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.
When Aniceto López looks out on the mine pit at the Marlin Mine, he sees what used to be there: forests and animals, an area he says was “full of life.” Now he says it is disgraceful what has happened to the area, as massive trucks take a steady supply of ore up and out of the pit gouged out of the side of the mountain.
López is the coordinator for FREDEMI, the Frented de Defensa Miguelense or San Miguel Defense Front. Members of FREDEMI, and of other groups in the area that are critical of the mine, are urging the government to suspend operations there. This is putting many of them at risk: People have been shot, beaten, arrested on dubious charges, and endured intimidation via death threats and near misses from gun fire. It’s a tense situation in all the areas around San Miguel Ixtahuacán in Western Guatemala.
Mary Amo, 33, is a community volunteer trained by Oxfam's partner Wacam to negotiate on behalf of her community with the international mining company AngloGold Ashanti. Photo by Jeff Deutsch/Oxfam America.
In a small village in Ghana called Anwiam, Mary Amo shows us her house, or what’s left of it. A massive outflow of waste water from an underground mine shaft had submerged her neighborhood, washing away the entire back of her house. She and her mother and sister had taken some sections of metal roofing to build a make-shift wall, but did not have the resources to properly rebuild.
Amo had an opportunity to attend a workshop with Oxfam’s partner in Ghana, Wacam, about two years ago. She learned that having half your house washed away was a violation of her basic right to live in a safe environment, and how to engage in dialogue with the international mining company responsible for the outflow, AngloGold Ashanti. Before she and her neighbors understood their basic rights, Amo says “no one respected us here.”
Oxfam America is a member of Oxfam, an international confederation of 17 organizations networked together in 94 countries, as part of a global movement for change, to build a future free from the injustice of poverty.
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