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Health or jobs: Peruvian mining town at a crossroads

Photo: Ernesto Benavides / AFP

| By AFP | Carlos Mandujano |

The Peruvian mining city of La Oroya, one of the most polluted places in the world, is seeking to reopen a heavy metal smelter that poisoned residents for almost a century.

The Andean city, situated in a high-altitude valley at 3 750 meters (12 300 feet), is a grey, desolate place. 

Small houses and shops — many abandoned — cluster around towering black chimneys, surrounded by ashen mountain slopes corroded by heavy metals and long devoid of vegetation.

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In 2009, the gigantic smelter that was the economic heartbeat of La Oroya went bankrupt, forcing residents to leave in droves and bringing local commerce to its knees. 

Since 1922, the plant processed copper, zinc, lead, gold, selenium, and other minerals from nearby mines.

If the metallurgical complex reopens, as announced by its new owners in October, it could breathe life back into the economy.

“The large majority of the population is eager and has waited a long time for this to start up again, because it is the source of life, the economic source,” said 48-year-old taxi driver Hugo Enrique.

But at what cost?

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A lifetime of disease

In 2011, La Oroya was listed as the second-most polluted city on Earth, falling into fifth place two years later, according to the Blacksmith Institute, an NGO which works on pollution issues.

It was in insalubrious company, rubbing shoulders with Ukraine’s nuclear-sullied Chernobyl and Russia’s Dzerzhinsk, the site of Cold War-era factories producing chemical weapons.

According to the International Federation for Human Rights, in 2013, 97 percent of La Oroya children between six months and six years of age, and 98 percent between age seven and 12, had elevated levels of lead in their blood.

Manuel Enrique Apolinario, 68, a teacher who lives opposite the foundry, told AFP his body has high levels of lead, arsenic, and cadmium.

Residents had “gotten used to the way of life, surrounded by smoke and toxic gases,” he said.

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“Those of us who have lived here for a lifetime have been ill with flu and bronchitis, especially respiratory infections.”

Another 100 years?

The foundry was opened in 1922, nationalized in 1974, and later privatized in 1997 when US natural resources firm Doe Run took it over.

In June 2009, Doe Run halted work after failing to comply with an environmental protection program and declared itself insolvent.

Now, despite years of residents accusing Lima and Doe Run of turning a blind eye to the harmful effects, some 1 270 former employees want to reopen the smelter next March — with the vow not to pollute.

Luis Mantari, one of the new owners, who is in charge of logistics, said the plant would operate “with social and environmental responsibility.”

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“We want this unique complex to last another 100 years,” added human resources boss Jose Aguilar.

The company has stockpiled 14 million tonnes of copper and lead slag waste waiting to be converted into zinc.

“Those of us who fought against pollution have never opposed to the company working. Let it reopen with an environmental plan,” said Pablo Fabian Martinez, 67, who also lives near the site.

For many, though, the decision comes down to pure pocketbook issues.

“I want it to reopen because, without the company, La Oroya lost its entire economy,” added Rosa Vilchez, a 30-year-old businesswoman. Her husband left to work in another city after the closure.

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Respect health

In 2006, La Oroya residents sued the Peruvian government at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for allowing the company to pollute at will.

Hearings began in October with the court sitting in the Uruguayan capital Montevideo, and residents recounted how they struggled with burning throats and eyes, headaches, and difficulty breathing.

Others told of tumors, muscular problems, and infertility blamed on pollution from the smelters.

The commission found last year that the state had failed to regulate and oversee the behavior of the mining company and “compromised its obligation to guarantee human rights.”

“We are aware that the metallurgical complex is a source of employment. We don’t deny that,” said Yolanda Zurita, one of the litigants, who plants trees to counter the pollution.

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“But it must respect the population’s health.” 

International

Food prices send hunger soaring in Latin America: UN agencies

Photo: AP News

| By AFP |

Rising food prices in Latin America and the Caribbean caused the number of people going hungry in the region to rise by more than 13 million between 2019 and 2021, a United Nations report said Tuesday.

The report by three UN agencies said the region was particularly vulnerable to the global food crisis caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine due to a high reliance on wheat, maize and fertilizer imports.

“The number of people in the region suffering from hunger increased by 13.2 million to 56.5 million,” read the report, released at a press conference in Santiago, Chile.

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In addition, moderate or severe food insecurity affected 267.7 million people — 40.6 percent of the region’s population — in 2021. 

This is “far above the world average” of 29.3 percent, said the report.

“The rise in food inflation and extreme poverty is one of the factors behind the increase in food insecurity and hunger,” said the report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP).

According to the FAO, food insecurity refers to a lack of regular access to healthy and nutritious food.

“The heavy reliance on imported fertilizers, and fluctuating food prices, have an unavoidable negative impact on livelihoods — mainly of the rural population — and access to healthy food,” said Mario Lubetkin, FAO Assistant Director-General.

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International

Colombia landslide kills 34

Photo: AFP

| By AFP |

Heavy rains in northwest Colombia sent a wall of earth crashing onto a winding road, swallowing up a bus and other vehicles and killing 34 people, emergency services said Monday.

The landslide Sunday evening prompted a large rescue effort, with dozens of people in hard hats using backhoes and excavators to dig through the earth looking for victims.

The National Unit for Disaster Risk Management said the fatalities included eight minors and that nine other people were injured in the disaster in the remote town of Pueblo Rico.

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The bus had set out from the city of Cali with 25 passengers, and traveled 270 kilometers (170 miles) before being hit by the landslide as it passed through the Andes mountain region, civil defense officials said.

Colombian media reported that a child had survived and was pulled from the arms of its mother, who did not make it.

One survivor said the bus driver had at first managed to dodge the worst of the landslide.

“Part of it was coming down and the bus was a little bit back from that. The bus driver was backing up when it all came crashing down,” Andres Ibarguen told radio station Lloro Stereo.

The rainy season that began in August is Colombia’s worst in 40 years, according to the government, causing accidents that have left more than 270 people dead.

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The country has declared a national disaster over the rains linked to the exceptionally long La Nina weather phenomenon, which cools surface temperatures and is currently causing drought and flooding around the globe.

Today, the landslide “puts this town in mourning, tomorrow it could be in another area, because we really have many unstable areas in the country, and the rainy season has not ended,” said Javier Pava of the UNGRD.

The UN’s World Meteorological Organization said last week the La Nina conditions could last until February or March 2023.

In Colombia, the phenomenon has also caused crop damage, compromising food supplies and leading to soaring prices.

In July, three children were killed in northwestern Colombia when a landslide buried a rural school. In February, 14 people died in a mudslide triggered by heavy rains in central-western Risaralda province.

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International

At least 27 killed in Colombia landslide: president

Photo: AFP

| By AFP |

At least 27 people were killed when a landslide engulfed a road in northwest Colombia, trapping people in a bus and other vehicles, said President Gustavo Petro on Monday.

“It is with sadness that I must announce that, so far, 27 people, including three minors, have lost their lives in the tragedy” that struck on Sunday in a remote area of the Pueblo Rico municipality, Petro wrote on Twitter.

On Sunday evening, the president reported three dead, as dozens of rescue workers searched for survivors.

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One survivor said the driver of the bus managed to dodge the worst of the landslide.

“Part of it was coming down and the bus was a little bit back from that. The bus driver was backing up when it all came crashing down,” Andres Ibarguen told radio station Lloro Stereo.

The bus had set out from the city of Cali with 25 passengers, civil defense officials said.

The rainy season that began in August is Colombia’s worst in 40 years, according to the government, causing accidents that have left more than 270 people dead.

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