“The richest young boy in Peru.” This was how the La República newspaper ironically introduced its readers to Yedamel López Champi, one of the 38 children in a small Espinar community close to Tintaya, the large copper and gold mine in Cuzco. The children, and the whole community, are affected by the presence of heavy metals in their bodies.
The occasion for the comment was the belated resumption on February 10 of talks to implement the government’s commitment to develop an Action Plan. This plan is supposed to take forward the conclusions of the various official reports put in place after the 2012 protests against contamination in the area surrounding Tintaya. The mine, now owned by Glencore (previously by Xstrata), is now winding down and is being replaced by the huge new Antapaccay mine.
The research documenting the presence of heavy metals were carried out by various government agencies first reporting in early 2013, the findings summarised in the Participatory Health and Environment Report (PHEM) of April 2013. Government agencies documented extensive evidence of water contamination, some evidence of air pollution, and many specific examples of adverse health effects. The findings were confirmed in separate reports by outside experts.
There are high levels of naturally occurring contamination, arising from the geology of the region itself, and over the years there have been insufficient appropriate measurements that would help attribute causality. The base lines that would be needed to attribute responsibility had not been put in place. None of the reports could definitively point the finger at the company’s mining activities as the cause, particularly in cases of animal deaths.
But what is undeniable is the serious state of health of the local population. Yedamel López Champi has “strange white stains on his face, neck and hands, like a kind of fungus” and he cannot tolerate exposure to the sun. Many of the inhabitants of communities in the area were found to have unacceptable levels of mercury, uranium and other metals, which may have a variety of serious consequences – in the case of uranium, kidney damage and possibly cancer.
What is urgently needed therefore is a medical plan of action, as well as strong regulations enforcing the measurement of contamination in order to clarify whether mining activity is the cause of ill health. ‘Before and after’ indicators are the key here. The report by the Environmental Oversight and Evaluation Agency (OEFA), for example, recommends the use of different measurement tools, unavailable to it, to determine causality.
The talks, attended by local representatives from Espinar and including representatives of the company, are not due to resume until March 31. Such a delay suggests a lack of any real sense of urgency.
The La Republica report is available at http://www.larepublica.pe/12-02-2015/campesinos-de-espinar-viven-con-metales-pesados-en-sus-cuerpos