September/October 2014
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Burning Waters
A Maryknoll Sister works alongside indigenous Peruvians protesting water contamination

Debris at mine site replaces pastureland and causes pollution downstream in Condoraque (Peru/S. Sprague)The livestock was dying and no one knew exactly why. It wasn't the cold or altitude; alpaca is native to the Andes and sheep adapt well, even at 15,000 feet above sea level. The herders from Condoraque, Peru, suspected their losses had something to do with the 30-year-old tungsten mine (pictured right) a few miles upriver .

Local leader Simon Orihuela shows where the clean Toco Toco River meets the contaminated Condoraque River (Peru/S. Sprague)So local leaders Simon Orihuela (pictured left) and Moises Tipula traveled 120 miles to the provincial capital of Puno to register a complaint. They came armed with damning evidence of lethal contamination. Water from the Condoraque River—measured by the mine's own digital instruments and witnessed by a local judge—had a pH level of 3.25. (Pure or distilled water has a pH of 7; anything less is acidic). The water in the Condoraque River was so acidic it killed everything in and around it.

The herders brought their concerns to the local government's environmental offices and health department—all to no avail. So they turned to the Office of Human Rights and the Environment, a non-governmental organization in Puno.

"Nobody pays any attention to the indigenous people," says Maryknoll Sister Patricia Ryan (pictured below) moderator and vice president of the human rights office, who has served in Peru since 1971, defending the rights of indigenous people.

The missioner from Levittown, N.Y., decided to go on her own fact-finding mission with fellow staff members Trinidad Carlos and Cristobal Yugra, who are both human rights lawyers, and Pedro Camacho, an agronomist and educator. After a grueling six-hour trip, the human rights team spent the rest of the day hearing testimonies from villagers and stratagems from mine representatives.

"The farmers were demanding that the mining company - Minera Sillustani S.A. - keep its promise to clean up the area," says Carlos. "And the company explained why it was yet unable to do so."

Maryknoll Sister Patricia Ryan (Peru/S. Sprague)Three years ago, Minera Sillustani bought the mine, agreeing to a costly government stipulation that it clean up the mess the previous owners left behind—a staggering 800 tons of contaminated rubble—and build a water recycling and containment system to prevent recontamination. Only then could the new owners reopen the mine.

"The mine representatives said they could not begin cleanup until the Environmental Impact Study [of the cleanup] was presented and approved by the local communities," says Carlos. "But that was just a pretext; approval is not necessary [to begin the cleanup] ... They're stalling."

Approval by the local people is necessary, however, before mining concessions can be granted. "The government does not respect the opinion of the people, nor seek out their opinion," says Ryan. "By law, any community that is going to be affected by a mining concession should be consulted and give their consent."

After facing a series of bureaucratic obstacles and indifference, Ryan and her team decided to go public.

In August 2009, they brought the case to the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns in Washington, D.C., which, in turn, handed it over to the United Nations. Condoraque's concerns will be presented at the United Nations this May.

They also invited members of the national and international press, including Maryknoll magazine, to have a look see.

That's how I found myself recently in Condoraque gasping for air while interviewing herders and mining reps for this article. It was clear on the ride up that I didn't need a pH meter to know something was up with the Condoraque River; my eyes were enough.

The devastation caused by the toxic waste is both dramatic and colorful, especially where the pristine Toco Toco River meets the dead Condoraque River, becoming the contaminated Quilcani River. Rocks lining the riverbed of the Condoraque are a deep reddish orange, while the rocks from the Toco Toco are white. (The human rights team compares rocks, right)Human rights team (l. to r.) Trinidad Carlos, Sister Patricia Ryan and Pedro Camacho compare white rocks at Toco Toco and discolored rocks near the Condoraque (Peru/S. Sprague)

We paid an unexpected visit to the mine. The closer we got to the mine, the redder the water of the Condoraque River became. We followed it to its source: the Choquene Lagoon. With a pH level of 3.10, the lagoon is a dead body of water dotted by islands of black brush. According to the mine's community liaison, Arturo Lira Zamora, the area is the eighth most contaminated spot in Peru.

Lira welcomed us and ushered us into a room. He was joined by Chief Operations Engineer Edward Flores who, twice, said the contamination is a natural phenomenon. "Water passes through the mountains that are loaded with minerals and washes [metals] into the lagoon and river," he told us.

When asked if he was suggesting that the mine has nothing to do with the contamination, it was Lira who responded. "Not at all," he said. "Mining is, of course, partially responsible for the damage, but you should know that all mining activity has stopped for the time being. All we're doing now is maintaining the plant and the road to the mine."

Standing at the edge of the Condoraque River, Simon Orihuela pointed to the rusty waters and said, "Before, there were plenty of trout in this river. Today there are none; even the algae that the fish used to feed on has disappeared."

Residents of Condoraque tell visitors how their health is being affected by toxic waste in their rivers (Peru/S. Sprague)No one knows exactly to what extent the health of the community (some members picture left) has been affected by contamination, but there is no doubt that if the situation is left unchecked, people will die. "When a person eats contaminated food," says Ryan, "heavy metals accumulate in the body and eventually cause tremendous damage."

Juan Rodriguez, a local landowner, expresses his frustration and hope. "The mayor comes and nothing; the judge comes and nothing; representatives from the government come and nothing!" he says. "But maybe by going public, someone will finally pay attention to us ... For years this water irrigated our land; now it only burns it. How are we going to survive?"


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