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Loathing, lies and liberation theology

By Paul Driessen
web posted April 10, 2006

LA OROYA, Peru – Pitched battles over ideology and public policy certainly are not confined to classrooms or legislative chambers. They are also fought in poor communities of Africa, Asia and Latin America, often pitting multinational corporations against multinational activist groups.

The corporations seek to extract energy and minerals, provide much-needed jobs and capital, and serve investors and consumers – without harming human health or the environment. They often collide with well-connected global activists who loathe foreign investment, free enterprise, and especially extractive industries – and want to influence elections and policies in these regions.

This town, high in the Andes east of Lima, is one such battleground. La Oroya developed around a metallurgical facility that produces raw materials for computers, medical devices and other modern marvels. Built in 1922, the facility was a major polluter for decades.

In October 1997, a company that is now Doe Run Peru bought the complex from government-owned Centromin Peru. Doe Run eliminated heavy-metal discharges into local rivers, began converting old slag piles into grasslands, and implemented safety procedures that enabled employees to work 7 million man-hours without a lost-time accident. It has already reduced particulate emissions 35 percent from late 1997 levels, and sulfur dioxide (SO2) by one-fifth. The company has requested a four-year extension for completing the SO2 emissions control system, but by 2011 the entire facility will comply with all Peruvian environmental standards.

Last year, at Doe Run's invitation, I visited Peru with two Catholic priests, to see the operation firsthand. The environmental compliance work was impressive. However, after we explored the town and met its mayor and numerous citizens, what really stood out were programs whose primary purpose was improving the quality of life in the region.

Doe Run has financed or conducted hundreds of projects, mostly suggested by the locals. It constructed a municipal sanitary landfill, paved roads to reduce dust and accidents, and improved schools, built a youth center and clinic, and helped plant 100,000 trees and acres of flowers.

"Many homes here don't have bathrooms or even running water," Nilda Gómez told us. Now families can go to public laundry and shower facilities that cost little or nothing to use.

The company also sponsored cleft palate surgeries for 200 children, and jewelry making, pastry baking, electronics and business management classes for local people. They, in turn, have opened scores of new businesses. Most are home-based, but a bakery now employs eight workers, including Emilia Hinostroza, whose speech disabilities previously had prevented her from holding a job.

To improve agriculture in hamlets up to 30 miles away, Doe Run removed debris from water canals and tunnels; builds reservoirs and irrigation systems; imports better breeds of grass, sheep, alpaca and cattle; trains farmers in land management and animal husbandry; and provides medicines and medical treatment for animals.

The hard work and $140 million investment (through 2005) have improved environmental quality and created a new sense of pride, ownership and hope for the region's 50,000 people. At a union-organized event, we were mobbed by happy parents and children who shouted "Viva Doe Run" and said their lives had improved more in the past seven years than in the previous 75.

These efforts epitomize "corporate social responsibility." And yet, the company and community are under constant attack by local Archbishop Pedro Baretto and US-based activists led by Oxfam. They have insinuated themselves as "stakeholders," say Doe Run hasn't done enough to address blood-lead levels, and strongly object to the SO2 deadline extension.

In fact, Doe Run made the decades-old lead contamination problem its top priority from the outset. The company tests workers and children regularly, reduced lead emissions at their source, built facilities that ensure workers don't take contaminants home, and initiated programs to clean streets and homes of accumulated contamination. Blood-lead levels now meet US (OSHA) guidelines for nearly all workers, and the children's blood-lead levels are improving.

Frustrated that the union and residents overwhelmingly support extending the SO2 deadline, the activists constantly lie about these health issues and Doe Run's efforts and intentions. Many suspect they also want to turn public opinion against mining and foreign investment, and tilt Peru's presidential race toward Ollanta Humala, a left-wing Hugo Chavez protégé.

La Oroyans deeply resent what they feel is interference by unelected "outsiders" who ignore their views and have no real stake in what eventually happens. "We are the ones who live here," Mayor Clemente Quincho noted. " We want the archbishop to listen to us, not just make statements and demands."

Vice Mayor Clariza Amanzo criticized Archbishop Baretto's "dialogue" process as one-sided. Numerous facilities still pollute the region's air and water, she emphasized, so he should invite "our people and all the companies, not just Doe Run and people he wants to speak." Indeed, when I participated in a meeting at the archbishop's magnificent residence, not one of his "representatives" said anything remotely echoing what I had heard during three days of meetings, tours and interviews.

What their statements did reflect is a commitment to liberation theology, which one of the priests described as " Marxism painted over with a thin veneer of Christian moralizing about class struggle, the supposed illegitimacy of private enterprise, and ultimately the asserted need for radical redistribution of limited wealth." Worse, it undermines the very goals it advocates, by preventing the foreign investment, technological progress and wealth creation necessary for people to improve their physical and social environment.

Oxfam, Christian Aid and US-based Presbyterian Church groups certainly can afford to support projects like those Doe Run has initiated – thereby buttressing their assertions that they care about the needs of people they supposedly champion. However, aside from sponsoring duplicative blood-lead studies and spending probably millions to attack Doe Run and thwart La Oroya's interests, they have done nothing.

Town officials say the activists expressed no concern about health or pollution until well after Doe Run arrived. Now that a US company is operating the facility, the agitators want decades of mismanagement and pollution reversed overnight.

A greater worry is that, if they manage to prevent the SO2 extension or shut down the smelter, the activists' concern for "the children" will evaporate. That's what happened when Oxfam's radical soulmates succeeded in banishing DDT from disease control programs, and left millions to die of malaria in Latin America and, even more tragically, in Africa.

Then newly-jobless workers and families would be forced into subsistence farming, coca growing, or scraping by in Lima's slums. Meanwhile, the agitators would simply return to their comfortable homes in Boston, Washington and London – until they hoist their eco-socialist banners against the next ascendant village they choose to victimize.

The people of La Oroya deserve better than that.

Paul Driessen, a senior policy advisor with the Congress of Racial Equality and the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, is the author of Eco-Imperialism: Green power ∙ Black death. Doe Run sponsored his trip, but the observations and opinions presented here are his alone. © 2006 Paul K. Driessen

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