RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The Peruvian government is failing in its obligation to guarantee the right to health of hundreds of indigenous Peruvians of the K’ana People in the province of Espinar, who are exposed to high levels of metals and toxic substances, according to a report presented Tuesday by Amnesty International (AI).
Young Gerson Lopez, from the Alto Huancané indigenous community, suffers frequent nosebleeds, nausea, vomiting, and cramps, symptoms that doctors have not been able to explain, but which he associates with the high levels of metals detected in his body a decade ago when he was 12 years old.
“(The doctors) only gave us a diagnosis and didn’t tell us anything about how to cure or prevent (toxic metal exposure). They turned their backs on us,” Lopez lamented to Efe.
Like him, hundreds of indigenous people of the K’ana People have been denouncing for years the abandonment of the Peruvian State in the face of the health crisis affecting the province of Espinar, in the Andean region of Cusco, where 78% of the inhabitants have high levels of metals and toxic substances in their bodies.
This is revealed in the report “Failed State of Health”, which urges the authorities to design and implement, with the full participation of the indigenous communities, an emergency plan to determine the causes of toxic substances in the bodies of the inhabitants of Espinar.
“These communities have been denied a fundamental aspect of the right to health. They have the right to know what the source of exposure to metals and toxic substances is, and identifying it is the responsibility of the Peruvian state,” María José Veramendi, AI researcher and author of the study, told Efe.
Only then, she added, would the area cease to be “one more example of the failed state of the health system” in Peru, where it is estimated that there are more than 10 million people, 31% of the population, at risk of exposure to heavy metals and other chemicals.
The Amnesty International study was conducted in 11 indigenous communities located in the area of influence of the Coroccohuayco mining project, the extension of the Antapaccay mine operated by the Swiss transnational Glencore.
In the field, blood and urine samples were taken from 150 volunteers who concluded that almost eight out of ten had levels of metals and toxic substances above the reference values.
Specifically, 58% had elevated levels of arsenic in their bodies, 29% of manganese, 12% of cadmium, and, to a lesser extent, 4% of lead and 3% of mercury.
In addition, some community members reported neurological symptoms, such as fatigue, headache, cramps, and vomiting; others of a respiratory, digestive, ocular, cardiovascular, rheumatic, and dental nature, among others.
“Although we cannot associate these symptoms as a direct consequence of exposure (to toxic substances), we can say that this puts people at risk of having a series of diseases that may be related to these symptoms that they are reporting,” said Veramendi, who insisted on the scientific evidence on the damage to health derived from this case.
STATE OF LACK OF PROTECTION
The researcher also stressed that heavy metals in the environment have a greater impact in communities in a “state of unprotection” such as Espinar, where the indigenous people live in social and economic conditions “of exclusion and poverty, with limited or insecure means of subsistence”.
In this sense, the study analyzed 292 water points in the area and applied a total coliform reagent to 191 samples, a bacterium that acts as an indicator that the water is not safe for human consumption.
“Of these 191, 151 came out positive, as we showed that the population is not only exposed to metals and toxic substances but also has conditions that make it more vulnerable, such as not having access to clean and safe water for consumption,” said the author.
ADVANCES AND CHALLENGES
Although the scientific evidence on the presence of metals and toxic substances in the environment and their impact on health in Espinar is still “incomplete and insufficient”, Peru has made important legislative advances in this area in recent months.
One of them was the ruling issued in 2020 by the Superior Court of Justice of Cusco, which ordered the Ministry of Health to implement a health emergency plan for Espinar.
For Veramendi, this resolution was “a significant first step” that responded to “the work of pressure and demands of the communities for their rights”.
The last “victory” came in May with the enactment of Law 31189 to “strengthen the prevention, mitigation, and attention to health affected by contamination with heavy metals and other chemical substances”.
“It is one more hope for the communities; it is a joy for us. Hopefully, the State will help us in that and can listen to us,” Gerson commented on the norm.
Veramendi was more skeptical and recalled that, although the Peruvian government recognizes that it is dealing with a national problem, its “historical approach has shown enormous challenges in its proper implementation and a real impact on the lives of the communities exposed”.