Corporate Plaudits In Peru
By Patrick Moore, PhD
The day I visited the Peruvian mountain village of La Oroya, I watched Mayor Clemente Quincho lead a noisy march of thousands of demonstrators.
Their loud slogans and emotional chants would remind anyone of the protests long associated with environmental and civil rights activism. In many ways, that's what this was.
But this wasn't your ordinary demonstration. These vocal townsfolk demonstrated in favor of the continued operation of an 80-year-old copper and lead smelter -- both because it's the town's lifeblood and they support efforts of the company, Doe Run Peru, to improve social and environmental conditions.
Unfortunately for La Oroya townsfolk, this doesn't sit well with international advocacy groups like Oxfam, Christian Aid and Friends of the Earth -- who have made Doe Run one of the latest targets in their ongoing anticorporation, antidevelopment campaigns. These campaigns ignore the wishes of developing-world communities the international groups profess to defend.
As I've seen in so many other parts of the world and in so many other industries (Indonesia's pulp and paper industry is just one good example) it's often not really about making the world better; it's about money and power for these groups.
Let's look at how this is playing out in Peru. La Oroya sits in a steep mountain valley, 12,400 feet up in the Andes northeast of Lima, where there are few resources other than minerals on which to base an economy.
Its huge smelter has operated eight decades. Typical in metallurgical operations, plant emissions have created community health and environmental challenges. Indeed, conditions were so bad in the years before Doe Run Peru came to the town in 1997, one observer interviewed by Newsweek called them "a vision from hell."
Since Doe Run's arrival, matters have steadily improved. Lead in the workers' blood is down more than 30 percent, air lead emissions are down more than 35 percent, and discharges into local rivers have decreased significantly. Industrial safety has improved dramatically at the smelter, which has gone more than a year without a single lost-time accident.
While the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been squawking, Doe Run has put its nose to the grindstone, working with townsfolk to improve conditions. Since buying the operation from Peru's government, Doe Run has spent $140 million. It is spending more than another $150 million on improvements to help reduce plant emissions and provide more and better community services.
Responsible environmentalism abounds. Initially focusing on reducing emissions like cadmium and sulfur, as required by its purchase agreement with the government, Doe Run Peru's on-site assessments soon found other concerns, such as air lead emissions, posed more significant health risks to the locals.
This kind of science-based reassessment of priorities, with its inherent costs, represents the responsible role of Doe Run Peru as part of the La Oroya community. Last year, with strong local and labor union support, Peru's government agreed and allowed Doe Run Peru to apply for an amendment to its environmental operating agreement that reflect these new priorities.
While the company has made considerable progress on lead-level reductions in La Oroya, sulfur emissions reductions will require more work. Previous smelter operators never addressed this at all, and there simply hasn't been time enough to complete the massive sulfur extraction plant that will bring stack emissions down to acceptable levels. The company has pledged to continue working toward this goal.But investment in pollution controls isn't the only reason the La Oroya townsfolk support Doe Run Peru. The company also funds health care, education and hot lunches for local children.
It has carried out the first community-wide blood-level surveys, using Centers for Disease Control protocols, and installed systems to treat sewage and storm water. It has also supported vocational training for some 8,000 women, resulting in dozens of new businesses. It has planted thousands of cypress trees along streets and is helping farmers boost dairy productivity.
But the NGOs continually cry foul. I wonder: If La Oroya is really the disaster the NGOs say it is, why did they show no interest in it until only a few years ago—well after Doe Run Peru came to town—and not in the previous 75 years of operation?
I spoke directly to the mayor and to local doctors, foresters, farmers and social workers. All felt the company was doing its best to improve social, economic and environmental conditions in the region. This contrasts starkly with Christian Aid, Oxfam and the others—who have done nothing even remotely approaching this kind of tangible progress that is making a real difference for La Oroya's people.
I've been fortunate to have traveled throughout the world and to have seen the sustainable development debate from many sides. Doe Run Peru is a good, responsible citizen of the La Oroya community. The international community -- and especially the NGOs in Peru -- should heed the chants of the thousands of demonstrators who regard Doe Run Peru as an important part of their sustainable future.
Let Doe Run Peru and La Oroya continue working together for a brighter future -- without self-interested NGO interference.
Patrick Moore is co-founder of Greenpeace, chair and chief scientist of Greenspirit Strategies Ltd. in Vancouver, Canada. Dr. Moore was invited by the Doe Run Co. to visit its facilities and assess their sustainable development efforts.