Much has been said in Peru about the toxic metal pollution endured by the people of Espinar, a province in the Andean region of Cusco. However, little is known about the women who have fought and continue to fight for their right to health and that of their children.
Two of the most notable, Carmen Chambi Surco and her mother Melchora Surco, are women with dark skin and deep, black eyes. They lived in the Pacpacco neighborhood of Espinar´s Alto Huanacané district. There, over 3,000 meters above sea level, high-altitude ichu grasses grow and temperatures fall to three degrees Celsius at night. The land is cold but rich in minerals and is home to one of the country’s most important copper mines: Tintaya Antapaccay.
Carmen and Melchora have been fighting for over 10 years for health and clean water for Espinar. They have spoken again and again with officials, vice ministers, mayors, and business leaders about the problems they face. In 2017, they went to the Ministry of Health in Lima to demand justice and that the government honor Carmen’s son’s right to health after a test revealed that his blood contained 17 toxic metals, including arsenic, mercury and lead.
From Melchora’s house, you can see the mine’s tailings dam. She has lived for years alongside the bulldozed landscape and has grown accustomed to seeing it two blocks from her home. She says she has seen more and more people in the area get diagnosed with cancer and other illnesses, which she attributes to the mining activity. The government and the company contend that the presence of metals in the water and soil is due to the minerals naturally present in the area, although no study has been conducted to determine the metals’ true source.
In 2013, the National Center for Occupational Health and Environmental Protection for Health, the government agency tasked with detecting toxic metals, took blood and urine samples from 180 people from the area to test for 17 toxic metals. All 180 had at least one toxic metal detected in their samples, and 52 people had levels above the World Health Organization’s maximum limit.
These results came after multiple complaints by the population. Melchora, a member of the Platform for People Affected by Toxic Metals, has spoken with authorities and the press so many times that she gained international recognition. She participated in the 2012 Espinar protests that centered on the social and environmental situation in the area, and in subsequent formal negotiations with the government. She decided to represent her community and make herself heard as a Quechua-speaking woman.
It is us, the women, who suffer the health problems first-hand. Our husbands go off to work and we’re left here with the pollutionCarmen Chambi Surco
Her age and her aches have not prevented her from traveling to the capital to denounce environmental problems. “My health is fragile, but here I am,” she said in a hearing before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights in 2016. “The pollution is everywhere. I have photos here. I didn’t come to smear my government, my country. What I want is justice.”
However, her health is frail and at times she runs out of energy. Once, she was in so much pain that she fell from her bed. Seeing that her mother couldn’t go on like this, Carmen decided to take up the baton.
In 1982, Carmen was 12 and grazed her family’s cattle on the high meadows of Huancané, in Espinar. The land where she grew up was perfect for grazing. Now it is different. She says that the livestock as well as the people there suffer from health problems that didn’t exist years before.
Carmen has had to stay strong for her son, who had lung surgery to remove a cyst the size of “a rotten apple.” To pay for the operation, she worked night and day, as much as she could. She attributes his various health problems to exposure to toxic metals. However, as in the vast majority of cases of this kind in Espinar, doctors have not conducted the specialized tests needed to establish a connection between his health problems and the toxic metals in his body.
“I don’t speak only for my son. There are 11 communities affected by this. I am here to demand our rights,” Carmen told the press. This is how the women of Espinar are, she said, they don’t stay silent.
“It is us, the women, who suffer the health problems first-hand. Our husbands go off to work and we’re left here with the pollution,” Carmen says. The women are the ones who cook with water contaminated by toxic metals, who boil the water and give it to their children to drink. This is why, in her family, it is the women who defend their community. “What else can we do?” she asks. “We are losing hope.”
Everyone in Espinar understands the imminent danger that the metals pose to their lives. The once forgotten city in Cusco has appeared on television and has been on the lips of many in the country due to the alarming results of the blood, urine, and water samples.
Last year, Cusco’s regional government declared a water emergency in Espinar. Public officials have recognized that people in the area suffer serious health problems and that medical attention has been inadequate. Officials from the national government have also begun to listen to those affected by toxic metals. As part of a collective effort with other affected communities, the women of Espinar have managed to bring attention to their situation in the national public and political discourse, achieving important commitments from the government.
Carmen is sure that there is no going back. She had to leave her home in the countryside because she cannot live in a polluted community. “My mother is more committed. She never left,” she says. This fight for the rights to clean water and adequate medical care spans generations and it will continue until these rights are finally respected.