Inter-American rights court pushes Peru on La Oroya


Smelting and refining operations underpinned La Oroya’s economy for nearly a century. (Photo by Mitchell Gilbert for AIDA)

In 2002, residents of La Oroya, one of Peru’s most polluted cities, petitioned the country’s Health Ministry to protect them from the toxic emissions of an aged metals smelter and refinery complex. Now, over 20 years later, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ruled that the state violated the residents’ rights and must provide the community medical assistance and environmental remediation.

In a decision announced on March 22, the court found that air, water and soil pollution from the complex violated the human rights of the 80 plaintiffs. Six of those plaintiffs have died since the case was filed before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2006. “These actions and omissions violated the victims’ rights to a healthy environment, health, life and personal integrity,” said the court, which takes cases forwarded to it by the commission.

The decision got mixed reviews from Yolanda Zurita, who led grassroots campaigning for a cleanup. “On one hand, [there’s] happiness that people whose human rights were violated for so long have received the backing of the court,” she told EcoAméricas. But Zurita acknowledged there’s also concern about how the ruling can be implemented amid the current political crisis in Peru, which has had six presidents since 2016 and constant turnover of officials in the ministries of environment and health. Said Zurita: “It’s one more challenge.”

The court ordered Peru to investigate, try and, if appropriate, sanction those responsible for harassment of plaintiffs in the case, which the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights forwarded to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights court in 2021.

The tribunal also called for an analysis of current contamination, a plan to remediate environmental damage, and free health care for the plaintiffs. And it ordered a “guarantee of non-repetition” aimed at protecting the general population of La Oroya, which sits 12,287 feet (3,745 meters) above sea level in the central Peruvian Andes.

To comply, government authorities must follow current health and environmental standards, as well as human rights protocols. They must also ensure environmental monitoring and restoration, early-warning systems, and a relocation plan for residents interested in moving elsewhere. Some residents cannot afford to leave their homes without compensation.

Addressing that problem, the court ordered compensation for the plaintiffs, who include members of 17 families as well as six individuals. It also directed the government to pay compensation of US$80,000 to the nonprofit Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (Aida) and $20,000 to the Peruvian human rights group Aprodeh, the two groups that represented residents in the case.

Collective right recognized

The court decision has important implications for the region, says Rosa Peña, the Bogotá, Colombia-based senior attorney for Aida’s human rights and environment program. The judges recognized a collective right to a healthy environment and noted authorities knew for years that residents were exposed to pollution from the smelter but did not address the risks.

The court said children, adolescents, pregnant women and older adults were disproportionately affected, ordering larger amounts of compensation for them. It highlighted the responsibility of companies to respect environmental-rights norms set by the United Nations.

In their decision, the judges call La Oroya a “sacrifice zone”—an area of such serious environmental contamination that it violates the human rights of local residents. They note that Peru has regressed in its environmental legislation by lowering air-quality standards in 2017.

The complex, which dates from the early 1920s, was operated for decades by the state-run Centromin mining company. It was bought by the Doe Run Company, a subsidiary of the U.S.-based Renco Group, in 1997 during a wave of privatizations. By the 1990s, when Peru’s environmental legislation was still in its infancy, La Oroya was already heavily polluted. Doe Run ramped up operations to levels exceeding those of Centromin. Meanwhile, foot-dragging on environmental compliance and questions about how it won the bidding process for the complex drew scrutiny from a consortium of environmental and church organizations.

In the 2000s, the city embodied the bitter debate about whether economic development in Peru, which had been impoverished by poor governance and two decades of political violence, had to come at the expense of a healthy environment. The Andean terrain around the smelter-refinery complex was barren and white from decades of acid rain. And blood lead levels in residents of the neighborhood closest to the plants, known as La Oroya Antigua, were high.

Studies by the civil society consortium and the Health Ministry—and even the company itself—found that virtually all the children in La Oroya Antigua had blood lead levels exceeding the World Health Organization’s recommended maximum for non-occupational exposure.

Kids at risk

At the time, Peru did not distinguish between a recommended maximum for adults and for children, who are more vulnerable to lead poisoning. Other countries had lowered their maximum allowable limit for children to half that of adults, and health experts increasingly said there was no safe level for children.

Local environmental activists pushed for stricter monitoring and upgrades to the mining complex, but Doe Run repeatedly requested—and received—extensions of the deadline for filing environmental management plans. The activists, including some of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, were harassed for their stance, and some moved away from La Oroya.

Doe Run Peru entered bankruptcy in 2012 and a liquidation process began. Workers bought the smelter and refinery in 2020, but prospects for upgrading and reopening them are slim. The complex has been idle for the past five years and operated only occasionally during the five years before that.

Meanwhile, the city’s air quality has improved noticeably and small patches of green are appearing on some of the hillsides denuded by the decades of acid rain.
Zurita notes cleaner air has begun turning public opinion in environmentalists’ favor, adding the next goal must be enforcement of the Inter-American court decision. Says Zurita: “All those years of struggle will give us strength.”

- Barbara Fraser

In the index: Yolanda Zurita speaks at 2022 Inter-American Court of Human Rights hearing. (Photo courtesy of IACHR)

Rosa Peña
Senior attorney
Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense
Bogotá, Colombia
Tel: +(571) 926-1322
Yolanda Zurita
National Platform of People Affected by Toxic Metals
La Oroya, Peru
Documents & Resources
  1. An official summary of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ decision (in Spanish) can be found at link