Beyond jobs vs health: the politics of lead and community in La Oroya, Peru

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by Pamela Neumann

Why do so many people put up with highly contaminated living conditions? Conventional academic wisdom suggests that many communities do not protest environmental degradation because they are afraid of losing their jobs. They trade their health for the promise of employment.

My recent research in the Peruvian town of La Oroya, which is plagued by dangerously high lead levels, questions this dominant framework for understanding community responses to environmental hazards.

Instead, I argue that many residents’ reluctance to protest against pervasive lead contamination is tied to deeply held perceptions and beliefs about their town’s identity, and particularly a desire to protect their community from perceived outsiders. While material incentives do drive social action (or inaction) at times, it is also imperative to analyze how localized cultural processes—such as how people make sense of their own surroundings—contribute to the dynamics of social mobilization, as well as the reproduction of economic and environmental inequalities.

Let’s start by revisiting some crucial history. Since 1922, La Oroya has been home to one of Peru’s most important metallurgical complexes—which includes a lead smelter and three refineries for processing metal concentrates (lead, copper, and zinc).

At the end of World War II, the company running the smelter, U.S.-owned Cerro de Pasco Copper Corporation, was the second largest employer in the country. Residents I met spoke fondly of those days, a time when the company provided not only an economic livelihood to many families, but a source of collective community identity as well.

Following a 20-year period during which the company was nationalized, in 1997, the smelter was once again privatized and acquired by Doe Run Peru (DRP), a subsidiary of the U.S.-based Renco Group. Shortly thereafter, several scientific studies were conducted demonstrating dangerously high lead levels among the vast majority of the town’s children. However, Doe Run denied that the company had anything to do with the declining health or intellectual development of children.

In 2002, a small group of concerned citizens known as MOSAO (Movement for the Health of La Oroya) emerged, demanding government action against Doe Run. MOSAO experienced fierce opposition from the company workers’ union, but persevered, and eventually won an important ruling from the Peruvian Supreme Court, which in 2006 ordered that a state of emergency be declared in La Oroya. Subsequently, Doe Run and the Peruvian Health Department signed an agreement under which the company would fund treatment for the children most severely affected by lead in the community.

Then, in 2009, the company suddenly announced that it would be ceasing operations due to severe financial difficulties. The government offered DRP a one-year extension but when the deadline passed without resolution, DRP declared bankruptcy and officially suspended operations in 2010.

DRP’s decision was devastating for La Oroya. Small businesses were forced to close, and families were geographically divided, as many women and children moved away to live with relatives or friends. When I visited in 2011, educators I spoke with described how maintaining their schools’ infrastructure and services to students (e.g. showers, breakfast and/or lunch) had become increasingly difficult without DRP’s support. One 10th grade girl told me, “All of La Oroya’s problems would be solved if the company reopened.”

In late 2012, DRP did partially reopen under new management, with a significantly reduced workforce. Since then, the town has undergone something of an economic rebirth, thanks to an explosion of new mining activity in the surrounding area. Having (temporarily) survived its crisis, La Oroya has struggled to remake its image. For example, a local NGO launched a new campaign marketing the town as an eco-tourism destination: “Rediscover La Oroya” proclaimed several posters around town, featuring attractive photos of local landscapes and ancient ruins.

The recent social and economic upheavals in La Oroya have drawn extensive attention from the media—but not the kind that some residents appreciated.

Tania, a local schoolteacher told me, “In the media there are these ideas that we are nothing but a bunch of slow, sick, contaminated people, but they don’t pay any attention to how some students are very high performing.” Elena, a 45-year old shop owner, agreed, saying: “Of course there are sick children everywhere, slow children, just like in your country [referring to the United States]. But we have children who are doing well, we have professionals, professors.”

School teachers and principals took pride in the achievements of their students, which they felt were ignored in the rush to paint La Oroya as nothing more than a town full of “mongolicos” (a local term for people who have Down’s syndrome or are disabled). In seeking to defend their town’s identity against a barrage of negative media coverage, some residents denied the contamination was a problem at all. “Look at all the awards we’ve won,” one principal told me, pointing to a row of trophies on the wall. “We couldn’t have done this if the contamination was really a problem.”

Meanwhile, the advocacy of some non-governmental organizations, while intended to draw attention to the town’s environmental problems, also dovetailed with dominant media representations of La Oroya. This overlap led some residents to be especially suspicious of these NGOs. For example, a teacher named Alicia told me, “Those groups offer people money to say that their children are sick.

When considering the attitudes expressed by these residents, particularly those with a long family history in La Oroya, it is critical to remember the town’s unique legacy as the “metallurgical capital of Peru and South America.”

Place matters, and when it comes to contamination, it matters in particular ways.

Decades before La Oroya became internationally known as one of the most polluted places on earth, it was a commercial and industrial hub that played no small part in the development of Peru’s booming mining sector. Residents’ efforts to deflect the stigma of contamination therefore may be indicative of the different meanings they attached to this place—meanings that, in at least some residents’ view, are neither shared nor understood by outsiders or more recent arrivals.

In the end, what is at stake in La Oroya is not simply jobs, but the town’s identity, its reputation (and that of its residents as “normal” folks), and indeed, its very existence.

Pamela Neumann is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Stone Center for Latin American Studies at Tulane University.

Image by the author.

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