Peru: Pope Gets Pushback on Environment – by Justin Catanoso (Pulitzer – September 20, 2015)

LA OROYA, Peru – In Pope Francis’ teaching doctrine on climate change and environmental sustainability, released in June to worldwide attention, he intertwines two threads that often dangle separately: nature and the world’s poor.

“A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach,” Francis writes in his papal encyclical. “It must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

There are few places on Earth where the cry of both is louder than in this city of 33,000 more than 2 miles high in the central Andes. La Oroya, Peru, is recognized as one of the world’s most polluted places. A smoke-belching smelting plant for copper, zinc and lead, operating from 1922 to 2009, made it so. Chernobyl makes those same lists.

Every child in town has excessive levels of lead in his or her blood, according to health officials. The soil is contaminated with sulfur dioxide. Portions of the Montaro River, which flows past the smelting plant, has been dead for years. Seven decades of acid rain chemically transformed the mountains surrounding the plant so that they look like molten wax, not solid rock.

The Earth is surely crying in La Oroya. And so are the poor. Just not in ways Pope Francis envisioned.

That revelation from South America comes as the pope, the global leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, prepares to visit the United States for the first time. He will speak to both a joint session of Congress and the United Nations. His encyclical – a relatively rare teaching tool of high moral authority – is called Laudato Si, On Care for our Common Home.

He will likely urge Congress and U.N. delegates to take seriously his conclusions that the Earth is in peril because of rampant consumerism, unmitigated plundering and processing of natural resources, and far too much burning of fossil fuels. And he wants global leaders to act, mostly on behalf of the world’s exploited poor.

But in La Oroya, it appears the poor want to be exploited. They are screaming, protesting, even dying for the 77-year-old plant to be sold to a new owner and reopened – at environmental standards far lower than Peruvian law now allows. The plant, called Doe Run after the last U.S-based owner, closed in 2009 after environmental standards were increased.

It’s not just the 1,600 direct jobs at stake; La Oroya’s entire economy – shops, restaurants, suppliers, hotels – hinges on the smelting plant. Like Winston-Salem in the 1980s, where signs proclaimed “Pride in Tobacco,” residents here are proud of their plant despite the ravaging impact on their health and their community. The plant is prominently displayed on the city seal.

Emel Salazar Yuriulca, 43, president of the Federation of Unemployed in La Oroya, agrees with the social elements to which Pope Francis speaks regarding the environment. She is a devout Catholic. She reveres the first Latin American pope.

But, she says, speaking at a park just across the river from the shuttered plant: “The life of that plant is more important than anything the pope says. Yes, we are poor. But that’s because the plant closed. That’s when the problems of poverty started.”

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