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Birgit Weiler {*}

Fundamental Threat to Life

The Church in Peru is Concerned about
Environment and Quality of Life


From: Herder Korrespondenz, /2011, P. 470-475
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    More than half of the social conflicts in Peru have socio-environmental causes. In a hardly manageable variety of activities, the Church's pastoral care of social affairs campaigns for the protection of the environment, human health and the rights of the poor.


Peru is shaped by three very different habitats: the Pacific coast (desert), which today encompasses the major urban centers, the Andean highlands, which in the last fifty years were impaired by a strong migration to the larger coastal cities, especially Lima, and the vast Amazon region (nearly 60 percent of the country) with relatively low population density. The geographical and climatic characteristics of these habitats made possible the development of the high biodiversity in Peru.



Especially in the Andean highlands and the Amazon region there are extensive mineral resources (gold, silver, copper, zinc and other metals as well as crude oil and natural gas). The mining and extraction of raw materials, however, leads increasingly to severe social tensions and conflicts. For in these processes of economic growth international standards for the protection of environment and health are often completely disregarded both by the government and the companies.

In June 2011, the "Defensoría del Pueblo de Perú", a state institution with the task of defending the rights of citizens against the state and to mediate in conflicts between citizens and the state has submitted a report, where it points out the fact that more than half (55.4 percent) of the social conflicts in Peru are socio-environmental conflicts. In the center is the question of the access to natural resources and their responsible use and vital goods like water, clean air and a healthy environment.


The Church Cannot Remain Indifferent

Under its chairman Archbishop Pedro Barreto of Huancayo, the Episcopal Commission for Social Action (CEAS) supports many dioceses in their commitment to a greater ecological awareness in Peru, to a responsible use of natural resources including the necessary lifestyle of moderation and solidarity, and to a holistic and sustainable development. In May 2011, Archbishop Barreto was also elected Chairman of the Department of Justice and Solidarity of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM). What is fundamental for CEAS in setting its work priorities in the pastoral care of environmental affairs is the idea of Pope Benedict XVI that "the environment must be seen as Godís gift to all people, and the use we make of it entails a shared responsibility for all humanity, especially the poor and future generations (Message for World Day of Peace 2010). The Church cannot and must not remain indifferent in view of the growing environmental damage in Peru, the increasing negative effects of climate change from which especially the poor have to suffer, and the massive deforestation of tropical rainforest. For these developments threaten basic human rights, as e.g. the right to life, food, health and development and social peace. The work of CEAS in and with the various dioceses is therefore based on the pope's appeal "If you want to cultivate peace, protect creation" (Message for World Day of Peace 2010).

There are for example in the Archdiocese of Huancayo (central Peruvian Andes) serious environmental problems that are primarily caused by a smeltery in the center of the city of La Oroya. This is since 1997 run by the company "Doe Run Perú", which is a subsidiary of the so-called Renco Group, a holding company in the United States. Over many years the smeltery has emitted poisonous smoke, which contained inter alia sulfur dioxide, lead and arsenic. The toxins found their way both into the soil and the Mantaro River. In 2007 the U.S. environmental organization, "Blacksmith Institute" revealingly declared La Oroya to be the "most polluted city in Latin America" (Knut Henkel, Blei im Blut, in: Amnesty Journal 01/2010, 57-59). Since then, the city is "nationally and internationally synonymous with the latent poisoning of the population by a ruthless company."

At the beginning of its activities in La Oroya, the company Doe Run Perú had bound itself by contract with the Peruvian state to implement successively the governmental environmental regulations. A binding timetable had been set up. It was planned that within ten years all necessary measures should be taken in order to reduce the environmental pollution. The company has not complied with the agreed schedule with its various stages but requested repeatedly an extension from the State authorities. It put pressure on the government by threatening that the plant would be closed in case the request would be refused. As a result, in 2006 the state granted the company a three-year postponement.

Archbishop Barreto took over the Archdiocese of Huancayo in 2004, at a time in which the social conflict in the city intensified. For in La Oroya those who criticized the company "Doe Run Perú" because of the severe environmental damage caused by it and demanded effective measures to reduce the pollutant emissions were opposed by the workers of the company. The latter feared for their jobs, because of the higher environmental standards and, resulting from them, the higher costs for the company.

It soon turned out that the high environmental pollution had not only affected the city of La Oroya but already the entire Mantaro Valley. It has a high biodiversity and is very suitable for agricultural production. Both, however, is endangered by the toxic substances in air, soil and water.

Given this situation, Archbishop Barreto did not want to criticize only the existing grievances. He also wanted to collaborate with other actors in society at an integral and lasting solution.



He therefore suggested in 2005 the formation of a round table, i.e. a forum for dialogue between representatives of the company "Doe Run Perú" as well as of other companies, political authorities, representatives of various organizations of civil society and of the Christian churches in the region. The proposal of the Bishop met with wide approval among the public. That's why the dialogue forum was soon established, and already in 2005 it officially began its work.

In 2006, the neighboring region of Junin and the bishop of the Diocese of Tarma, Richard Alarcon, joined also the initiative. Archbishop Barreto was appointed Chairman of the Dialogue Forum. In June 2011 already representatives of hundreds of different religious and civic institutions were members of the forum. They coordinate the various activities of the joint project "Revive the Mantaro Valley". Its target is the elimination of environmental damages and a sustainable development in the Mantaro Valley. To the delight of all those involved, as the project name says, first signs of new life can already be seen in the Mantaro Valley.

Due to a cooperation agreement between the Archdiocese of Huancayo and the St. Louis University, Missouri, in August 2005 a team of experts came to the university of Peru, in order to explore the exact extent of environmental impact on the population in the cities of La Oroya and Concepción. For this purpose, they took measurements of the air pollutants and took soil and water samples. They also took blood and urine samples of a representative portion of the population, in order to identify possible residues of pollutants.

The analyses of the samples were made in laboratories in the United States. They showed that the content in particular of lead but also of other heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury in blood and urine was many times over the limit which is set by the World Health Organization. Especially the measurements among children under twelve years of age were alarming. At the concentration which was found in the case study, the mentioned heavy metals are very harmful to health.



A too high concentration e.g. of lead in blood does not only cause respiratory problems, skin disorders and headaches, but also has negative consequences for the physical and mental development of children. It also holds a high risk of developing kidney cancer.

With the collaboration of Caritas and the municipal hospital, the Archbishop therefore initiated a nourishment and health program. 1200 of the so-called "Lead Children" as well as some pregnant women and elderly people who also suffer from a high lead concentration in the blood participate in it. The program aims at strengthening the body's immune system and thus to reduce the intake of lead and other heavy metals in the body. As studies show, the program is successful.

Several representatives of the dialogue forum, including Archbishop Barreto, repeatedly publicly called upon the company to fulfill its social and environmental responsibility. That's why the archbishop was and is exposed to permanent hostilities. He also called upon the government to take effective measures to protect the population, especially the poor. For they suffer most from the harmful effects of the practice of "Doe Run Perú."

In its negotiations with the company on the implementation of the agreed environmental commitments, the Peruvian government repeatedly showed little willingness to enforce them. This changed only in 2009 when the company again called for a postponement of the deadline granted by the state. Both the strong protest of large parts of civil society and the fact that the artichokes from the region, because of their high contents of residues of lead and other toxins, were no longer accepted for export by the international trade market, induced the state to take decisive measures against the company.

The company thereupon in 2010 stopped its production for the most part, because of alleged insolvency. With this step, it increased the social tension in the town of La Oroya, because workers and employees fear for their jobs and blame the organizations of civil society for the difficult situation. The company intends to take legal action against the Peruvian state at the international level. However, it is increasingly subjected to public criticism. The solidarity actions of the church at national and international level have significantly contributed to it.


Water as a Public Good

In the megacity of Lima, the securing of drinking water quality is a serious problem. The drinking water is derived to a large extent from the Rimac, which flows through Lima. CEAS therefore promoted a research project into the quality of the river water and of the drinking water derived from it in Lima, which has direct impact on the health of people. CEAS invited the various dioceses in Lima and in the immediate vicinity of Lima to participate actively in the project. Its purpose is to train laypeople for securing the regular checks on water quality and for the awareness-raising work on the responsible use of the valuable resource water, because water shortage is already at present a serious problem in various districts of Lima and in several provinces of the country. Recent environmental studies show that in the coming years in Peru, due to climate change and high water pollution, the vital resource of water will be ín very short supply. That's why in the pastoral social action priority is given to motivating people for a responsible use of water.

From the beginning, the diocese of Chosica, supported by its Bishop Norbert Strotmann, was very involved in this project. Caritas Chosica coordinated the respective activities in the diocese. Also the dioceses Lurin, Carabayllo and Callao, and three densely populated neighborhoods of the Archdiocese of Lima, namely El Agustino, San Luis and La Victoria gradually joined the project. Meanwhile, 150 people from 25 different organizations have been trained to make regularly the necessary checks on water quality and to make thus an important contribution to public health. They have also acquired the necessary skills to raise public awareness of the issue "water".

As part of the project in June and July 2009 and in November 2010 water samples were taken at various locations of the river Rimac. The analysis showed that the river is increasingly contaminated both by the untreated sewages of several villages and the waste that is thrown into the river, but above all by the wastewater from mining companies. Through the mining companies, heavy metals as e.g. lead and cadmium find their way into the water that flows into the waterworks. It was demonstrated that even after the cleaning processes in the waterworks residues of heavy metals remain in the water. What here especially gives cause for concern is the fact that the Peruvian laws allow measurements of heavy metals in drinking water, which are ten times higher than the guidelines of the World Health Organization. The results of water monitoring have motivated the affected population to take jointly measures to prevent ongoing pollution of the river Rimac and to ensure an adequate quality of drinking water and thus to protect human health.



In the Amazon Region the Indigenous Peoples and the Rainforest are at Risk

The Amazon region of Peru is currently in a phase of unscrupulous exploitation of its raw materials. These mainly include various precious wood species as well as petroleum, natural gas, gold and other metals. In addition, several large hydropower plants are planned in the rainforest. Furthermore, it is intended to use nearly half a million hectares of land for plantations in the Amazon area with plants for the production of biofuels. This involves drastic interventions in the complex and highly fragile ecosystem of the rainforest, which threaten its continued existence. Since culture and quality of life of the indigenous peoples are closely connected with the rainforest, the survival of these peoples is seriously endangered.

In this alarming situation, the bishops in the Amazon region of Peru have emphasized in a joint pastoral letter of 4 February 2011 that the church is called to serve the life of the indigenous peoples. She wants to "help them, when they secure their identity and their self-organization, when they protect their territory, (...) and defend their rights" (Final Document of the 5 CELAM General Assembly in Aparecida, 530). Together with the Chairman of the Conferencia Episcopal Peruana, Archbishop Miguel Cabrejos (Trujillo), in February 2011 the bishops therefore raised publicly an objection, when in the last months of his term of office President Alan Garcia issued urgency decrees in order to justify derogations. Their purpose is to ensure the implementation of 33 projects to secure investment by international companies in the resource-extraction industries. The bishops criticized the fact that by means of those decrees the approval for the projects should apparently be achieved - without the previously required environmental experts' reports. With reference to the encyclical of Pope Paul VI "Populorum Progressio" the bishops emphasized that a holistic and sustainable development requires respect for the earth and its inhabitants.

The bishops and their pastoral workers share the deep concern of indigenous peoples about the increasing destruction of their habitat through an economic model "which prizes unfettered pursuit of riches over the life of individual persons and peoples and rational respect for nature" (Final Document Aparecida, 473). In communion with the indigenous peoples they advocate that the bill for a law that demands the obligatory consultation of indigenous communities before the start of mining, oil and gas projects is as soon as possible legally adopted. The bill includes the request that the affected population has to be informed before the consultation in a comprehensive and balanced way about the pros and cons of the respective project. Here the Church's radio stations may provide a valuable service.

The new president of Peru, Ollanta Humala, who on 28 July 2011 took office, announced in his first government statement that he would support a rational and responsible use of Peru's natural resources. He wants to promote a sustainable development, which includes also the many people in the country who are living in poverty. Humala has taken up a difficult political legacy, because his predecessor was lacking in respect for and readiness to engage in dialogue with the indigenous peoples in the Amazon region and the small farmers in the Andean highlands, and by his way of governing he has aggravated many socio-environmental conflicts in the country. Alan Garcia also granted concessions to oil and mining companies as regards large parts of the country, under conditions which are favorable for the companies but detrimental to the sustainable development of the country. The new government has raised high expectations. It is to be hoped that these will not be disappointed.

The bishops and pastoral workers in the Amazon region appreciate the fact that the indigenous peoples have an extensive traditional knowledge of the sustainable use of natural resources in the rainforest. In their message on the occasion of the presidential elections in 2011, the bishops have again expressed this. They said, "The Church supports the indigenous peoples in their claim that their cosmovision, their values and their cultural identity must be recognized, and that they thus are able to contribute actively to a holistic and sustainable development and to building the Peruvian nation."

Already in 2009 the bishops of the entire Amazon region of Latin America emphasized in a joint statement (4 October 2009) that Latin America urgently needs to develop an alternative economic paradigm, which is not focussed on profit maximization. They underline that the indigenous peoples give a clear sign of a rethink by their understanding of alternative economies and the values associated with them. The determination with which the indigenous peoples stand up for their beliefs that are rooted in their cosmovision is an example to the church. It may encourage her to ask herself self-critically about her decisiveness in commitment to the values which are rooted in the Christian belief in God's creation.



In summary it can be said that the Church is in several dioceses in Peru committed to the protection of the environment and a holistic and sustainable development. She cooperates often with schools, municipalities and civil society organizations, takes part in public actions to protect environmental goods like clean air and clean water, and with her educational materials she makes an important contribution to a greater ecological awareness in the population. Unfortunately, the various initiatives of the pastoral social action mentioned above are not supported by all the bishops in Peru (see HK, May 2007, 256 ff.)


    {*} Dr. Birgit Weiler (born in 1958) is Medical Mission Sister and has worked for 16 years in Peru. In recent years she has obtained her doctorate at the Department of Catholic Theology at the University of Frankfurt. Currently, she teaches at the Jesuit University in Lima and works inter alia as theological advisor of the "Episcopal Commission for Social Action" (CEAS) in Peru.


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