WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
Archbishop Pedro Ricardo Barreto Jimeno kicks off the annual Share Lent campaign of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.
Archbishop Pedro Ricardo Barreto Jimeno isn't easily intimidated. But when a coffin bearing his name was found inside an American mining firm's closed smelter in La Oroya, Peru, in 2009, he felt a chill in his spine.
"I can't deny I felt a bit afraid when I realized it was a real coffin," the archbishop of Huancayo in the Peruvian Andes, said in a Feb. 12 interview. "They clearly wanted to silence me; but here I am, alive and thriving."
This was one of several death threats Barreto received in response to his persistent calls for the toxic smelter to meet environmental standards before it was allowed to reopen.
In March last year he received a death threat over the phone two days after he released a statement calling for the company to clean up its act.
Two of his lay associates who were managing an environmental project to clean the air and water in the Mantaro River Valley, where the smelter is located, also received death threats.
Despite the threats, Barreto stood his ground.
"The principles and values of the social doctrine (of the Church) are not just words to keep in the library but must be put into action."
Barreto, chair of the Justice and Solidarity Commission of the Latin American Bishops' Conference, was in Edmonton as the Share Lent visitor of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.
The organization launched its annual education and action campaign in Edmonton for the first time Feb. 13. The theme of the six-week long campaign is Human Dignity, More Than Ever.
Barreto gave several presentations in Edmonton before moving on to Toronto, Hamilton and Montreal.
Emissions from the smelter have been linked to lead poisoning in La Oroya residents, especially children. The smelter, previously owned by Doe Run Peru, a subsidiary of the New York-based Renco Group, has contaminated the region with toxic levels of lead, cadmium and arsenic.
Ninety-seven per cent of children had dangerous levels of lead in their blood.
Only eight streams in the entire Mantaro watershed remain relatively uncontaminated. The watershed is the largest in Peru and fears are that the country's crops and livestock also will be contaminated.
When Doe Run bought the plant from Peru's state-run mining company in 1997, it was required to upgrade environmental controls. The company said within 10 years it would install the necessary technology to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions.
"But in June 2009 Doe Run declared bankruptcy due to the pressure from the government to do those projects; consequently, the smelter shut down."
It reopened in July 2011 under Peruvian ownership, and 2,000 of its 3,500 workers are now at work following some upgrading of its environmental controls.
"It was clear to me that the American company was just interested in the profits, not the health and the lives of the people," Barreto said.
Now the environmental situation in La Oroya, one of the 10 most contaminated cities in the world, has improved - thanks mainly to the three years the plant remained closed.
"In that time the air started to recover its cleanliness and nature started to show symptoms of recovery," Barreto noted. "We cannot say it has changed completely because it started operations in 1928 but we can say we now breathe an air that's not totally contaminated."
This is a victory of sorts for Barreto.
"We achieved this thanks to civil society of the region," he says. "The contradiction is that the very population of La Oroya, which are the most benefitted by this change, were the ones who opposed and insulted and threatened us, pressured by the American company, which, thanks to God, is no longer present."
Barreto said he couldn't stay quiet about the situation because as bishop he has to defend the life of his people. His predecessors felt the same way.
Some 12 years after the smelter opened in 1928 the bishop of the area warned about the "mortal dust" affecting the health of the people. "In the year 2000 my predecessor said in a document that the situation in La Oroya was so serious that the Church had to act."
In 2004 when Barreto was appointed archbishop, he decided to present a proposal to solve the environmental problem. "The Church has never protested," he said. "We made proposals to achieve an integral solution to the problem."
Some factory workers, however, saw the archbishop's actions as a threat to their jobs and actively suppressed protests from the La Oroya community. The smelter is the main employer in La Oroya, a town of 35,000.
Barreto sometimes felt threatened by the mob when he had to visit the town for a meeting.
"I was surprised when in certain circumstances I was in La Oroya and I had to enter a place and I was surrounded by 100 or 200 people holding banners and screaming 'Don't get involved, Barreto.'
"I was convinced that I was putting my life at risk because easily someone could have taken a knife and stabbed me."
But as he went through the crowds, Barreto would recall the words of Jesus who said in his native Nazareth that no prophet is welcomed in his own land. "They wanted to throw Jesus down the cliff because he had made no miracles."
Any fear Barreto may have felt quickly evaporated. "It was transformed into strength because of my faith convictions," he said. Moreover, the main document of the fifth Latin American Episcopal Conference held in May 2007 says "we have to accompany the poorest of the poor, even at the risk of martyrdom."
Barreto says the Church must protect the environment because "the earth, similarly to life, is a gift from God. The Church tells us clearly that an essential part of its evangelizing mission is the care of life and nature."
The archbishop believes Canadians are uniquely positioned to pressure mining and other extractive transnational companies to conform to internationally recognized social and environmental standards.
So far, he said, most transnationals continue to exhibit irresponsible behaviour when they operate in the developing world.