La República exposé: Choropampa’s agony

Translated from a special report in Sunday’s La Republica:

By Raúl Mendoza

Choropampa’s mayor, Vicente Zárate Minchán, died last Sunday, victim of a disease that affected his nervous system. His death has reminded us that eight years ago, in this Cajamarquina community, a mercury spill affected the lives and health of hundreds of residents. Little has changed since.

Every now and then Vicente Zárate Minchán felt his legs and arms becoming numb, his muscles losing their strength and a sensation of pins and needle, or tingling, all over his body. He always turned to the rural health clinic in his community, Choropampa, so that the local doctor would prescribe him Neuroflax injections. Last Friday, he again suffered from one of his attacks. He was first attended to in the community clinic, passed through Cajamarca Regional Hospital’s emergency room, and died in Chiclayo’s Almanzor Aguinaga Hospital Sunday morning.

Vicente suffered from Guillian-Barré syndrome – which affects one in 100,000 persons – and paresthesia, illnesses tied to anomalies in the central or peripheral nervous system. It has yet to be proven, but the illnesses that afflicted him could have been caused by heavy metal intoxication. He was not only a resident and Choropampa teacher, but also mayor. His death has shocked the Cajamarquina community, but has also brought back to memory the tragedy suffered by the community on June 2, 2000: the worst contamination by mercury of our history.

“Now all the residents who for years have been suffering from symptoms similar to those that afflicted the deceased mayor think they are going to die, right now. They have to stay clam. What is striking in Choropampa is the high number of patients suffering from “paresthesia,” or, in other words, from numbness and pin and needles in the extremities. This is an issue that warrants studies, taking into account what happened in 2000,” said Dr. Eduar Atalaya, the (only) doctor in Choropampa’s rural health clinic. Mercury precisely happens to damage the nervous system when a person is exposed to it for long periods of time.

“Isn’t it obvious that the cases of paresthesia, including that of mayor Zárate, were caused by mercury contamination?” we asked.

“It’s probable, but that affirmation must be supported by scientific grounds,” (Atalaya) responded.

Choropampinos also suffer from ills such as headaches, nausea and loss of balance, urinary or renal infections, skin conditions, loss of sensitivity and a burning sensation in the eyes. Dr. Atalaya attends to approximately 120 patients each week. There is not one other neighboring community with such a high number of medical visits. Nonetheless, neither the Yanacocha mine – responsible for the contamination – nor the government have preoccupied themselves with giving these people a decent hospital. Last Wednesday, the day of Vicente Zárate’s burial, his brother-in-law told the community: “Cajamarca, who has one of the richest gold mines in the world, doesn’t even have an adequate hospital.”

Remembering the disaster

Choropampa was an enterprising community surrounded by 30 farmhouses belonging to seven Cajamarquino districts. Every Tuesday, hundreds came to the market. Its routine changed June 2, 2000 when a truck hired by the Yanacocha mine spilled 150 kilos of mercury on the main road and other areas. People, unaware of the danger and with the consequences that we today regret, took the product home. The company tried to conceal the (spill), but in the end, was obliged to come to the area to recuperate the contaminating material.

“Yanacocha took advantage of the fact that at that time there was no law against transporting toxic substances, and the government’s presence was very minimal at the beginning. They did what they wanted, such as cleaning up with the help of residents, without adequate protection and without any preventative measures. They also opposed a Digesa (General Direction of Environmental Health) employee’s request – he was later fired – to evacuate the residents until the decontamination process was completed. (Yanacocha) always looked to cut costs, putting human life in danger,” said Father Marco Arana, from the NGO Grufides.

A rapid evacuation would have been the key to controlling the situation. Now it’s too late. Biologist Nilton Deza, a heavy metal toxicology expert, says that mercury causes life-long damage. “It can be eliminated via urine, as the mine said, but it leaves behind after-effects. So, they’re lying. If today they were to test people, it might be that they won’t find any mercury in their organisms, but their organs have already been affected irreversibly.”

The 2,000 residents of Choropampa were affected to varying degrees, but approximately 500 cases are severe. Some cases: campesino Rosas Álvarez Leyva is bedridden and unable to move his arms or the upper part of his body. Farmer Petronila Hoyos is also bedridden, and the doctors are unable to identify her illness. In these cases, damage has been done to the nervous system. Children, such as brothers Elkin and Damaris Muños Arteaga, suffer from skin conditions. Many adolescents also have learning disabilities.

Looking for solutions

Congressman Werner Cabrera, who drove Congress to publish a report about the case, says that Yanacocha has yet to assume its full responsibility and that the government has failed to do anything – since the year 2000 – to render justice in this case. The residents of Choropampa remember that during his campaign Peru President Alan García promised to transform (Choropampa) into an ecological district and support those affected (by the spill). “When he got to (the Government) Palace, he forgot about his promises,” said Juana Martínez, President of Choropampa’s Defense Front.

About the government’s conduct in this case, Father Marco Arana remembers a excerpt of the “Choropampa, the cost of gold” documentary in which (Women’s Promotion and Social Development) Minister María Luisa Cuculiza tells the residents not to look for lawyers ‘because their best lawyer is President Fujimori.’ “The government has always been in favor of mining, but not of the lives of its citizens. If (the mercury spill) had occurred in the U.S., the indemnizations and measures taken to solve the problem would have been in the millions and immediate. Not here.”

What can we do to give Choropampa tranquility and hope? Here are some suggestions: 1) give those affected (by the spill) life-long health coverage. 2) Transform Choropampa’s rural health clinic into a hospital so that it may have more personnel, a neurologist, a lab, X-rays and whatever else is necessary to attend to those affected. 3) Carry out an independent study about the levels of contamination in the area to see if relocation is necessary. Indemnizations are also necessary. Only this way will Choropampa stop being a community worn by sadness and mercury.

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