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Children playing in the shadow of the smelter's cloud of pollution.

My first visit to La Oroya

By Rodrigo da Costa Sales, AIDA attorney 

“What do you think of La Oroya?” a local resident asked me the first time we met. Honestly, I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. Quickly sensing my discomfort, he joked, “It’s very beautiful, there’s so much biodiversity, and the sky is so blue...” Relieved, I laughed along with him and, since that moment, I’ve been searching for the words to describe La Oroya.

La Oroya is a city of 33,000 people on the Mantaro River in central Peru, at an altitude of nearly 5,000 meters. This was my first time there, and I stayed only two days. The trip from Lima takes five hours, winding along painfully curvy roads with breathtaking views of the mountains all around. In La Oroya, however, the landscape changes drastically. The city is covered in a sheet of grey, with little to no natural life, streets full of trucks transporting iron and other heavy metals... and not much else of note.

My greatest wish for my time in La Oroya was to meet the people we are representing in our case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. After working on it for six months, I wanted finally to put faces to the names I had come to know so well on paper.

Our meeting was scheduled for the evening, when residents could find time free from work and family commitments. There, we introduced them to students from Yale University, who were developing an important report on the relationship between La Oroya’s air quality and the health of city residents. Although interested in the study, and happy to hear about it, residents quickly peppered us with questions about the case.

The main thing they wanted to know—an answer they have been waiting for since our petition was filed seven years ago—was when the Commission will make its decision.  They explained the many offensive comments they’ve had to endure, both from workers at the metal-smelting complex and from their own neighbors, during the long wait for a ruling. They’ve suffered threats from fellow residents of La Oroya, who wrongfully believe that the purpose of the case is to close the complex, which would leave many people without jobs. In one especially disturbing instance, a “doctor” spoke on television claiming that lead contamination does not cause any health problems. He claimed the residents of La Oroya as proof that, while contaminated by lead and other heavy metals, people could still lead normal lives.

We reminded them that a process before an international organism involves years of waiting, and that we sympathized with them for everything they had been through in the past few years.

But the truth is that I felt such intense frustration. It was the first time that I saw, up close, such personal desire for an international decision. I understood then that a decision on paper could actually constitute a form of reparation.

The long-awaited Commission report will show the world that the effects of heavy-metal pollution on a population actually violate their personal integrity and right to health.

The goal of this case is not to close the metallurgical complex, but instead to force the adoption of measures that guarantee a certain quality of life for the residents of La Oroya. The Commission’s report will be the instrument in this case by which international and human rights law becomes real, effective and transformative. 

I returned from La Oroya almost a week ago, and I’m still searching for the words to describe such a place. Truthfully, La Oroya didn’t seem very nice at first. But I quickly came to realize that the beauty of a place comes not only from its natural and man-made attractions; it comes also, and perhaps more importantly, from the beauty of its people.

In that sense, I’ve never seen a city quite as beautiful as La Oroya.

This blog is dedicated all the victims of the case in La Oroya. I hope that they will achieve justice, and that because of them, a case like this is never repeated around the world. It is also dedicated to Astrid Puentes and Maria José, AIDA’s attorneys in charge of the La Oroya case, who inspire me daily to work for a more just world. 

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