Peruvian village suffers decades of health disaster
Impunity for the environmental damage caused
HAVANA TIMES – “We are not asking for money, but our health, a dignified life”, is the cry of the inhabitants of Choropampa, which the lawyer Milagros Pérez does not stop hearing 22 years after the environmental disaster occurred in this town in the department of Cajamarca, in the highlands of the Andes in northern Peru, on the afternoon of June 2, 2000.
That day, a Yanacocha Mining Company truck spilled 150 kilograms of mercury en route to the capital, Lima, leaving a glowing trail for about 40 kilometers on the road that crosses Choropamptown of 2,700 inhabitants located at nearly 3,000 meters above sea level.
The company, 95% owned by an American company, moved there in 1993, 48 kilometers north of the city of Cajamarca, where it operates between 3,400 and 4,200 meters above sea level. Yanacocha (black lagoon in the indigenous Quechua language) is considered the largest gold mine in South America and the second in the world, although its production is in decline.
The children and most of the population started picking up the shiny droplets scattered on the ground and within days, answering a call from the mining company that said they would buy the material, they picked it up with their own hands, unaware of its high toxicity and that this exposure would affect them for life.
Prior to the disaster, the city was known for its varied agricultural production which, together with trade and livestock, enabled the impoverished inhabitants of Choropampa to fend for themselves as subsistence farmers.
But their poverty increased after the oil spill, in the face of the indifference of the authorities and the mining company, which never recognized the extent of the damage caused.
A report, also from the year 2000, of the Office of the Ombudsman concluded that of the total mercury spilled, 49.1 kilos were recovered, while 17.4 remained in the ground, 21.2 evaporated and the location of 63.3 has not been identified.
The autonomous government agency also questioned the actions of the authorities and the mining company, referring for example to the out-of-court agreements they reached with some of the local residents concerned, which included clauses prohibiting them from filing a complaint or legal action against the company, and which “violates the rights to due process and effective legal protection of those affected”.
Twenty-two years after the incident, Choropampa’s demands for reparations and access to justice are still being ignored. Pérez, lawyer for the NGO Information and intervention group for sustainable development (Grufides)based in Cajamarca, said in an interview with IPS that the effects on the local territory and people’s health are evident.
She explained that despite the attempt to cover up the incident, it received enough attention that then-President Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) was forced to promise “investigation, sanctions and reparations ” – although that did not happen.
In a context of poverty and lack of opportunities, the mining company took advantage of the goodwill of local residents and entered into compensation agreements with some of them in exchange for their silence. There were also collective reparation agreements such as the construction of a public square, but nothing that really helped repair and repair the damage caused to the population, experts and activists say.
For example, the mining company engaged in a private health plan for people affected by the disaster, but it ended up being “a sham”, she said.
“They give them pain pills and nothing more, people affected by mercury, as it becomes harder every day for them to support their families as they suffer from terrible loss of vision, decalcification, bone malformations and permanent skin irritations, which make it impossible for them to work their land and lead the life they had before,” Pérez said.
Women, affected in a very specific way
Grufides’ lawyer said there is also an additional impact that has remained in the dark so far.
“Although the general population suffered damage to the cornea, nervous system, digestive system, skin and bone malformations, we noticed specific problems in women related to their reproductive capacity, such as as premature births, miscarriages, infertility and infant births with malformations, which have not been studied,” she said.
Pérez criticized the fact that to this day the affected population continues without specialized care, only having access to a health post with a general practitioner and three nurses, who do not have the capacity to deal with the ailments caused by contamination with heavy metals such as mercury.
“What the women are going through is part of this overall situation, of the effects that began in the year 2000 after the spill, according to the testimonies we have collected. But they need a specialized health diagnosis, something as basic as that, to start repairing the damage,” she said from Cajamarca, the department capital.
Pérez also mentioned the effects on women’s mental health and their role as caregivers, as a collateral aspect of this tragedy that has yet to be documented.
She cited the example of Juana Martínez, who is known for her defense of the rights of the local population and who, for this reason, has been threatened and slandered by unidentified people.
“I tell him, Juanita, you don’t die because everyone needs you, it keeps you alive; because following the contamination, his sister, his mother-in-law and his sister-in-law all died. There is a chain of contamination, the problem is much bigger and it affects different generations, but they do not want to study it,” she said.
IPS tried to contact Martínez, but was unable to because she lives in a remote area of town, where there is no cellphone signal.
Make their voices heard in an international ethical tribunal
Denisse Chávez, an ecofeminist activist, told IPS that the case of the women of Choropampa affected by the mercury spill will be among those presented at the Third International Tribunal for Justice and Defense of Pan-Amazonian-Andean Women’s Rights, which will be held On July 30, 2022, in the city of Belem do Pará, in the Amazon region of Brazil.
The court is one of the emblematic activities that take place within the framework of the 10th Pan-Amazonian Social Forumwhich under the slogan “weaving hope in the Amazon” will bring together for four days some 5,000 people from different countries of the Amazon basin interested in coordinating actions in defense of nature and the Amazon forest.
Chávez, a member of the group organizing the tribunal, which also includes feminist and human rights activists from Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia and Uruguay, denounced the fact that the Peruvian state does not has not required the company to compensate the damage caused to the local population or to make visible the specific impacts on women, over the past 22 years.
“Choropampa is an area far from the city and with a very vulnerable population, with high rates of poverty and illiteracy. In more than two decades, no government has shown interest in solving the problems while the mining company continues to offer solutions on an individual basis, which is violent since the money is offered so that people do not talk “, she added.
She said the tribunal will bring the case international visibility, like others from Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador, which “have in common the impact that extractive economic activities have on the life of our peoples and in particular on the body of women, which is still not taken into account or discussed.
The ethical and symbolic court will issue a judgment specifying the violations of women’s human rights and the obligations incumbent on States and economic actors.
Chávez said the document would be sent to Peruvian authorities, both in Cajamarca and nationally. “We cannot allow impunity in the Choropampa case; we will continue to keep the memory of what happened alive,” she said.
In December last year, the Peruvian government approved the creation of a “Special Multisectoral Plan for Integral Intervention in favor of the population exposed to heavy metals, metalloids and other toxic chemical substances”, which will include the different regions whose people have been harmed. by polluting activities.
Pérez pointed out that the government’s decision was the result of pressure from civil society and groups affected by heavy metals. But Choropampa was not included in this first stage, despite the lasting impact on its population and soils.
“It is meant to expand gradually but we will be watching closely what decisions are made as an attention protocol and budgets for diagnostics need to be developed,” she said.
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