The Joining Hands initiative specifically emphasizes partnership among the nine presbyteries that have been matched with countries around the world. The program’s mission is to build bridges of solidarity between coalitions of churches in the United States and networks of overseas churches, grassroots groups, and non-governmental organizations. The presbyteries are encouraged to follow the lead of their international partners in setting a focus for the partnership.
“We spent two years studying globalization, Peru, economic concerns,” explains Ellie Stock, pastor of the Northminster Church in St. Louis, Mo., and part of the Joining Hands Giddings-Lovejoy team. At the end of that time the partners in Peru decided to focus on issues of environmental justice, specifically surrounding the mountain town of La Oroya.
La Oroya has been listed for the past two years as one of the most polluted places on the planet, according to the Blacksmith Institute, an environmental advocacy group. This fall CNN is set to feature La Oroya in its “Planet in Peril” series. La Oroya’s pollution has also been the subject of stories in Time magazine, Christianity Today, and PBS.
Though the town is nestled in the Andes Mountains, it is surrounded by a moonscape of barren hillsides cut by the flow of the brick red Mantaro River. But the problem is not a visual blight on the landscape. The problem is the blight facing La Oroya’s people. More than 97% percent of the children have what are universally considered dangerously high levels of lead in their blood. The apparent source of the pollution is a poly-metallic smelter1 under the control of the U.S. Renco Group.
When the Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery began working on issues of environmental justice with their Peruvian partners, they didn’t know the specifics regarding the issues in La Oroya. What they also didn’t know was that within their presbytery The Renco Group had another poly-metallic smelter right in their own backyard.2 The uniqueness of their shared situation added a poignant dimension to the growing international relationship.
The town of Herculaneum, Missouri, outside of St. Louis, was found to have dangerously high levels of lead in the blood of its children, with a quarter of those under age 6 having lead poisoning, according to a 2002 report done by the State Department of Health and Senior Services.3 In Herculaneum, Doe Run, a subsidiary of the Renco Group, had been pressured to pay millions of dollars in clean-up costs to improve the quality of life for the surrounding residents.4
After discovering that their partners in the U.S. also suffered from the effects of Doe Run’s pollution, a delegation from La Oroya came to America. “Where is the smoke?,” they asked. If you can fix it here, it is not a question of technology. It is a question of willpower,” says Conrado Olivera Alcocer, executive director of Joining Hands in Peru.
“It has been a synergistic kind of partnership, with both sides working on the same issue,” Ellie Stock remarks about the partnership. “The contamination issues that exist in the world bring us closer together and allow us to know that we identify with each other because we have the same issues of contamination in our own communities both here and there,” adds Olivera Alcocer.
Though the plant in La Oroya has been in operation since 1922, it reportedly was not purchased by the Renco Group (under the Doe Run Corporation) until 19975, with the understanding that the U.S. company would begin to modernize its operations.6 In 2007, after mounting pressure against the operations in La Oroya, Doe Run Peru was separated from the Doe Run Corporation in Missouri, but both remain wholly owned subsidiaries of the Renco Group.7
“Our greatest concern is regarding the effects that the lead and other metals have on children, specifically brain damage, mental retardation, and attention deficit problems,” says Olivera Alcocer. “All environmental contamination is the responsibility of the one contaminating,” suggests Olivera Alcocer “but also of the entire world to care about the issue and to bring pressure for change.”
“Remember the scare over the lead poisoning of the toys from China?” asks Ellie Stock. In La Oroya it is not just toys. “The children are immersed in this 24/7 and they can’t just take it back or throw it away,” she points out. “None of us would put up with that for even an hour in this country,” says Stock. As people of faith we are called to act against issues of injustice, just as the Hebrew prophets who demanded justice.”
Erin Dunigan is a free-lance writer and photographer based in southern California.
4Op. cit. motherjones
6Op. cit. latimes.