Full Frame: Peruvian poison town

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The World

Full Frame features photo essays and conversations with photographers in the field.

La Oroya is a mining town in the Peruvian Andes. It is also one of the world’s 10 most polluted places, according to the Blacksmith Institute.

Of its 12,000 children, 99.7 percent have blood lead levels that exceed acceptable limits. The American-owned smelter, Doe Run Company, one of the world’s largest lead producers, is accused of polluting the city since 1997.

Lead poisoning is particularly harmful to the mental development of children. It causes irreversible central nervous system damage, behavioral problems, anemia and developmental delays, especially in children. In fact, there are studies that show that children in the womb already have lead in their blood. In other words, even before being born, the kids of La Oroya are condemned.

The most affected children live in La Oroya Antigua, a neighborhood clinging to a hillside directly opposite the smelter, where residents climb steep staircases to reach homes that lack running water or sewer hookups.

The corporation has become a part of the community. La Oroya’s economy revolves around the smelter, which employs about 3,500 people directly. Many others work for companies that provide services to the plant or have relatives who work there. Thus, the whole town has to face a wicked paradox: Doe Run provides its livelihood but also is poisoning it.

The history of the degradation of La Oroya's environment began in 1922 with the introduction of a metallurgic complex belonging to the U.S. Cerro de Pasco Copper Corporation. The complex was nationalized by Peru's military government in 1974, and then privatized again in 1997. It was at this point that Doe Run, an affiliate of the Renco Group, bought La Oroya complex.

In August 2009, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights accepted the case against Peru for human rights violations in La Oroya. It “considers that the alleged deaths and/or health effects of the presumed victims are a consequence of acts and omissions by the State with regard to environmental pollution arising from the multi-metal complex operating in La Oroya.”

For miles around the plant, high levels of lead can be found four to five inches into the topsoil. Even if all the pollution controls are successful, no one knows how much long-term damage has been done to La Oroya’s children.

About the photographer:

Gustavo Jononovich is a freelance photographer currently based in Buenos Aires. He began his studies in photography in 2002. After two years covering local news as a contract photographer in the Argentine media he went freelance. Far away from breaking news, he is now working on a long-term personal documentary project, his first book, about the role that Latin America plays in the world as a center for the extraction of natural resources, documenting the impacts on its population and environment.

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