‘Stop the poison’
‘Stop the poison’
Women in Peru call on the big Anglo-Swiss mining company, Glencore, investors, and UK and EU parliaments to take action on poisonous drinking water. Vanessa Baird writes.
Karem (left) and Esmeralda (right).
Esmeralda Larota has poisonous heavy metals in her body. They affect her kidneys, stomach, head, lungs, skin, her thinking, energy, and mental health. Sometimes she has pain across all of her body.
She is not alone. A 2021 scientific study showed in more detail than before, what Indigenous communities in the area already know. Glencore’s mining is poisoning them.
78 per cent of people in a study in 11 communities near Glencore’s Tintaya-Antapaccay mine in Espinar, Cusco, had dangerously high levels of heavy metals and poisons in their blood or urine. The heavy metals are mostly arsenic, manganese, cadmium, lead, and mercury .
Water contamination is increasing but the Peruvian state and the company are not taking responsibility for the health problems.
Esmeralda is a member of the K’ana Indigenous Peoples. She said, ‘The water has a bad smell but you have to drink it because there is no other water.’ There is not enough rainwater for their needs. ‘There is no life without water. Our animals are ill and dying. We are getting more deformities and still births. We can’t eat or sell their meat. We are losing our income.’ She showed me a picture on her phone of deformed sheep and potatoes that look far from normal.
‘We feel very sad in our communities,’ she said. ‘We love our land, our Pacha Mama or Mother Earth, that gives us food and a living. But in the last 10 years we have seen more pollution. Slowly we are getting more and more sick. Lots of people have died to cancer. But no-one is doing anything. No one is taking responsibility. There is no plan to clean the rivers. There is no respect for our rights.’
Glencore is extracting mostly copper and gold from its big mines in Tintaya-Antapaccay-Coroccohuayo. The communities are worried about plans to increase the mining – and they are worried that the big Glencore could mine in the area for another 25 years.
Experts think that the mine is putting poisonous waste into the community’s water. Glencore has accepted this but says that water near the mine is in fact naturally undrinkable.
In a reply to New Internationalist, Glencore said that a scientific study showed that there are not enough of the 11 heavy metals to be poisonous. They also said that only the copper and none of the other metals are from their company’s operations. It also said the Peruvian authorities are checking their operations and the area.
‘Like a false lover’
Karem Luque is a biologist from Human Rights Without Borders (DHSF) and went with Esmeralda to visit the EU and UK. She said that when mining came to Espinar about 40 years ago, the people accepted it and welcomed it. But it was, she says, ‘like a false lover’. It promised wealth, jobs, and development but brought pollution, and social and health problems.
The state owned the first mine and opened it without talking to local communities because this was not necessary legally at the time. They privatized the mine when Alberto Fujimori was president and then BHP Billiton, and next Xstrata owned it. Later in 2013 Glencore bought it.
In 2012 the mine was a big social problem when people knew that the rivers had high levels of pollution. ‘Since Glencore took over the mine in 2013, there have been many problems,’ said Karem. Again and again Indigenous and environmental defenders have come up against state and private police. The state and the police wanted to protect mining interests. Mining is a big part of Peru’s economy, 60 per cent of the country’s exports and 10 per cent of its GDP.
There is often violence against human rights and environment defenders if they protest against the company. Peru’s judicial system sees protest as a crime and the judicial system is against nature’s defenders much more than it is against the polluters. Espinar’s former mayor, Oscar Mollohuanca, is an example. Oscar Mollohuanca supported communities affected by mining but the justice system followed him unfairly for nearly ten years until his unexplained death in March in 2022. Glencore says that it has an answer to the problem of drinking water and sanitation with a project to improve the Potable Water Treatment Plant and water catchment structures in 2023.
But Esmeralda and Karem say that the problem is social division in communities living near the mine. The company gives help to people supporting the mine but punishes the people who complain. Local people working for the mine are then against farmers suffering most from environmental problems. ‘They say we are lazy... That we are protesters and terrorists... Is it a crime to be a farmer? To be Indigenous? They do not value our work and maybe that’s why they don’t value our lives,’ said Esmeralda. She also said that people were mostly afraid to say anything against the mining company.
Esmeralda and Karem were in Europe and the UK as part of a campaign supported by over 100 international and Peruvian NGOs. They are demanding that EU member states and the UK take strong legal action to stop companies like Glencore from causing human rights abuses and environmental damage. The Peru Support Group and the Catholic International Development Charity (CAFOD), hosted the British part of their tour and included meetings with UK parliamentarians and the Local Authority Pension Fund Forum.
The protesters say that they are not calling for a stop to all mining.
‘We are not against mining or development,’ said Esmeralda. ‘We want the companies to be responsible. We have a right to live in a healthy and fair environment.’
The EU is already introducing new legislation. ‘It’s time for the UK to take action,’ says Louise Eldridge from CAFOD. In the UK, the Peru Support Group, CAFOD, and 30 other NGOs and trade unions are calling for legislation in a new Business, Human Rights, and Environment Act.
This would support human rights and environmental protection in supply chains to stop abuse and to hold companies responsible when they fail to stop harm. The model for this law is the UK’s 2010 Bribery Act. It was used in two cases against Glencore, with the company pleading guilty in a UK court to bribery in five African countries.
This follows a record $1.1 billion fine on the company by a US court for bribery, corruption, and price fixing in seven countries and another conviction in a Brazilian court. Glencore will have to pay $1.5 billion in fines for bribery and corruption and there are more cases coming.
It is possible to bring cases in European or UK courts against multinational companies for not stopping abuse and harm as a result of their operations in countries like Peru. Activists in Peru are also trying to get a new law there.
The UK is the biggest mining investor in Peru. Investors, including pension funds, must take some responsibility but can also put pressure on companies putting human lives and the environment in danger. London is the international finance centre for minerals and the London Metals Exchange could stop listing companies that are not acting responsibly.
Covid profits and human rights
Water is a human right under the UN Charter of Human Rights, so Peru should support its people’s right to water. When he came to power, Peru’s leftist president, Pedro Castillo, promised to take action on poisons. The ministry of health says 10 million Peruvians are at risk from heavy metals and poisons because of the mining.
But there were problems with Castillo’s presidency and there was no action on many promises.
The case of Espinar is an example. ‘After years of social conflict and dangerous contamination of water, reported many times, neither the Peruvian state nor Glencore has taken action,’ says Ana Reyes-Hurt of the Peru Support Group.
Contamination continues, passing legislation will take time, and it’s not clear how successful it will be to bring companies to justice.
When the people of Peru suffered the highest death rate in the world from Covid-19 and peoples’ lives suffered, mining continued and the price of minerals on the world market increased. Glencore is now making record profits. For the first half of 2022 its profits will be more than $3 billion.
But maybe the last word should go to Karem, ‘Why should Esmeralda have to drink poisoned water so that her neighbour can make profits?’
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(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)