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The dark future of La Oroya
Maija Susarina*
6/18/2014
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Considered one of the most contaminated cities in the world, La Oroya depends on mining which has left serious consequences on the health of the population.

It all started nearly a hundred years ago in 1922 when the mines in La Oroya began to be exploited to a larger extent. Ever since, this city has written a long history of contamination, fraud, disregard and manipulation. Last year Doe Run Peru (DRP), a US-based company that runs the mine since 1997, reopened its doors after three years of silence and started to run the zinc-circuit with over 500 employees again. However, the future of these workers, the city and the mining plant itself remains unclear.

In the beginning, the mine was only extracting lead but soon also zinc, gold and silver, which comes with the side effect of blowing all kinds of poisonous metals and acids into the air of the city. It was also Peru´s only polymetallic smelter which means that it processed all kinds of metals, also from abroad. Some countries are believed to have processed their highly poisonous metals in La Oroya because it was illegal in their own countries due to environmental policies.

The metal circuits, first in the hands of a US-based company and later nationalized, were sold to Doe Run Peru in 1997 under the government of Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) who sold it under value in order to attract foreign investment to Peru. The company continued to exploit the mine under the condition of agreeing to the Environmental Adaptation and Management Plan (PAMA) that forced DRP to clean up the contamination and switch to newer and sustainable extraction machines. Nevertheless, PAMA never got implemented. DRP asked the Peruvian Government to postpone the program three times and went officially bankrupt in 2009, leaving the industry the whole city depends on shattered. DRP went even one step further and sued the Peruvian government for US$800 million because of the Free Trade Agreement Peru signed with the United States effective since 2009. This contract puts the well-being of economy above all other policies making it thus possible to sue Peru as US-based companies should be allowed to operate freely without any restrictions. PAMA was a restriction and according to the company itself, was one of the reasons DRP went bankrupt. Experts affirm that it is very likely that DRP will win this case.

Workers defend the company
By Dec. 2013, the situation has calmed down and there are hardly any clashes on the streets but some years ago the situation was different. Instead of implementing the PAMA program, DRP invested into public relations. Communities received little presents like crops and sheep that in the long run have proved unsustainable. The animals died in the following years due to the Andean climate which was inappropriate for them and the crops could not survive the acid rain that was caused by mining activities by the actual company. Children got Christmas presents and there were workshops how to succeed in business or how to stitch in order to found a business, only that in La Oroya there were no business except the mining one. All these presents, however, did have the effect DRP aimed at. When problems started with the State and PAMA was not to be implemented, the majority of the population stood strong on DRP’s side and supported the company with general strikes and demonstrations that often turned violently against environmentalists and NGO-supporters.

According to one resident who asked to remain anonymous, “it was like a scam for kids — I give you a caramel and you keep quiet (…) The philosophy of DRP is nonfulfillment. In the last years they were conditioning the population, preparing them for the moment when they will need their help. When DRP needed them to face the State, everyone came to support DRP. The workers, their wives, everyone came.”

It was no secret that due to the mining activities the children of the employees and the workers themselves developed severe illnesses including cancer. After all, it was not only lead that was dumped into the air. Other carcinogenic agents like arsenic were found in up to 99 percent of the population blood, children or adults. People were developing lung and liver diseases without having an alcohol problem. Nothing grew in the region and the mountains were covered with white, poisonous dust. But all this was not as important as having a job and providing for the family and so the workers would demonstrate for business and against nature and health. There were heavy demonstrations where NGO activists did not leave their houses in fear of injuries or even death. Once, at a demonstration a neutral person came to speak out against violence and not addressing the mining company itself at all but even she was dragged along the bridge by her hair and almost killed if not the pastor of the town had shown up and saved her. Especially when DRP was closed down due to alleged bankruptcy in 2009, the demonstrations escalated and people working at NGO´s or environmentalists were in permanent danger. There were attacks, insults and campaigns of intimidations even from the highest official positions.
 
After all these years of total support many workers came to realize that DRP is not sustainable not only environmentally but also economically and that by not implementing PAMA, going bankrupt and suing the Peruvian state they are actually bringing instability to the job situation themselves.

Maximization of profit
Still, the individuals who had worked for NGOs are marked for life, they can´t get any official or even unofficial position. The only answer they would get when applying for a job is “You worked at an NGO, so you cannot work here.”

By the end of 2013, the city of La Oroya did not look bad at all. Much of the nature has recovered. Four years of silence had a positive impact on the nature. Herbs and trees started growing again and the air is not as heavy as before, as was stated by the citizens of La Oroya. Still, after two hours in this city the throat feels irritated. It could be from the smoke that comes out of one of the highest chimneys of all South America at night when it´s too dark to see that smoke. The interviewees, who prefer to remain anonymous, are not very optimistic. The situation has calmed down today but just a couple of years ago they had to fear for their live for having worked for NGOs that pointed out the dangers to nature and health due to the mining activities of DRP.

One resident is sure that the PAMA will never be implemented as DRP has recovered its investments and wants to leave the plant. The obsolete technology is still mostly from the 1970s and it was not modernized to a greater extent. There was an upgrade on the copper-circuit but DRP only finished it to 57 percent, blaming Peru that it could not finish because the State didn´t fulfill its side of the contract. The requirement was to clean the soil but according to Peru it could not be done because DRP kept contaminating it. My other interview partner was not only disappointed at the US-based DRP because “that`s how mining companies work in Peru, foreign or not” but also at the Peruvian government. According to him, sustainable mining is possible but not amid corruption, favoritism and absolute neglect of all social and environmental principles for maximization of profit. DRP would most probably try to sell the plant and retreat while the State would once again attract a ruthless, most probably foreign company to La Oroya that will come although under the condition not to implement any environmental policies in order to save money, he added. This company would then suck the blood out of the city and the workers alike and leave again when business stops being profitable**, leaving La Oroya a ghost town since  without the mining industry most of the citizens would move away. La Oroya would remain a museum of contamination.

La Oroya was rated one of the most contaminated cities in the world by the Blacksmith Institute in 2007. This has changed today. But when the mining plant opens its doors again the contamination will come back. It might happen easily that if DRP or another mining company goes on exploiting the already heavily polluted soils everything will be back to the environmental and social situation in 2007 or even worse. But the problem is not just DRP, it could be any company. The problem is the ruthlessness of enormous capitalist corporations that break social and environmental policies in order to make more profit not wasting a thought on the population or the workers. The problem is the corruption of the State which knowing all this allows it to happen and keeps quiet or even intimidates individuals who have other values than profit. But these two parties only do what has to be done in a highly corrupt and fundamentally capitalist society that puts profit above all other values and forces individuals and companies to play by its rules or destroys them. What can the future of La Oroya look like under these circumstances? Not very bright.—Latinamerica Press

*Maija Susarina, Social and Cultural anthropology student from the Free University of Berlin, did her internship at Comunicaciones Aliadas during the second semester of 2013.

**Note of the editor: After filing bankruptcy, DRP is currently in liquidation. In Apr. 2014, the creditors of DRP stated that between 500 and 600 workers, of 2,800, will have to retire voluntarily in order to reduce costs. On June 9, the plan to sell the assets of the company was approved and it is expected by December this year the polimetallic smelter and the Cobriza mine will have new owners.


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While it was operating, the polimetallic smelter spewed some 900 metric tons of sulfur dioxide into the air every day. (Photo: Maija Susarina)
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