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When environmental justice is only hot air for Esmeralda

More and more international agreements are being signed to ensure human rights in vulnerable countries, but is any action being genuinely taken to enforce them?

A view of the town of Cerro de Pasco with its open mining pit.
A view of the town of Cerro de Pasco with its open mining pit.Red Muqui

Esmeralda Martín is 12, and has spent seven of these years battling a terminal disease: severe bone marrow failure, which prevented her body from producing red and white blood cells and platelets. She used to live in Cerro de Pasco, a town in the Peruvian Andes, where she had been constantly exposed to toxins from the mining industry. Esmeralda was one of more than 2,600 children registered in Cerro de Pasco with alarming amounts of heavy metals present in their blood.

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic her father, Simeón Martín, was camped outside the Health Ministry with other affected families to demand treatment and help to be relocated. Esmeralda had managed to travel to Argentina with her father in late 2019 to receive a bone marrow transplant but she also needed a detoxification treatment to complete her recovery. Tragically, Esmeralda passed away in September in Cerro de Pasco, where she was born and raised and where the extraction of minerals continues unabated with no concern about the consequences for the health of local residents.

Children with lead in their blood suffer nosebleeds. The case of Esmeralda and the other boys and girls in Pasco generated a certain amount of media interest due to the continuous protests in the Peruvian capital asking the government to act. For many years parents had been criticizing a lack of specialist medical care, the scarcity of information regarding the impact of mining activity, the administrative red tape they face in order to ask for help and the absence of a watchdog that permits the mining companies to ignore environmental regulations and, as a consequence, violate the basic right for people to be able to live in a clean and healthy place.

The families want Volcan – a Peruvian mining company that forms part of Glencore Plc and is the largest operator in the country – to admit responsibility for the damages caused. However, the company maintains it carries no legal responsibility and the families of the children affected continue to be exposed to toxins while engaged in an uneven fight against diseases such as leukemia, without medical attention or treatment.

Sadly, the case of Esmeralda and the children of Cerro de Pasco isn’t the only one in Peru. Mining activity in the country is a huge industry, placing Peru as the second-largest producer of copper and silver in the world, and first in the extraction of gold, zinc, lead and tin within Latin America. But the industry has also left its mark on the population, with thousands of people suffering health problems in places such as Espinar in the Cusco Region or La Oroya in the Department of Junín. Residents of the latter have succeeded in persuading the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to bring the case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to denounce Peru over the effects of the contamination from mining, a step that offers hope that the issue can be recognized at the international level.

Following years of struggle, representatives of the National Platform for People Affected by Toxic Metals recently met with Peruvian Prime Minister Mirtha Vásquez, in an attempt to reach agreement over the proposed Special Multisectoral Care Plan for the victims. While these meetings can help to create consensus, there is still a long way to go before words are translated into action. Local and national players are not the only people who should be interested in avoiding further people being affected by their activity. Mineral extraction is an environmental issue that also involves international firms and as such, producer countries as well as those investing in them must respect human rights.

Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, said as much when discussing environmental pacts such as the Escazú Agreement, the 2030 Agenda or the Paris Agreement. These, Bárcena said, are “aimed at building peaceful, fairer, less unequal, supportive and inclusive societies, protecting human rights and ensuring the lasting and sustainable protection of the planet and its natural resources.”

However, it is paradoxical that while international accords to tackle greenhouse emissions are signed, the same countries refuse initiatives to respect human rights and environmental standards in their activities abroad. One example of this was the Swiss government performing a U-turn over the Initiative for Corporate Social Responsibility in late 2020. Concern for the environment and for related human rights appears to be a priority only when those affected live within their borders.

In Latin America, where extraction activities are considered vital for economic development, progress in environmental policies is obstructed precisely because of these financial interests. It is international agreements and raising public awareness of the importance of protecting the natural world that can guarantee a certain level of assurance that human rights will be respected. The lives that have been lost due to contamination from mining could have been saved: now it is time to ensure that their memory lives on and that those who are seeking justice duly receive it.

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