You can’t see it, but these children have poison in their blood. The director
of the primary school in Cerro de Pasco in Peru says learning
and concentration difficulties are usually the first sign.
-When they sneeze, blood often comes out of their noses. They struggle to pay
attention for longer stretches of time. I'm sure it's due to the lead in their blood.
The school is right next to a gigantic open-cast mine:
the crater dominates the town of Cerro de Pasco.
The global economy is hungry for raw materials.
But this comes at a high cost. One that many South Americans
have to pay? some even with their lives.
Cerro de Pasco is a town in the heart of the Peruvian Andes in Peru and the site
of a huge open-cast mine extracting zinc, silver and lead for global markets.
The mine is now owned by Swiss commodities giant Glencore. Glencore
recently paid several hundred million dollars for it.
But the people who live here pay an even higher price.
Cerro de Pasco lies at an altitude of 4,300 meters. Locals absorb heavy
metals into their bloodstreams through the tap water.
-The lead makes us tired. It especially affects children.
-My stomach hurts. My head aches.
-When I ask my children to solve a problem, they quickly get tired.
Next-door is a health center with a poster that reads "Lead Campaign".
Everyone can get tested for heavy metals there.
-We are measuring elevated values for all heavy metals, lead, cadmium,
potassium and mercury. All residents have levels that
clearly exceed the World Health Organization’s limits.
Peruvian journalists have documented the worst cases:
Children confined to wheelchairs because their lead levels are four times too high.
Scars from operations.
Doctor Fernando Osores has researched heavy metal exposure.
His study revealed alarming results.
-I found the most heavy metals in children and pregnant women.
The children have lead in their blood, which means they have problems with
nervous system development from a young age, and reduced IQs as they get
older. I have also discovered levels of arsenic, which is carcinogenic. That’s
not just my opinion: the World Health Organization says that too.
These diseases are directly linked to Peru’s ruthless exploitation of natural
resources for export. The whole country is in its grip.
We are on our way through a barren landscape to the highest town in the
world. You can smell the garbage long before you even reach La Rinconada.
Hundreds of tons of waste surround the town in a ring several kilometers deep.
The locals say the state has little power in this town of
50,000 people perched 5,100 meters up in the Andes.
Few are originally from this inhospitable region.
They came to this place to find gold. There is more gold here than anywhere else.
Entire families are in thrall to gold fever, sifting through the waste
from the mine to find tiny fragments of gold dust.
-None of the mines are official. Everyone's in it for themselves. Nobody has a permit.
Not even the gold diggers who have driven their mile-long shafts into the
mountain. Ten years ago, the gold boom attracted thousands
of impoverished Peruvians to La Rinconada. When Fortunato Chuque first arrived,
just a few hundred people were living in the town where nighttime
temperatures can drop to minus 20 degrees Celsius.
-Someone told me back then that La Rinconada had a future. It’s hard but
I’ve stayed. I’ve been here almost 24 years now.
The mining companies have complete power. If you don't play by their rules,
you get fired. Still, Fortunato held out.
Soon, he’ll have earned enough to leave La Rinconada for good. But working in
the shafts has left its mark on the 59-year-old.
-There's particulate matter everywhere in the mines. Many colleagues die of
pneumoconiosis. Or from gas poisoning caused by the underground explosions.
Once a month, Fortunato sells his gold to a trader.
It’s usually worth about a thousand euros.
That’s a pretty good income for Peru.
Here in the Wild West, people can at least scrape a living. But elsewhere, they
are paying for raw material exports with their lives.
A burst dam in Brumadinho in Brazil in early 2019 had fatal consequences.
Vale was the mining company responsible for the disaster.
Rescue workers dug desperately through the mud and sludge to find
survivors among the 300 people reported missing.
More often than not, they only found bodies.
Some had even been buried in a bus.
-A helper saw something blue shimmering. He dug
with his hands and found the tire of a bus.
It was noon when the dam of the iron ore mine collapsed without warning.
An employee recorded this video where he says:
“All workers were sitting at the lunch table.”
The mudslide engulfed hundreds of workers and residents below the
reservoir. Brown-red — possibly toxic — mud flooded the valley. The emergency
services saved one young couple in the nick of time.
This woman also escaped from the ruins.
It took just one hour to devastate the entire Brumadinho valley.
Distraught relatives gathered at an emergency response center. Many
received trauma counseling. Most had to learn that their brothers, fathers or
uncles were still missing, so they waited, even as hope of finding survivors waned.
-We’ll stay here until we find out what happened.
-What’s happened is terrible. This is negligence.
The morning after the disaster, warning sirens sounded again. People were
scared a second mudslide was imminent and fled to higher ground.
-We heard the sirens at 5:30. That's when we came here with our IDs. Since
then, we've been waiting, and still have no information.
The police blocked off a bridge and the main road of Brumadinho. Nobody
knew exactly what was going on, but it was gradually becoming clear that the
mining company Vale could no longer guarantee Brumadinho was safe.
-It would be even worse if there were more casualties.
That's why they're sealing off the area.
The rescuers had to stop their work because of concerns
that another dam above could collapse.
The delay angered the families desperately waiting for news of their loved ones.
Every moment was precious.
-I have had no information about my husband. It's been two days now.
Hours later, they finally received the all-clear signal for the second dam.
The rescue work could continue. Meanwhile, the people of Brumadinho
were trying to come to terms with the sheer scale of the disaster.
Ana Rita’s 28-year-old nephew was in the canteen when the mudslide hit.
-He went to work and never came back. Now he’s lying there. It’s incredibly sad.
People prayed for the missing at the church next door. But four days after
the disaster, sorrow was turning to anger at mine operator Vale.
-This was no accident; it was a crime. No amount of
financial compensation will bring our friends back.
Vale is now under investigation by Brazil’s Justice Department, which has
frozen over two billion euros of the company's assets.
-This is a human tragedy, because it involves such a large number of victims.
Environmental activists protesting outside the company headquarters:
They say the commodities giant invested too little in safety and
oversight. Vale is one of the world's biggest iron ore exporters. Many people
have accused the company of deliberately flirting with disaster in
order to be able to meet the increased global demand for iron ore.
-Vale doesn’t own the land; the company only has licenses to mine there.
And yet they can't even do that without making mistakes,
contaminating rivers and killing people.
Vale is now facing probably the biggest crisis since it was founded 77 years ago.
Vale used to be state-owned. The growth in the global demand for iron
ore led to a rapid expansion in the 1970s. It even operates its own fleet of ships.
-Vale grew to be so powerful during the Brazilian military dictatorship. It was
privatized in the 1990s, but the state is still the majority shareholder.
The 2009 economic crisis hit Vale hard. The company, which is dependent on
global demand, had to lay off many workers.
But the past few years have seen a marked turnaround: Vale was able to
cash in on increased demand for iron ore in China and Europe and has
become a heavyweight in the Brazilian stock index. The company has massively
expanded its mining activities and generates billions in profits.
Then, in November 2015, a dam belonging to one of Vale’s subsidiaries collapsed.
19 people were killed, and Vale’s operations came under increasing scrutiny.
-As is so often the case in Brazil, regulations and controls may be
moving in the right direction, but according to the law, there should have
been three times as many inspectors in the disaster area to effectively inspect
the reservoirs as there actually were. So you can hardly say that Brazil really
takes environmental regulations seriously —- which is just what the
authorities had said just three days before the accident. Although its laws
are right, no government, neither left nor right, has actually implemented them.
After the Brumadinho tragedy, the authorities suspected that a Brazilian
subsidiary of Germany’s Tüv Süd may have been partly
to blame and arrested two of its employees.
Documents show that the two men had certified the dam as safe just a few
months earlier and the investigators wanted to know why - but the dam may
have burst due to factors that had only come into play after the inspection.
In December 2018, the regional environmental agency issued the Vale
Group with a permit classifying the dam as a Level Four — in other words,
medium - safety risk. But the minutes of an earlier environmental commission
show that the risk level had previously been a Six: Heightened Risk.
The environmental agency also approved an expansion of mining
activity. This was significant, because it also involved work around the dam.
Media reports cited this as an “express permit.” It was issued just a few weeks
before the accident, and foresaw a 70% increase in production. An environmental
activist from the disaster area accuses the mine operator of negligence.
-The Vale Group must have noticed that something in the dam was out of
whack because of its illegal activities and then — a month before the accident —
tried to get retrospective approval.
Environmental groups are calling for more rigorous state oversight.
-We can see there’s less oversight because the environmental authorities
have been massively undercut. Even where the laws are clear, the control
authorities do not have the resources to enforce them. So hardly any checks
are carried out - partly because companies are exerting enormous
pressure to prevent them. The Vale Group has been
making donations to politicians for a long time.
Anger about this has been rising in Brumadinho, where they are also
aware this wasn’t the first mining disaster.
Ana Rita, the aunt of the 28-year-old who died there,
is scathing about the lack of oversight.
-The company knew that dam wasn't watertight. They should have fixed it.
But they only think about profit, not about us.
Meanwhile, locals are left facing the environmental impact. Reddish-brown
tailings slurry has contaminated the water.
-We used to use this river. But now there isn’t a river anymore. It’s finished.
Locals like Vitor who rely on tourism are worried about making ends meet. It’ll
take months before the whole area is decontaminated.
It’s a disaster with both human and environmental dimensions. A lot of
questions still haven’t been answered — especially about lax oversight and
whether it was tolerated to increase profit margins.
Back in Cerro de Pasco, Peru?. Experts say a fine layer of toxic particles has
settled over these mountains. They come from a nearby metal smelting plant.
The chimney of the La Oroya smelter now releases fewer sulfur-dioxide, lead
and arsenic fumes into the air than it used to. Just a few
years ago, it was still running at full blast.
-It never bothered us. We never left La Oroya anyway,
so we thought everywhere looked like this.
The consequences of the air pollution still haunt the residents, many of whom
suffer from chronic diseases. Blood lead levels are four times
higher than the WHO’s upper limits.
Pablo has serious nerological complaints but he still supports
Yolanda in her fight for better environmental standards.
-At first they called us traitors. But that never bothered me because people like
Yolanda also supported us. The Catholic Church and international
organizations helped us to get the Peruvian state to finally recognize the
poisoning that affects us, as well as our diseases.
That is why operations in the La Oroya smelter have been scaled back, although
the complex hasn’t been shut down completely and
continues to contaminate the area with heavy metals.
Yolanda says the smelter’s legacy will be felt for years to come. She’s meeting
Constantin Bittner, who works for the German NGO Misereor. He’s spent years
tracking the way German companies continue to import raw materials from
Peru in spite of environmental problems.
-When it comes to raw materials, Germany is very dependent on Peru. It
imports a lot of raw materials — especially copper, lead, silver, gold and
molybdenum — and it would have a huge problem if the Peruvian supply chain
were to break down. Concerted efforts to expose the human rights abuses or
pollution caused by this supply chain are rare. There are more efforts to push
things in the other direction: people writing that things are pretty good, and
highlighting a couple of sustainable projects. But when
you visit places like this, things look a bit different.
The future of the smelter is a sensitive issue in La Oroya, one that even divides
families. Some want more operations to create jobs. Others take a different view.
-We need to find a balance. The smelting complex
needs better filters to reduce contamination.
-My main concern is the health of my children. I even argue with my husband
about this. We both work in the mining industry.
I expect the mine operators to act more responsibily.
One person in La Oroya who has been on the side of the victims since the very
beginning is Cardinal Pedro Barreto, who also comes from a mining region.
For years, he has witnessed the many deaths caused
by the ruthless exploitation of mineral resources.
-The church is not against mining. But we are against irresponsible mining,
where the Peruvian state allows foreign companies to basically earn
their weight in gold here, while at the same time causing such regrettable
consequences for the Peruvian people and the environment.
But living at altitudes as high as Peru’s Andes already poses health risks,
especially for the dreamers and schemers in La Rinconada.
A team of French scientists in 2019 set out to find out how the back-breaking
labor here at 5,100 meters altitude is affecting the miners’ bodies.
They took blood samples from the gold-miners to measure the number of red
blood cells — the blood cells that transport oxygen. There is less oxygen in
the thin air up here than at sea level. The scientists wanted to find out how
people had adapted to these extreme conditions.
-A normal person at low level- at sea level, it’s about 40%. Here we measured
a lot of people above 80%, which is a huge amount of red blood cells in the
blood. And this helps them bring much more oxygen to the organs —
to the brain, to the muscles.
The results indicated the miners’ bodies had adapted to the altitude. Their blood
was thinner than normal, and stress tests revealed their hearts were working
at maximum capacity. The study was also intended
to help people living at sea level.
-So learning how these people here in La Rinconada can manage to live with so
few oxygen, this is also a way to think how to manage patients who have
respiratory diseases, and also people suffering from hypoxia at low level.
I’m only able to deal with such low levels of oxygen with the help of coca leaves.
Coca leaves worth five soles, about 1 Euro 20. Without them, I wouldn’t be
able to do anything at 5,100 meters altitude. You can
either prepare them as tea or, even better, chew them.
Gold digger Fortunato shows me how to do it. Even after all
of these years, he still feels the need to chew coca leaves.
As do most of the miners here.
La Rinconada seems like a ghost town to me.
But Eric Ramos chooses to spend his university vacations here, laboring to
extract the coveted precious metal from the ground.
For this, he and his relatives begin by washing the earth and rocks.
Further downstream, the gold falls through the gratings and gets caught in mats.
With temperatures only around five degrees Celsius —
its hard work, even for a fit 21-year-old like Eric.
-It's pretty tough out here in the cold. But I still think I’m lucky, because we're
finding a lot of gold and we can buy furniture and stuff.
Mercury plays a key role in the process. It is used to separate the gold from the
rock, but that requires repeated rinsing in the cold mountain air.
-We are mixing this here by adding the mercury to the slurry of rock and gold.
In the end, I get a mixture of gold and mercury.
That’s how we get the gold out of the rock.
The prospectors pour the mix into metal pans and sift out the clumps of gold.
Unlike his father, Eric doesn’t intend to work like this forever.
-I'm studying on the side and when I finish, I don't want to come back here.
-What’s your dream? -I want to be a teacher.
Almost everyone here once had dreams, but most of them have been shattered.
Many gold-diggers get stuck in La Rinconada — somewhere between bars and brothels
- under the spell of gold.
Before we leave, we see women in the town searching
for gold specks in puddles of ice run-off and urine.
La Rinconada still doesn’t have running water or a sewage system.
But there is a cemetery: the gold prospectors’ last resting place.
The cold, the poisons and the garbage — each takes
its toll on people in the world’s highest town.
We travel a bit further - into the Peruvian Amazon.
We come upon the Eduardo III: an ageing cargo ship loaded with pigs.
Loading the ship is hard work. But Lodwig is still glad to have a job as a
porter — at least until he starts to work out how much he’s been carrying.
-A sack of rice weighs 50 kilos. So that’s 100 kilos for two sacks. Every day we
unload a truck-full, which adds up to several tons.
Lodwig and his colleagues spend about three hours loading and unloading the
ship. Then they have to take a break. But their jobs may soon be obsolete anyway.
The Peruvian government is planning to build a modern and fully automated
transshipment terminal in the port town of Yurimaguas.
There are few roads in the Peruvian Amazon, so nearly
everything has to be transported along the river.
Boxes, sacks, parcels, and livestock: boats as small as the Eduardo III are a
logistical nightmare. It takes hours before everything is stowed on board.
The harbormaster is already looking forward to the new container terminal.
It promises to make things simpler, faster and better.
-We’ll soon see some progress here. Peruvian, Brazilian, and all the other
boats will soon be able to pass through all year round and carry more cargo too.
The harbormaster is hoping for a dramatic
increase in exports of raw materials to China.
Hidrovia, a sprawling infrastructure project involving the dredging of three
major tributaries of the Amazon, aims to create 3000 kilometers of deep draft
channels along the river, wide enough for larger ships. A Peruvian-Chinese
consortium has been set up to manage the project, which is due to start soon.
-We’re building an extensive system of waterways that will open up new
opportunities. Right now, when the water level is low, ships can only operate during
the day, not at night. This project will significantly improve transportation links.
But that's still all in the future. For the time being, traders and passengers
remain dependent on boats like the Eduardo III. It will take three days and
three nights to make it to Iquitos — assuming nothing goes wrong.
Cein Perez is the ship’s captain. He’s been sailing the Amazon for 25 years.
For him, it’s not just a job, but a calling.
-Navigating your way along these rivers is a real art. I inherited the talent from
my father. I’m the only one of his sons to have carried on the tradition, and I
hope that the generation after me will continue it too.
It means a lot to me.
These days, the Captain doesn’t spend much time at the helm. He now has
other people to do that task for him — like Walter Salazar, who’s also been on
the job for decades. Sailing in such shallow
waters takes a great deal of experience.
-You have to be familiar with the river and keep a lookout for shifting
sandbanks. They’re really dangerous. If you run into one,
anything can happen — the ship can even capsize.
Smaller boats are used to move along the distributaries to the villages, where
many inhabitants oppose the Hidrovia project.
Relations between locals and the central government are strained. Many local
people are part of the indigenous community or have indigenous roots.
They’ve suffered a long history of persecution and injustice,
and are still discriminated against. Leonida Pacaya is a member of the
Kukama people. She’s one of the last who can still speak the Kukama language.
-That means: how are you, and where are you from?
Today, Leonida has a visitor: Casilda Pinche is an activist who’s committed to
preserving Kukama culture. She fears that the new
infrastructure projects will do lasting damage.
-The new technology and the machines they’ll bring in will have
a devastating impact. It will destroy a lot of things.
-The river means life — for us and for the animals. The water is everything here.
It’s as important as having air to breathe.
The rivers and lakes of the Amazon are central to the Kukamas’ culture. They
believe there is another world under the water where their ancestors gather and
where people, spirits and animals all live together.
For the Kukama, any harm to the rivers and lakes would
threaten the balance of this spiritual realm.
But the protests against the new water highway also have a very practical
dimension. Casilda runs a painting school. She says you only have to look at
the course of the river to see that dredging and channeling are a bad idea.
-The river here is constantly changing. Older people here will tell you that too.
Streams appear and disappear. We’re not meant to interfere.
Casilda’s point is one leading scientists are raising as well. Many of them have
reservations about the project. One is Jorge Abad, an environmental engineer
who has spent years researching the Amazon. He says the network of
waterways here has shifted constantly for millions of years.
-We have plenty of different rivers: small rivers, large rivers. Some that transport
more sediment than others, and some that are more dynamic than others. We
never had a characterization of this river. So: we don’t know enough.
That is why he has begun evaluating samples, satellite images and other
measurements. But a survey like this takes time, and he says the government
doesn't want to wait. At the same time, the government's own surveys are
inadequate. Are the commercial interests involved simply too powerful?
-Basically what I think is they are blind. Sometimes I think they want to remain
blind, because if we do really nice research here showing: maybe you don’t
need to dredge ? or maybe naturally the river is going to cause erosion by itself.
Dredging the river at the wrong place could have disastrous consequences, he
says — it could upset the ecological balance and endanger local biodiversity.
Even if existing waterways are expanded and no new
roads are built, it still carries high risks.
This group of young filmmakers are shooting a documentary on current
environmental problems, travelling through the Amazon region to talk to
local people and get evidence of environmental pollution on film.
Oil extraction is a major polluter. Many of the pipelines leak. Pedro wants his
video footage to show that pipeline maintenance and clean-up operations
aren’t working anywhere near as well as the government claims.
-Here, in the middle of my country, in the middle of Peru, the reality is there's
nothing other than pollution. There's no drinking water, and that makes me
afraid. You can die if you drink the water here.
Pedro accuses the government of putting profit before people in the
region and he doesn't believe the Amazon infrastructure project will change a thing.
-Sure they tell us how things will improve. The government says the big
ships from other countries coming up here will buy our products. But that’s not how
things will be. Nobody’s going to stop here to buy our fish. It’s all disinformation.
The government rejects these accusations, saying that
the Hidrovia will also benefit local communities.
-The indigenous people will benefit enormously. It will help them get
around quicker — to the doctor, for example. The new infrastructure
will make a lot of things easier. But we will have a lot of work to do,
explaining the project to the people.
So it seems the government still has some convincing to do if it wants to
push through its controversial plans to increase exports of raw materials. All this
isn't relevant to the Eduardo III’s operators right now. They just want to
move their cargo as fast as possible, get it unloaded, and continue on their way.
But Cein Perez still hopes to captain bigger and more
modern ships up and down the river one day.
He and his crew once again mastered the tricky currents,
and are welcomed with music.
The porters quickly begin to unload the much-needed cargo.
In a few days, they will leave again — with a fresh load of people, cargo and
stories on his next journey along the lifeline, the Peruvian Amazon.
-We arrived safely. The ship is securely moored, and nothing bad happened.
And that’s the most important thing for me.
Back in Cerro de Pasco — Miserior staffer Constantin Bittner meets a local activist.
Jaime Luis Silva Ponce publicizes the health problems caused by elevated
lead levels in childrens’ blood.
He has been criticizing the lack of protective measures for years.
-We have been identifying excessively high blood-lead levels for years now —
we’ve even had help from international institutes. But the Ministry of Health
still hasn’t done anything to alleviate chronic heavy-metal poisoning in children.
Jaime shows us a film of children describing their headaches and nosebleeds.
Both symptoms are linked to the constant toxicity in Cerro de Pasco.
But to date, the activists have seen little response to their protests.
-In 2017, we protested in front of the Ministry of Health for ten days.
Following that, they signed declarations of intent. But the
treatment of the hundreds and thousands of children who have to live
with heavy metal toxicity is only progressing slowly —— and it’s still
inadequate. For now, children still have to live with it. And as you can see, the
environmental problems in Cerro de Pasco haven’t been eliminated either.
Glencore released a written statement saying the company was doing
everything within its power to keep the human impact to a minimum,
and that it will take further protective measures.
For many children, however, these could come too late.
-We feel forgotten. Compared to other cities, we have given a lot to Peru and our
government, but we have got nothing back. We are much worse off than other places.
But Cerro de Pasco is just one of many places in South America caught in the
stranglehold of the global greed for raw materials — places where bulldozers rip
open the earth and poisons eat their way through people's bodies.