Peru

Finding Joy in a Place of Need

Rev. James Johnson, the Whiskey Priest, in Peru
Rev. James Johnson, the Whiskey Priest, in Peru

Go Here to read the second in this series, Competing for the Greater Good

Peru is a land of extremes, especially for a motorcycle pilgrimage. Our journey from Lima to the orphanage in Moquegua took us through some of the most severe riding conditions imaginable. Storms of Peru, the second segment in the Neale Bayly Rides series, provided a glimpse into the challenges we faced, as Peru would not give up her beauty easily.

Our ride began in the congested, chaotic streets of Lima — a thriving metropolis of 16 million people — where an aggressive riding posture is your only chance for survival. It’s not that the Peruvians are bad drivers; it’s just that traffic laws don’t seem to be a concern for any of them. Riding through the boiling cauldron of cars felt like a massive vehicular free-for-all. Lima provided a baptism by fire for our adventure and, exciting though it was, we were glad to leave the haphazard traffic behind us.  

We rode south toward the beautiful but haunting desert of Ica. The life-smothering heat and blowing sands sweep across the land and stop abruptly at the Pacific Ocean. Riding through the rugged terrain of crushed rock, sugar sand, and loose gravel was even more challenging than it appeared on television. I was glad the production team didn’t show everything. I bit the dust more times than I care to admit.

The country is amazingly beautiful, as are the people. There's a crazy juxtaposition of things you have to see to believe — poverty mixed with joy, beauty and brokenness in the very same face, a fierce gratitude in the meanest of circumstances.

Trade Agreements vs. Democracy

THE ANONYMOUS DEATH threats phoned to Archbishop Pedro Barreto and others in March told them to stop speaking out about the foreign-owned metals smelting plant in La Oroya, Peru.

Barreto, a Catholic archbishop of the Andean region that includes La Oroya, has been a leading advocate for the health of the 35,000-person town, which the plant has made one of the world’s most contaminated places: 99 percent of children there have dangerous levels of lead in their blood.

However, in an unconscionable move made possible by the 2009 U.S.-Peru trade agreement, it is the polluter who claims to be the victim. The massive New York-based holding company Renco Group Inc., whose subsidiary Doe Run Peru owns the smelter, last year filed an $800 million trade-tribunal lawsuit against the Peruvian government, claiming it violated the company’s rights by enforcing environmental regulations in La Oroya.

It’s one of a growing wave of such arbitrations being filed all over the world by extractive-industry foreign investors. In a similar case, the transnational corporation Pacific Rim has filed a $70 million case against El Salvador, after local communities and activists—four of whom have been murdered—opposed gold mining that could contaminate one of the country’s largest rivers.

The suits circumvent nations’ environmental laws by exploiting so-called “investors’ rights” chapters of trade agreements; such provisions are common in bilateral trade agreements, such as the U.S.-Peru pact, and regional agreements such as NAFTA.

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The Dangers of Heavy Metal

In March, advocates from Peruvian human rights and environmental organizations met in Washington, D.C., with representatives from the Inter-American Com­mission on Human Rights and the Peruvian government to demand justice for the people of La Oroya, Peru. La Oroya is one of the 10 most polluted places on earth, according to the Blacksmith Institute, a U.S. think tank that fights pollution in the developing world.

Activists blame the pollution on the poor environmental controls of Doe Run Peru, a corporation that mines and processes heavy metals; it is owned by U.S. industrialist Ira Ren­nert of The Renco Group. The Peruvian Ministry of Health re­ported that 99 percent of La Oroya’s children suffered from lead poisoning, and 20 percent required urgent hospitalization. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), U.S. Catholic bishops, and Peruvian religious institutions are publicly encouraging Doe Run to adhere to environmental laws regarding emissions and protect workers and children, but to little avail. Astrid Puentes, a lawyer with the Inter-American Association for Environ­mental De­fense, told Sojourners, “If this is something the Peruvian government won’t force Doe Run to do, then they won’t do it.”

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Sojourners Magazine June 2008
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