Greengrants Donor Trip to Peru
October 27, 2006 | No Comments
Helen Gemmill of Greengrants’ staff recently accompanied our Andes Coordinator Denise Bebbington and a group of donors on a trip to Peru. The purpose of the visit was to study the impact of extractive industries on indigenous peoples, and the participants spent time in four distinct places in Peru: Lima, Cajamarca, the Cordillera Huayhuash, and La Oroya,which was recently named one of the “10 most polluted places on earth.”
Here is Helen’s diary from the trip.
Today we left Lima and flew to Huanuco. It was such a treat to escape the polluted city and come where the air is cleaner. The only downside is that my luggage stayed in Lima! Thank goodness for Kim—we have the same sized feet so I can borrow her sneakers if I want some real exercise. Anyway, it feels somehow appropriate that I should experience this place with only a few material possessions.
We drove on a long and winding road today and I wondered several times whether I would die because of near-misses. No one else seemed to be bothered, so I think it was my own fear of falling that caused my dramatic reaction. It was so beautiful to ascend into the mountains and see the local people herding animals (they herd their sheep along with cows, goats and pigs all together—quite a sight!), drive through small mountain towns (and sometimes even see internet cafés advertised!), and just generally get a feel for rural Peru. We are joined by Tim Norris, whose organization (Centro Desarrollo Huayhuash) has received Greengrants funding, and Ethel Alvarado, who is the equivalent of a County Commissioner here. Ethel is energetic and visionary. I can already see why he was elected to public office—he has a way of engaging all those around him and he is personable and very passionate.
We arrived in Queropalca, a small town that hardly ever sees gringos, save for the occasional hard-core trekker who passes through this way to head into the Cordillera. Renalto, the president of Queropalca, receives us into his home, a cold, stone, one-story building in the heart of the village. We are at 13,000 feet and the stars are brilliant. We eat a simple dinner of soup and potato and are whisked off to an early bed. We stay in empty rooms that belong to his friends and neighbors scattered through the village.
When woke up, we gather to make a pilgrimage to the local thermal baths! We gingerly step into the cold, and are greeted by a riot of peaks on all sides! There in the distance are snow-capped peaks, here in the foreground are jagged, dramatic mountains that rise from the valley like ancient fortresses.
It is a fertile valley, and the locals have been cattle-herders for centuries. That is the main livelihood today, and as we made the 20 minute walk toward the springs, we saw young men heading out to tend to their flocks, and young children skipping off to the local school. They all seemed quite curious about us and approach us either with brazen questions or with a quiet, shy dignity. They giggled and skipped off about their business once they were satisfied with our answers.
After arriving at the beautiful hotsprings, I decided to continue walking (since I don’t have a bathing suit or any of my things) while the others soaked. The dirt road continued toward a high mountain pass, and as I followed its curves, I was astounded at the network of stone walls that snakes around the valley. What industrious people!
I wandered into another small village, where an elderly couple beckoned me into their courtyard. The gentleman can play the guitar, they explained, and he’d like to show me. I laughed and entered, and was greeted by a litter of piglets suckling on their mama, along with a few dogs. The man played away while I took his picture, we chat about the weather and the animals, and then I trundled off.
I felt a familiar sense of elation and freedom. I felt like I was on the frontier. The high peaks beckoned me on and part of me wished that I could spend the whole day walking¦
But my tummy called me back, and as I approached town, sweet Renalto zoomed up on a moped and eagerly picked me up. “Ethel esta muy preoccupado!” he exclaims. Ethel is very worried. I had been gone longer than they suppose most gringas would want to walk. As Renalto and I zoomed back to his house along the dirt road, I think we are the envy of each passerby. There are very few motorized vehicles here, and even a moped causes a great stir.
We returned to the main house and everyone was gathered around the main table, looking at maps of the local area. With Greengrants’ support, Tim Norris’ group has helped to do local community mapping. As we learn more about the boundaries, the discussion becomes heated.
This land that time forgot sits on vast natural resources, and mining companies are knocking on the door for control over those resources. For that is the central question here: who will have control over the resources? There are soil rights and subsoil rights and often, like in the American West, two separate parties can own each. When land reforms swept through here in the 1970′s, it was decreed that each community would own the land communally. Therefore any decision that is made, each citizen has to sign off on it. So if they wish to open up to mining companies, each person must sign off, and if they wish to protect themselves, each person must sign off. This inevitably leads to heated debates!
The complexity, says Renalto, is that they don’t want economic development. All this talk of creating an “economically viable alternatives” creates a big assumption. His people have been very happy for hundreds of years being cattle herders. Now they are feeling pressured from one side to sell to mining companies and pressure from the other side to create national parks and cede control to the federal government. The problem with many of Peru’s national parks is that they are federally run and they ignore and exclude the locals, who have lived there happily for generations. The leaders of Queropalca seek an entirely new alternative, but coming to an agreement isn’t easy. There are six other communities in the surrounding area, and ideally, all seven communities would find common ground to present a unified front.
Each time I took an adventure to buy more bottled water for the group, I was struck to see men in the local shop who laugh boisterously and drink beer at all hours of the day. I ask Tim about it and he says that the drinking is common here, and the way he has found to gain their trust is by drinking with them. He doesn’t ask and he’s not sure of the root of it. It is only men.
This pristine place, this land that time forgot, is a poignant reminder of what the now-polluted areas once must have been like. The air is so clear and it does feel like we are at heaven’s gate.
As a group, we took a small hike toward a snowy mountain pass. This mountain was made famous by the American film ‘Touching the Void.’ There were mine tailings from the 17th-century all around us, but they were easily overlooked as the stark beauty of these dramatic peaks overtakes the sense. Everyone seems happy and at ease to be outside in the sunshine, and the group is very supportive of one another.
We made the long drive to Huanuco, where we arrived late after a harrowing drive on the narrow dirt road. We descended many thousands of feet, and we all clapped at our first sign of electricity on the edge of town. We were exhausted—the exertion at elevation, the strong sunshine, the rumbling ride down. As I sat down to dinner, I was so excited to order “healthy food,” and a gorgeous salad of vegetables arrived. Soon after eating it, I felt terrible, and rushed to the bathroom where I threw up my dinner. Feeling miserable, I retired to my room, where Kim was already in bed. She was a dear caretaker, and offered me pain reliever, and some serious TLC (including pajamas!).
I woke up feeling much better, and we departed for a visit to La Oroya, which was since voted one of the Top 10 Most Polluted Cities in the world. We drove through the high Sierra—a breathtaking place, on the spine of the country. We had a view of what felt like the entire continent. We passed small towns teeming with life, including vendors of Maca, a seed that grows only at 13,000 feet and above. John and Sonja ordered maca smoothies, while the vendors touted the health benefits of the traditional Andean drink.
This part was my favorite: Kim and I asked to use the bathroom, and we were ushered through a corrugated metal gate into a dirt backyard where guinea pigs played. We had just been served guinea pig, a great Andean delicacy, for lunch the previous day. The bathroom is a hole in a cement block in the corner of the yard, with a corrugated metal wall for privacy. We dissolved into laughter and we took turns using it and taking pictures of one another. There have been some very basic bathroom facilities on the trip, but this one takes the cake!
Along the drive, we passed through many mining towns and we are all awestruck. They are huge, rambling towns, and the mines have scarred the surrounding earth. The otherwise heavenly aesthetic beauty of the place has been robbed, and in its place are earthen shades—piles of tailings laying about, shanty towns that have sprung up to serve the mine (building constructed quickly of shoddy materials), and roads that twist everywhere.
We did see wild vicuna on the drive! We stopped to get out and snap pictures. The vicuna, a member of the camelid family, is a prized animal in the high Andes that has never been domesticated. They are quite rare and their coat is used to make woolen clothing for people around the world. Known as the “gold of the Andes,” this animal is a rare and prized commodity indeed. Along the high plains, they appeared peaceful, and their valuable coats trembled in the breeze.
We arrived in La Oroya and immediately I felt a sinister energy. The air was thick, the people were expressionless, and we parked in front of a building with a sign that said that 2006 is the “Year of Health” for La Oroya. This strikes me as somehow Orwellian, though I know little about the situation here yet.
On this gray day in La Oroya, the Greengrants seminar participants gathered eagerly in a cold, church-owned meeting room. We were there to meet with a dozen local citizens who have literally risked their lives to be here with us. One man with leathery skin and bloodshot eyes told us, “We are willing to risk our lives because the truth makes us free. It is because of the children of La Oroya, our future. We are old and contaminated, we are speaking out for our children.” We leaned forward eagerly as we began to understand the gravity of the situation in this landscape dominated by acid-rain ravaged slopes, in the lee of the local gold smelter.
Soon Susan, a 38-year-old woman who lives with her family here, told her story. Her husband was employed by the local smelter until he underwent a quadruple bypass surgery and is now unable to work. They have three children together and only one of them is alive today. The lead that is a byproduct of the smelter poisoned the blood of their children, as it has poisoned 99 percent of the children in La Oroya. Two of her children have died due to lead poisoning, and the third will come to see us when she gets out of school this afternoon. Susan cries as she recounts the threats to her life she has endured as a result of speaking out against the atrocities that she has experienced. The company tells locals that the contamination is due to exhaust from cars, she explains, and is not related to the lead and arsenic that pour into the air and water all around them. Our hearts beat faster as we now have faces to put on the abstract questions of the possible effects of industrialization, environmental degradation and social injustice.
Several of the participants wore headphones, into which Hunter translated the rapid Spanish of the townspeople. At one point, one of the men in the circle asked us all to introduce ourselves and our affiliations, and apparently Hunter said into the microphone (so only the people with headphones could hear) that he suspected this man was a spy of the mine and not to give him much information. I wasn’t wearing headphones, so I blabbed on about Greengrants and funding activism and was struck by how short everyone’s introductions were. It was only later that I realized the inside information. How incredible that there may have been a spy!
Our guide here, Hunter “Alejandro” Farrell, is a Texas-born Presbyterian minister who has lived in Lima for the last 10 years to work on social justice issues. He has formed a small NGO called Joining Hands for Peru and has made very measurable progress with the situation in La Oroya. He knows full well that this dynamic is happening all over the world and believes that if he focuses on one example, it can set a precedent that could create a powerful ripple effect. One of the recent successes for La Oroya was a health study commissioned to examine the levels of heavy metals in the blood of the local children. Because of the results, the Peruvian government declared a state of health emergency in La Oroya. The next steps will be to determine what weight that holds. One of the main priorities of Joining Hands for Peru is to disseminate information so that the local townspeople have an accurate understanding of what is happening in their backyards and so that the wider world community comes to know the horrific conditions here.
To that end, Greengrants has supported two national organizations to conduct toxicology studies and to help carry out legal actions in La Oroya. We haven’t been able to fund directly in La Oroya, because the Doe Run company controls so much of the information dissemination and there is significant repression of those who speak out. A recent victory was the declaration of a national health emergency in August, thanks to the undeniable results of the rigorous toxicological studies. It remains to be seen whether that ruling will actually have any teeth, but simply the recognition of the problem is an important step.
We drove back to Lima in the darkness and the rain. The entire four hour drive was punctuated by a steady stream of 18-wheelers bearing toxic substances. Kim, Hunter and I sat in the back of the van, processing the day. Kim and I held hands most of the way, eager for human connection and grounding reassurance. This man, Hunter Farrell, holds such a wisdom and depth, and we were invigorated and filled with his peace. I felt overwhelmed and not entirely sure how to process what I had seen, although unexpectedly grounded as well.
It turns out that Doe Run, the company that operates the smelter in La Oroya, is owned by Ren Co, a privately held company run by one man, Ira Rennart. Ira is currently building the largest home in the United States and is modeling it after Versailles. The list of his moral transgressions stuns me, and there is increasing media coverage of him in the United States (check out the November issues of Mother Jones). The pressure from media may be one of the most hopeful ways of forcing him to do the right thing.
The next morning, back in our hotel in Lima, we met with
few activists working on extractive industries issues in the Amazon. One of them is Roberto Guimaraes, who told of the destruction wrought in the rainforest communities of the Amazon by the Camisea pipeline project. (Roberto works with Organización Regional AIDESEP Ucayali.) He wore the tooth of a wild animal around his neck, and he spoke with heart-wrenching dignity about the 50% of the indigenous population who have died as a result of the widespread disease brought by the pipeline builders. The pipeline, bringing oil and natural gas from deep within Peru to the coastline for export to the United States and elsewhere, has already burst five times in its short history. One of the breaks caused airborne liquid natural gas to catch fire and burn a village. Tears welled in Denise’s eyes as we met up after the session. This, she said, is the issue that wrenches her heart the most.
That afternoon, we headed back to the airport, our new home away from home. This time we flew to Cajamarca, home to Yanacocha Mine, Latin America’s largest mine. There has been serious social conflict in the area recently, and I did not see a single smile on the faces of the people in the village.
Cajamarca has traditionally been known as a farming region, and the airport is filled with special cheeses. The setting is gorgeous—verdant rolling hills in all directions. We drove to our hotel just outside the town, and Kim and I comment that we feel like we are able to “let down our guard” for the first time on the trip. Being in a more rural environment is calming.
We soon departed to meet with a series of fascinating groups that who work on mining issues here. They describe the lay of the landscape, their concerns and their hopes for the area, and how they’ve seen it change in recent memory. The people from GRUFIDES (a Greengrants grantee) stood out to me the most—they were at the center of the most recent conflict with the mine, in which a villager was shot three times during a peaceful protest. It still has not been determined whether the police or the armed guardsmen from the mine shot him. The new Executive Director of GRUFIDES, Mirtha Vasquez, a sharp, articulate, diminutive young woman, describes the economic and health impacts of the mine on the town. Fish are dying, cows are dying, people are sick, jobs are being lost as the company virtually takes over the entire economy. It feels like there is a heavy depression in the room.
One of the other groups we met is the Chamber of Commerce, and I was fascinated to hear the concerns of the local entrepreneurs. They view the mining issues from an economic perspective, and they fear that the mine is sapping the viability of other businesses. We spend hours with them, bearing witness to their grievances, and I am struck that none of them offer solutions or opportunities.
The next morning, we were met at the hotel by an enormous bus and a chipper young employee of Yanacocha mine. It was time for our visit to the offices and tour of the mine. We drove into town and meet with the man who is second in command at the company. He gave a PowerPoint presentation, which starts with the errors that the company has made. He is the public spokesperson for the mine, and he must have anticipated our questions and concerns for him. He was apologetic, full of promises for how they are improving, and eager to appease us. This man, José, is a classic deflector, and when pushed, offers little of substance in his answers. In the middle of a meeting, a middle-aged Peruvian couple walked in and sits at the periphery of the room.
We filed out of the offices and back onto the bus, and the Peruvian couple accompanied us. They explained that they have never visited the mine before and are just here to see what it is like. Denise whispered to us that she thinks that they may be spies, hired by the company to watch us and note what questions we ask and how we respond to the mine.
The mine is built at the headwaters of the three rivers, and uses open pit and mountain top removal for its extraction. The mine uses cyanide to separate the precious metals from the rest of the earth, and there are leach pits the size of soccer fields dotting the landscape. Sometimes these leach pits fail and cyanide leaks into the watersupply, poisoning livestock and people downstream. All attempts to measure the levels of contamination have been stymied by the mining company, and a full study is exorbitantly expensive. What a miracle that the testing was conducted in a scientifically rigorous manner in the town of La Oroya!
We were guarded closely by our young guide as we stepped off the bus. We donned helmets and orange jackets for safety before she explained how the mine actually works. There is a billboard that describes the process, and she admonished us to put down our cameras, pay attention to her, and not stray far from the billboard. As luck would have it, it began to rain and we file back onto the bus. The clouds roll in and we were not able to see much of the rest of the mine. As far as I could tell, the mine is simply enormous heaps and pits of earth as far as the eye can see. There are plans in the works to expand the operations of the mine, pending government approval. The mine is already five times larger than the size of the city of Cajarmarca, and the company is planning to double its existing size.
I felt numb as the bus circles back down the hill. I felt compelled to take multiple pictures of the campesinos as they go about their work on the mountains. The signature tall sombreros, the long thick skirts, the leathered faces… it is so beautiful and yet so changed by the wide paved road that snakes through the communities. The local people have suffered ever since the mine went in, but they can only offer anecdotal evidence of what has happened: “more cows are dying, there are less fish in the river, more young people are sick.” Without the scientific studies, they are powerless.
I awoke early the next morning to go on a jog. We were at altitude and I could feel my breath searing my lungs. I wound along the river and in the early morning light, local women are throwing their garbage over the river bank, children are milking cows. I was a spectacle, to be sure, but the sweat and deep breathing clear my head and I felt a renewed hope. This is before rush hour, when all the trucks headed up to the mine depart, so the streets were relatively quiet save for the barking of dogs. I received stares and few warm greetings.
Upon return to the hotel, we were joined at breakfast by Padre Marco (see an interview with Padre Marco). As he walked in the room, Kim whispered to me that she felt “like Ghandi has just walked in the room!” Padre Marco has been a key figure in negotiations between the mine and the community, and because he is a priest, he is universally respected. However, after the last uprising, the local media turned against him and accused him of instigating the violence. He is now metaphorically walking on eggshells, and he appeared deeply weary. He is wise and inspiring beyond his years, though he desperately needs rest.
That evening, we dined with the whole GRUFIDES team at a restaurant in Cajamarca. I sat next to Loretta, a Spanish nurse who fell in love with a Peruvian man and moved to Peru. She discussed the persecution that those who speak out against the mine have faced, the way the blood samples they send away to be tested have “disappeared” multiple times, and how none of them have taken vacation in years. This is all fascinating and sad, and I am so glad to feel my Spanish really flowing!
The next day, we flew back to Lima and have our farewell dinner next to Incan ruins in Lima. It was a beautiful setting and felt all too luxurious in ways. Everyone was in a light mood, eager to connect for the last time as a group. Hunter Farrell and his wife Ruth joined us, which was wonderful, and Sabina’s mother came as well. It was funny to see everyone in “dress” clothes after having been so much in the countryside. We eat ceviche, potatoes, drink pisco sour and enjoy “Nuevo Andino” cuisine.
Kim and I still have several days left in Peru—we will head to Machu Pichu and Cusco and then conclude with more meetings in Lima.
I think that the impact of this trip is very much still settling with me. To feel all of this on a visceral level has been so powerful.