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Peru: Listening to La Oroya

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La Oroya in 2006, when the Doe Run Peru lead smelter was operating in the center of town. Photo: Flor Ruiz / Oxfam America
La Oroya, Peru, in 2006, when the Doe Run Peru lead smelter was operating in the center of town. Photo: Flor Ruiz / Oxfam America

“Communication is power,” said Rosa Amaro. “I would like people around the world to know what’s going on in my town, La Oroya … and then our authorities here in Peru can respond to the problems.”

Amaro told me this when I spoke with her in Boston last fall. But I didn’t really understand what the Oxfam partner and community leader meant until I visited Peru last week, during a crucial moment in her and other residents’ effort to protect their community. For ten years, they’ve been calling on the Doe Run Peru Corporation (part of the American-owned Renco Group) to clean up operations at its giant lead smelter in the heart of their town. Toxic chemicals from the smelter have affected La Oroya’s air, water, and soil, and contributed to health problems like elevated blood lead levels in local children.

Now, Peruvian authorities are debating whether or not to extend the deadline for Doe Run Peru to improve its environmental standards in La Oroya. If they do, the smelter—which has been closed for the last two years—could reopen as early as May, with no guarantees of a cleaner operation.

Many of the activists from La Oroya have a child or other family member whose health has been affected by lead poisoning. Most are women. Organized into grassroots networks, they help one another. And while they don’t have the money or influence of a major corporation, they do have the ability to reach others and mobilize them to join the cause.

Supporters decorate a sign at an interfaith vigil for La Oroya in Lima, Peru, on World Water Day. The message reads: "La Oroya, a city where people can live with dignity." Photo: Percy Ramirez/Oxfam America
Supporters decorate a sign at an interfaith vigil for La Oroya in Lima, Peru, on World Water Day. The message reads: "La Oroya, a city where people can live with dignity." Photo: Percy Ramirez/Oxfam America

Working with Oxfam America’s partner organization CooperAcción, for example, some of these groups formed a coalition called La Oroya por un Cambio (La Oroya for change). The coalition uses Facebook, Twitter, a YouTube channel, and a blog to keep the public updated on their efforts. CooperAcción also work closely with journalists to make sure that news stories tell the families’ side of the story.

Recently, on World Water Day, religious leaders in both Peru and the US organized interfaith vigils to pray for the health and safety of La Oroya. At the vigil I attended in a Lima city park, about 70 people sat outside in the drizzling rain to hear Amaro and others speak; some brought handmade signs with messages like “La Oroya somos todos” (“La Oroya is all of us”).

Meanwhile, spokespeople for the movement have faced harassment and, more recently, anonymous death threats. An anti-coalition Facebook page features a prominent photo of Amaro with CooperAcción’s José de Echave and accuses the group of spreading false information.

Still, despite the opposition, de Echave said he believes they are succeeding in changing people’s minds. Several Congressional representatives from Junín, where La Oroya is located, have shifted their support from the company to the community. “Most people don’t hear about what happens in a small Andean community like La Oroya,” said de Echave. “We believe that making the case for the people will generate public support in their favor.”

No matter the outcome of the legal battle, I realize now, de Echave, Amaro, and others I met will continue to speak up for La Oroya—just as long as someone is there to listen.

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