, mining city called “La Oroya.” The community reminds me of the copper mining communities of southern Arizona and Northern Sonora with its narrow, twisting roads that follow the river up the tight valley toward the mountain pass. The houses are bunched tightly together, and it has the distinctive feel of a proud, hardworking people who stoically take on dangerous jobs to provide for their families.

In this particular community there is a metal smelter that has been around for many years. Though it was only purchased by a U.S. company called “Doe Run” in the last decade, the technology in the smelter dates to the early part of the last century. Health problems are endemic and life threatening, as they often are in mining communities, and Doe Run now admits that the operation it owns is the primary source of environmental contamination in the community.

The most worrisome of those health problems for local residents is the extremely high lead content that has been discovered in their children’s bloodstreams. A recent Health Ministry study from the government of Peru showed that 99.9% of the children tested had lead poisoning, a condition which causes mental retardation, hyperactivity, kidney and liver disease, and other ailments that are the stuff of parents' nightmares anywhere. Most children in La Oroya have 4 times the level where the brain begins to be affected.

I’m told that the chimney on the Doe Run smelter is the highest (both in actual height and in altitude) of any in Latin America. Our group was also told that it is emitting roughly 1,000 metric tons of sulfer dioxins a day – contaminants that are making it into the upper atmosphere and therefore spread to communities far from the facility. However, a local environmental coalition that is animated largely by the local Catholic diocese expresses even more concern about “fugitive emissions” (the smoke that escapes from other parts of the plant as opposed to from the smokestack). Those lower atmosphere pollutants are in many ways more dangerous as they drift south in the afternoon, but then are blown back to the north again in the mornings where they often envelop the community for days at a time.

The Joining Hands Network includes several organizations that are working on the problems of environmental contamination in La Oroya. As we drove into the city from the east to visit with some of the members of the Filomena Tomaira organization (named to commemorate a young woman who died in childbirth years ago as she participated in a environmental protest march to Lima), we stopped in a gas station parking lot immediately in front of the smelter.

The sky was gray, and it was true that there were more visible emissions coming from other parts of the plant than there were from the smokestack that was belching big clouds of smoke toward the sky. In some places, the emissions were obviously yellow – something I had never seen before. There was an open waste line with a heavy flow of water that came out of the plant and dumped directly into the river. There was a fine layer of silt in the air that I could almost feel on my skin, and one of the women of Filomena took me aside later and warned me that I should wash the soles of my shoes at the end of the day.

Quietly, our group climbed back into the three taxis that awaited us and we drove up the hill into the center of La Oroya. On the other side of the city, we turned left on a narrow side street, crossed a high, one-lane bridge over the river and pulled to a stop in a neighborhood dense with high, brick buildings built back to back. We entered the Filomena office through a narrow passageway, stepped in through a metal door, and then climbed up four flights of stairs to a large meeting room on the fourth floor.

There was a long table with brightly covered tablecloths that had platters of cheese, fruit, and a homemade Peruvian snack that resembles popcorn. As we each took our seats in plastic chairs around the long table, a slender woman named Dora (a nurse who later traveled with us to visit our partners in Bolivia) sat down next to me. Immediately to Dora’s left was a leader in a sister organization that works cooperatively with the volunteers from Filomina. I’ll call him “Felipe,” though that isn’t his real name. He was short, solidly built and had noticeably bloodshot eyes. I learned that he is a teacher at the elementary school that is located almost immediately in front of the smelter.

As we went around the circle for introductions, each person shared a little bit of his or her story. Felipe’s words brought me up short.

He began speaking in a low voice and a kind of “matter-of-fact” tone, describing how he became involved in Filomena’s work. He began to cry as he described what it is like to try to teach children who suffer from lead poisoning.

“In the beginning,” he said, “no one would stand up and say aloud that our kids are suffering from lead poisoning. The children come to school with stomachaches and headaches. They’re tired. They don’t even want to go outside and play, much less study. They’re called lazy burros and they’re often punished, but it’s not their fault. This isn’t normal behavior for a child.”

“Someone has to throw down the gauntlet,” Felipe said. “Somehow, we have to stand against the false image that the company pays so much money to promote. They have all the power. They can buy the workers, or trick the population of La Oroya into believing their lies.” He went on to describe a current campaign sponsored by Doe Run to provide a glass of milk for every school child in La Oroya every day. “What good does a glass of milk do for a child whose bloodstream is being poisoned by lead?” he asked.

No one moved as Felipe continued to speak. “We are considered traitors in this city. People are afraid that they’ll lose their jobs. But God’s great love that we carry in our hearts is greater than everything else. Christ is with us. He is our friend, and he will defend us when we tell the truth, as he has taught us to. This is why we will fight, because Christ does not want us to continue to live in bondage.”

As I listened to Felipe, I could feel my own chest getting tight. I asked myself, as I have so many times before, “What will it take for a popular, grassroots movement in our church to locate itself on the margins, with sisters and brothers like those in La Oroya, or with others I’ve met in my moderatorial travels like Pastor Chibemba in Mbuji Mayi, Congo, or Milton (the General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia) and his wife Adelaida, who are standing against the violence in their country?”

I can almost hear rational and skeptical Presbyterians back in the U.S. who will want to dispute the facts of the environmental crisis in La Oroya, and I’m the first to admit that I’m no scientific expert. But our colleagues here have become the most important kind of experts themselves – the kind who live into a problem by training themselves in whatever ways necessary to defend their kids. When I think of the skeptics, I remember the wonderful scene in the movie Erin Brockovich, when corporate lawyers (who have been arguing that there is no correlation between their company and the people who are dying from drinking water from wells contaminated by their facilities) are offered a glass of water. As they start to drink it, actress Julia Roberts informs them that the water has been brought in for them from the community where their facility is located. Uncomfortably, they eye one another and then put down their glasses without drinking.

In the end, that’s the kind of litmus test that is going to matter in the creation of a new global community. Not a question from a company like Doe Run, “Can you prove a direct, scientific correlation between this facility and your health problems?” but a question from the community, “Would you be willing to come and raise your children here with us?”

This is what the Joining Hands Against Hunger partnerships are all about. From my perspective, La Oroya is actually a story of hope. This project has all the earmarks of what it will take to push us into a new kind of global community: courageous folks on the scene who commit to truth-telling, support from the broader community, and new, border-crossing alliances.

Joining Hands has created a remarkable place of partnership that brings together churches and unchurched families, evangelical pastors and environmental activists, Catholics and Protestants (practically unheard of in this context where most Catholics and Protestants would not consider members of the other group to be truly "Christian"), and the poor and the political elite. Together, they have joined together from as far away as Lima and Huancayo to create an environmental roundtable at which they share information and strategize together about how to confront the overwhelming environmental problems that threaten the entire watershed.

They also have a strong partnership with Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery in the St. Louis area. Because Doe Run operates a similar facility in Herculaneum, Missouri, there is a special sense of connection and commitment that Presbyterians in St. Louis have nurtured for their partners in the faraway mountain community of La Oroya. The most compelling example of what that kind of partnership leads to is the medical study that was recently completed by the University of St. Louis with some support from the Center for Disease Control. Most of the cost of the study, valued at more than $400,000, was donated. By early December, their results should be published, just in time to share the information with Peruvian Government officials who must decide whether to allow the company to postpone the lion's share of the environmental improvements it promised to complete when it purchased the smelter in 1997. The Company has asked permission to continue to pollute for 5 more years with legal impunity.

These are the ingredients that will be necessary to create Jesus’ beloved community in the midst of the global economy that defines our historical moment in time. Since my time in La Oroya, each time I pray the Lord’s Prayer, I find that the image of Felipe weeping as he described his students is inescapable. “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In a world where borders are increasingly meaningless to the movement of the goods that we all depend on, our lives are inextricably interwoven with the lives of folks like Felipe, and we must join with them to do God’s will here on earth.

Do we dare to build true relationships of accompaniment like the ones that our sisters and brothers from Giddings-Lovejoy have been constructing with the people of Peru? I got to see that relationship first hand as I traveled with Jim Cook, a retired corporate attorney who will be the next moderator of Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery. I saw it in the remarkable witness of seventeen-year old Erica Wunderlich, a Spanish speaking elder from her home church in that Presbytery. Watching the way that the Peruvians responded to the two of them, I find myself hopeful about our church, and about the possibility that God might have something entirely new in store for us.

I, like the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador, try to rely on living my faith instead of relying on hope. But this time, a little hope seems well-founded.


By the way, check out these links if you’re interested in more info. on La Oroya and Doe Run Peru:

The Farrell’s mission connections webpage:


InterAmerican Association for Environmental Defense:

Doe Run Peru’s website: http://www.doerun.com/whatwedo/laOroya.aspx