Early last week, hundreds of residents of La Oroya, in the mountains of Central Peru, took to the streets in protest to demand government action. La Oroya, a city of 33,000 thousand people, presides over a mining region that has become one of the most polluted areas in the world. You would think, then, that its citizens would march to call for stronger environmental protections, but they are doing the exact opposite. Their primary demand is that Peru’s government put into effect Resolution 094 by the Minister of the Environment, Elsa Galarza Contreras, which would loosen some environmental guidelines in order to make Peru more welcoming to investors. Why do they do this? Because the mining industry is in crisis, and without mining there are no jobs.
The area around La Oroya, rich in lead, copper, zinc, and several other minerals, and centrally located between Peru’s capital of Lima and the country’s northern and southern regions, has attracted prospectors since the late 19th century. The city was built around a metal processing plant, designed to purify and therefore increase the value of the materials extracted, which opened there in 1922. For almost a hundred years La Oroya prided itself as “the metal capital of Peru and South America”. For many decades the plant was managed by a Peruvian government subsidiary until, in 1997, control was transferred to Doe Run Company, an affiliate of the United States-based Renco Group.
The Peruvian government assumed the obligation of dealing with environmental damages to the area before the sale, while Doe Run committed to improve the quality of the processing facilities in order to comply with the law and protect the environment. Unfortunately, neither party delivered on those promises. Doe Run was ordered by the government to take measures and improve the quality of production, but the company repeatedly requested that the deadline for such changes be postponed. In 2009, Doe Run announced that it lacked the capital necessary to make the necessary changes and continue to be profitable, and immediately closed down the processing plant. Multiple legal battles have been fought regarding financial compensation for Doe Run workers as well as funding to repair the environmental damage effected by the company, but La Oroya’s residents have seen almost none of it.
Research from 1999 on showed conclusively the disastrous effects of the processing plant on the population of the area. The noxious smoke from the main chimney was said to be unbreathable, and some days children were not allowed to leave their homes during midday. Among hundreds of contaminants present in the air and water, three are particularly worrisome due to their known effects on human health: sulfur dioxide, lead, and arsenic. One 2002 study found that 80% of children tested had three times the amount of lead in their blood as deemed safe by the World Health Organization. Later studies raised the number to 98%. In 2013, the Blacksmith Institute, a U.S.-based environmentalist organization, declared La Oroya one of the five most polluted areas on the planet. Life expectancy has declined to an incredible 45 years (in the country as a whole it’s over 74 years).
Doe Run attempted to reopen the processing plant in 2012, but in 2014 were shut down and essentially forbidden from continuing to do business there. Other Doe Run operations continue in Peru, including one in the nearby town of Cobriza that is charged with illegally appropriating land from area residents.
The question surrounding La Oroya has become how to sell off the company’s assets so that some sort of production can restart and bring back jobs to La Oroya. So far there have been no takers. Many business experts have argued that the government’s environmental standards are too demanding and that commercial activity under those conditions is simply not financially attractive.
During the 2016 presidential elections, several candidates promised to find a solution to the quagmire, bringing back jobs while cleaning up the environment. The administration of the winner, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, seems to be emphasizing the former over the latter. Ministerial Resolution 094 is drafted as part of the Peru’s twenty-year-old effort to protect the environment. It supposedly retains the commitment to combat pollution and climate change, but adds “complementary dispositions”. While the resolution maintains the standards for nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and other pollutants, it increases the permissible limit of sulfur dioxide by a factor of twelve. In other words, companies interested in buying Doe Run’s old assets won’t have to worry about releasing the chemical into the water and air, at least as far as the Peruvian government is concerned.
Which brings us to last May 16, when demonstrators converged along La Oroya’s Central Highway, many holding empty cooking pots to show the dearth of food in their homes. La Oroya’s mayor, Carlos Arredondo Mayta, supported the action, since “the population is barely surviving”. With the plant closed many people leave the town to look for jobs elsewhere, which hurts local businesses, which in turn reduces the income of most everyone in the town. For years, residents have been waiting for a solution, as their lives become increasingly desperate.
Facing the choice of not working (and not eating) or bringing back an industry that poisons their air and water, many in La Oroya are calling for the lesser of two evils. In a country in which large sections of the population still don’t have access to clean drinking water, in which abject poverty and illiteracy are rampant, in which large corporations routinely abuse poor peasants for profit, the reopening plant at least offers a glimmer of hope for the near future. Meanwhile, a century’s worth of contaminants will remain in the region’s soil for hundreds, if not thousands of years to come.