‘Stop the poison’

Peruvian women call on Anglo-Swiss mining giant Glencore, investors and UK and EU parliamentarians to take action on toxic drinking water. Vanessa Baird reports.

Karem (left) and Esmeralda (right).

Esmeralda Larota has toxic heavy metals in her body. They affect her kidneys, stomach, head, lungs, skin, ability to concentrate, energy levels and mental health. Sometimes she experiences pain across her entire body.

She is not alone. A 2021 study confirmed scientifically, and in greater detail than before, what Indigenous communities in the area have known for some time. They are being poisoned.

Some 78 per cent of people surveyed in 11 communities living in the vicinity of Glencore’s Tintaya-Antapaccay mine in Espinar, Cusco, had dangerously high levels of heavy metals and toxic substances – predominantly arsenic, manganese, cadmium, lead and mercury – in their blood or urine.

Despite increasing evidence of water contamination, neither the Peruvian state nor the company has assumed any responsibility for the health impacts.

Some 78 per cent of people surveyed… living near Glencore’s mine had arsenic, manganese, cadmium, lead or mercury in their blood or urine...

‘The water has a bad smell but you are forced to drink it because there is no alternative,’ said Esmeralda, a member of the K’ana Indigenous Peoples, on a visit to the UK last week. Harvested rainwater is too scarce to provide for their needs. ‘There is no life without water. Our animals are ill and dying. We are getting more deformities and still births. We can’t eat or sell their meat. Our income is disappearing.’ She showed me a picture on her phone of deformed sheep and potatoes that look far from normal.

‘We feel great sadness in our communities,’ she said. ‘We love our land, our Pacha Mama or Mother Earth, that gives us sustenance and a living. But in the last 10 years the pollution has become more obvious. Little by little we are getting more and more sick. Lots of people have lost their lives to cancer. But no-one is doing anything. No one is taking responsibility. There is no plan to clean the rivers or to treat them. Our rights are not being respected.’

Glencore is extracting mainly copper and gold from its huge mining complex of Tintaya-Antapaccay-Coroccohuayo. Plans to significantly expand operations – and the fact that the Anglo-Swiss giant could be mining in the area for 25 years to come, add to locals’ worries.

Locals and activist experts believe that the mine’s tailings dam is releasing toxic waste into the community’s water. Glencore has accepted that there have been discharges but maintained that water sources near the complex are naturally undrinkable.

In a written response to New Internationalist, Glencore pointed to a scientific study that confirmed traces from 11 heavy metals ‘in ranges that do not involve toxicity’, adding that ‘apart from copper, none of these metals are produced or generated as a result of the company’s operations’. It also claimed that ‘extensive participatory monitoring of our operations and the surrounding area has been undertaken under the leadership of the relevant Peruvian authorities’.

Like a false lover’

When mining first came to Espinar some 40 years ago, local people accepted and even welcomed it, said Karem Luque, a biologist from the Cusco-based Human Rights Without Borders (DHSF) who accompanied Esmeralda on the EU and UK visit. But it became, she says, ‘like a false lover’, promising wealth, employment and development but delivering pollution, social conflict and loss of health.

There is no life without water. Our animals are ill and dying. We are getting more deformities and still births

The first mine was state-owned and opened without first consulting local communities as this was not then a legal requirement. It was privatized during the rule of ex-president Alberto Fujimori and ownership was transferred to BHP Billiton, then to Xstrata which was bought by Glencore in 2013.

In 2012 the mine became the focus of a major social conflict when it was revealed that local rivers contained high levels of pollution. ‘Since Glencore took over the mine in 2013 there have been constant problems,’ said Karem. Indigenous and environmental defenders have repeatedly come up against state and private police whose primary objective is to protect mining interests. Mining is dominant in Peru’s economy, accounting for 60 per cent of the country’s export earnings and 10 per cent of its GDP.

Violence is often used against human rights and environment defenders who dare to challenge corporate interests. Protest is criminalized and the country’s judicial system is used far more readily against nature’s defenders than its polluters. Espinar’s former mayor, Oscar Mollohuanca, is a case in point. Mollohuanca supported communities affected by mining and was unfairly pursued by the justice system for nearly a decade until his unexplained death in March this year.

Glencore says that it is responding to the local population’s need for improved drinking water and sanitation services by supporting a project to upgrade the existing Potable Water Treatment Plant and expand water catchment structures in 2023.

But Esmeralda and Karem maintain that social division is being sown between and within communities living near the mine. Those supporting the mine are rewarded with projects, those who complain are punished. Local people who work for the mine are set against subsistence farmers who suffer most from environmental degradation. ‘They say we are lazy... That we are subversives, terrorists... Is it a crime to be a farmer? To be Indigenous? Our work is not valued and maybe that’s why they don’t value our lives,’ said Esmeralda.

Glencore expects to pay a total $1.5 billion in fines for bribery and corruption and there are more cases in the pipeline

She added that people were generally afraid to say anything against the mining company.

100 NGOs

Esmeralda and Karem were in Europe and the UK as part of wider campaign backed by over 100 international and Peruvian NGOs. They are demanding that EU member states and the UK adopt strong legislation to prevent companies such as Glencore from contributing to and causing human rights abuses and environmental damage in their global operations and supply chains. The British leg of their tour was hosted by the Peru Support Group and the Catholic International Development Charity (CAFOD), and included meetings with UK parliamentarians and the Local Authority Pension Fund Forum.

The activists stress that they are not calling for a cessation of all mining.

‘We are not anti-mining or anti-development,’ said Esmeralda. ‘We want the companies to be responsible. We have a right to live in an environment that’s healthy and fair.’

New ‘due diligence’ legislation is already being introduced in the EU. ‘It’s time for the UK to step up,’ says Louise Eldridge from CAFOD.

In the UK, the Peru Support Group, CAFOD and 30 other NGOs and trade unions are calling for similar legislation in the form of a new Business, Human Rights and Environment Act.

This would mandate human rights and environmental due diligence in supply chains in order to prevent abuse and to hold companies to account when they fail to prevent harm. The model for this law is the UK’s 2010 Bribery Act – which was used in two recent cases against Glencore, with the company pleading guilty in a UK court to committing bribery in five African countries.

This follows a record $1.1 billion fine handed out to the company by a US court for bribery, corruption and price fixing in seven countries and a further conviction in a Brazilian court. Glencore expects to pay a total $1.5 billion in fines for bribery and corruption and there are more cases in the pipeline.

Using the precautionary principle, cases could be brought in European or UK courts against multinational companies failing to prevent abuse and harm as a result of their operations in countries like Peru. Activists in Peru are also trying to get a due diligence law introduced there.

The UK is the number one mining investor in Peru. Investors, including pension funds, must bear some responsibility but can also put pressure on companies accused of endangering human lives and the environment. London is the international finance centre for trading minerals and the London Metals Exchange could deny listing to companies that do not behave responsibly.

Pandemic profits and human rights

Access to water is a human right under the UN Charter of Human Rights, so the state of Peru, as a signatory, should be defending its people’s right to water. When he came to power, Peru’s embattled leftist president, Pedro Castillo, pledged to take action on toxins. According to the ministry of health, a staggering 10 million Peruvians are at risk of exposure to heavy metals and toxic substances in this mining-dependant nation.

But Castillo’s presidency has been plagued by internal chaos and rightwing plots to impeach him, and many promises have fallen by the wayside.

The case of Espinar is emblematic. ‘Despite years of social conflict and dangerous contamination of local water sources, documented and reported many times, neither the Peruvian state nor Glencore has provided remedy or reparations,’ says Ana Reyes-Hurt of the Peru Support Group.

Contamination continues apace, passing legislation will take time, and it’s not clear how successful will be attempts to bring companies to justice. But ‘due diligence’ initiatives are a warning shot across the bows of any multinational that assumes it can act with impunity in the Global South.

As the people of Peru suffered the highest per-capita death rate from Covid-19 of any country in the world, and lives and livelihoods ground to a halt, mining continued and the price of minerals on the world market soared. Glencore is currently making record profits. For the first half of this year its profits will exceed $3 billion from sales of metals, minerals and agricultural produce. 

But maybe the last word should go to Karem: ‘Why should Esmeralda have to drink poisoned water so that her neighbour can profit?’