More Than a Decade’s Wait for Justice in La Oroya, Peru

La Oroya, a town in Peru that’s one of the world’s most polluted, is home to a massive metal smelting facility that has been contaminating the area for nearly a century.

Pablo and his daughter in front of the metal smelter in La Oroya in 2008
Pablo and his daughter in front of the metal smelter in La Oroya in 2008 (Photo Courtesy of Giuliano Koren)

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From the time Isabel* was born, she has breathed toxic air.

She’s had heavy metals in her blood for all 13 years of her young life.

Her hometown, La Oroya, a small city in the Peruvian Andes, was labeled in 2007 by the Blacksmith Institute as one of the world’s most polluted places. A metal smelter has been operating there for nearly a century, with little regulation and no attention paid to human health.

Children like Isabel suffer most from toxic pollution. Their developing brains and bodies are terribly vulnerable to lead and other heavy metals, which can inhibit growth and often cause permanent damage.

Nearly all of La Oroya’s children have heavy metals in their blood, at concentrations many times higher than the limits established by the World Health Organization. And many residents suffer from chronic respiratory illness.

Their health issues result directly from corporate leaders’ disregard for the environment and for the people who live near the smelter. The state of Peru also bears responsibility for its inaction.

That’s why a group of residents has joined together to fight for their children’s health and their city’s future.

Isabel’s father, Pablo**, has been a vocal leader in the community’s struggle against the government and the U.S.-owned corporation, Doe Run, responsible for contaminating their air, land and water. He sees no other way forward.

“What kind of world will we leave for our children if we don’t defend our land, if we don’t defend our biodiversity?” he said in a recent interview.

A group of 65 residents joined as petitioners in a case AIDA and other organizations brought before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights 10 years ago. Since then, 14 more residents have added their names to the complaint; four have died. Today, the people of La Oroya still wait for justice.

In 2007, the commission recommended precautionary measures and urged the state to adopt adequate methods for diagnosing health problems in the beneficiaries of the complaint and treating those at risk of irreparable harm. Since then, air quality in La Oroya has improved somewhat, but the recommended health system is still woefully inadequate.

The commission has yet to file its report on the merits of the case. A finding of merit would include more forceful recommendations for Peru. If the state of Peru still doesn’t respond, AIDA will take the case to trial before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

For now, all the petitioners can do is wait some more.

Despite the years gone by, we won’t stop fighting until the people of La Oroya see justice.

We believe their courage and struggle will have an impact beyond their community, setting a precedent for future cases across the Americas. A victory would establish in international law that damages from toxic contamination are human rights violations.

And that would mean a brighter future not just for Isabel and La Oroya, but also for communities wherever shortsighted corporations dump their toxic by-products.

* Name changed to protect privacy

**Last name omitted to protect privacy

Anna Miller is a freelance journalist from Buffalo, New York, and member of the communications team for AIDA, the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense.

The International Program partners with organizations and communities around the world to establish, strengthen, and enforce national and international legal protections for the environment and public health.