Viewing La Oroya and its metallurgic complex from above with a local environmental activist. Photo: Stefanie Graeter
Viewing La Oroya and its metallurgic complex from above with a local environmental activist. Photo: Stefanie Graeter

Mining’s Moral Hazard: The Catholic Church, Toxicity Science, and Anti-Extractivist Politics in Peru

Many commentators have heralded Pope Francis’ encyclical Ladauto Si’ for focusing on issues of climate change and environmental destruction, while not sidestepping the name of the culprit: global capitalism and the markets that support it. Unsurprisingly, the encyclical also received backlash from the private sector, which questioned the legitimacy of a pope to opine on what they see as a scientific, technical, and most importantly, economic issue. Yet capitalism’s impact on human bodies, ecologies, and forms of life are above all the function of a biopolitical, and thus a moral, calculation. This is abundantly clear in Peruvian debates over neo-extractivist economies, which enunciate fundamental concerns of “life itself” (Rose 2006): the welfare of bodies and the water, land, and livelihoods that sustain them.

When the encyclical reached Peru, a majority-Catholic nation, pro-extractivists faced an ethical quandary: how to make the ethics of the Pope’s word commensurable with their own? Several chose not to. Instead, prominent economic figures publicly belittled the Pope’s condemnation of extractive capitalism, captured in interviews conducted by US journalist Justin Catanoso (Catonoso 2015a, 2015b, 2015c). Elena Conterno, current president of the National Society of Fisheries, and also a Catholic, said, “It makes me angry…. I see a pessimistic view toward entrepreneurs, investors, and economic leaders” (Catanoso 2015a). Princeton-educated Peruvian economist Richard Webb (not himself a Catholic) told Catanoso that the encyclical was “hugely unrealistic and essentially emotional. It's incredibly ignorant of how the economic world works" (Catonoso 2015a, 2015c).

How might we contextualize this generally dismissive attitude by pro-business figures in Peru? At first blush, the Pope’s admonishment of capitalism for the sake of planetary health and monetary redistribution clearly clashes with the neoliberal development mindsets of Lima’s economic elites. Yet I see their vitriolic reactions as also reflecting something more specific about Peruvian environmental politics and the role of Peru’s Catholic Church therein. In Peru, certain members of the Catholic Church play prominent roles in environmental politics, both to invert the moral assessment that normalizes the human and nonhuman harm of large-scale resource extraction and also to legitimate alternative scientific projects that undermine biopolitical logics, upon which the extractive industry relies.

Mining slag outside La Oroya. Photo: Stefanie Graeter
Mining slag outside La Oroya. Photo: Stefanie Graeter

Since the privatization of Peru’s extractive industry in the late 1990s, growing foreign investment in the mining industry has led to positive economic indicators, including a rapid growth rate and poverty reduction (World Bank 2015), but also a dramatic uptick in what gets denoted as “socioenvironmental conflicts” (Defensoría del Pueblo 2015). These “conflicts” manifest in familiar forms in Latin America––organized protests, media campaigns, marches, and blockades––but also through scientific proof of chemical contamination and human exposure. Yet such “biomonitoring” studies only quantify human exposure; significant ethico-political work is necessary to make these numbers actionable.

Anti-extractivist projects are thus biopolitical ones. Scientifically documenting exposure to the material excesses (lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium and so on…) of extractive practices and denoting them as toxic provides a biopolitical mapping of human populations and their life-sustaining ecologies. This documentation, however, does not reveal the productive “making live” of Foucault’s definition of biopolitical governance. Maps of lead toxicity reveal the underside of Foucault’s well-known axiom, divulging the disposable segments of the national populace “let to die” (1997, 254; c.f. Fassin 2009). These alternative knowledge-making projects and the scientific activism they enunciate subvert the biopolitical logics and technical expertise that normalize chemical exposures as an at-times unfortunate, but necessary, material reality of an extractive economy.

These extractivist-resistance projects are complex and heterogeneous, including actors such as self-identified indigenous groups; campesinos and farmers; local, national, and transnational NGOs and institutions; politicians; shamans; local and foreign scientists; international missionary networks; human rights advocates; and so on. Within the layered networks of these political projects, religious figures, particularly Catholic priests, play an intriguing role, occupying central nodes of leadership and social legitimacy. The most famous case is perhaps that of Marco Arana, a priest from the Northern region of Cajamarca, who became one of the main figureheads of a struggle to halt the Conga project, a proposed extension of the enormous Yanacocha mine, run by the US mining giant Newmont (see Li 2015; Welker 2014).

While by no means settled, the anti-Conga movement has nonetheless prevented the project’s start since 2012 and continues to unsettle the surety of foreign mining as a perpetual means of economic growth. The movement’s efficacy reveals the power of locals to refuse engagement with the state’s discourse of “dialogue”—wherein impacted communities truly have little sway—and the apparent inevitability of extractive development. Within their matrix of action, priests like Arana serve to translate local idioms, interests, and relations into language legible to national politics and liberal ethics, such as water rights and “sacred” land. Although not immune to defamation and criticism, I see figures like Arana as grounding the ethical legitimacy of these projects. By articulating notions of the “sacred” and the life-sustaining properties of water, he hits upon an ethical register that not only appeals to left-leaning national liberals who occupy positions of relative power, but he also reduces the capacity of conservative politicians and industry to simply repress or ignore the demands or refusals of anti-mining politics (Li 2013, 2015; de la Cadena 2010, 2015). Grounding these struggles within a Catholic ethos of life complicates the usual politically dismissive vocabulary that derides anti-extractivism on the grounds of backwardness and ignorance.

Preparing soil samples in Mantaro Revive's laboratory. Photo: Stefanie Graeter
Preparing soil samples in Mantaro Revive's laboratory. Photo: Stefanie Graeter

A case I know more intimately pertains to environmental contamination in the smelting city of La Oroya in the Central Andes and the surrounding Mantaro Valley of the Junín Region. I undertook ethnographic fieldwork with a scientific project called Mantaro Revive (Revive the Mantaro), mostly in 2012. Between 2007 and 2012 this group of scientific, policy, and public health experts based out of the regional capital of Huancayo devoted their energies to documenting pollution scientifically for the purpose of impacting regional mining policy. In addition to being scientific, the Mantaro Revive Project was also a Catholic enterprise. Many of its employees were devout Catholics; their offices and laboratories were placed in the Archbishopric buildings of Huancayo, and the Project is an outgrowth of the Archbishop’s public environmental commission (La Mesa de Diálogo Ambiental). This wedding of scientific, political, and religious practitioners and practices is not coincidental and reflects important sociohistorical circumstances.

La Oroya is an infamous case of contamination in Peru. Built in 1922, the La Oroya smelter has refined mineral sludge from surrounding mines for decades, transforming the surrounding physical environs and providing a central regional node of economic activity. While the first era of the smelter smoke led to local agricultural blight (Mallon 1983), the impacts of pollution on residents remained undisclosed until 1999 when Peru’s Ministry of Health measured levels of lead in the blood of La Oroya’s residents up to eight times higher than the international safety threshold of 10 micrograms/deciliter (Villena Chávez, 1999). This triggered a series of studies by environmental NGOs, USAID, and the US company Doe Run, then-owners of the smelter. These studies all revealed similar results: lead contamination levels were and are very high in La Oroya. This raised particular concern about the impact of lead on exposed children, including permanent cognitive impairment. Nonetheless, the smelter’s concentration of income-generating activity and political power made the acceptance, and especially the political influence, of these initial studies rather meager.

Doe Run’s track record since its purchase of the company in 1997 is rather bleak: pollution worsened and extensions for promised technological upgrades were repeatedly sought and granted. The smelter temporarily shut down in 2009 under dubious financial and legal grounds, related to the 2008 financial crisis but connected to the company’s increasingly scandalous reputation. In 2012 company representatives and government supporters mounted new plans to reopen the smelter without solving its pollution problems first. Among the figures who repeatedly appeared in the national debate about La Oroya was the Archbishop of Huancayo, Pedro Barreto.

The Cathedral of Huancayo. Photo: Stefanie Graeter

The Cathedral of Huancayo. Photo: Stefanie Graeter

My introduction to the Archbishop occurred on Ash Wednesday of 2012, just after completing one of my first days of fieldwork with the Mantaro Revive Project. After a long day of preparing soil samples, several project members headed across the street to the Cathedral for the evening service. Inside, Monsignor Barreto’s voice thundered through the enormous nave. Drawing from Mantaro Revive’s own longitudinal measurements in La Oroya, Barreto declared to his congregation that air pollution and human lead-levels had dropped dramatically since the smelter closed three years before. Later, after the service, an engineer from Mantaro Revive mused to me that as Ash Wednesday initiated a period of spiritual reflection, it made for an apt moment for the Archbishop to discuss the issue of La Oroya with his congregation, using the pulpit as he had for decades to “defend the right of life.”

From his pulpit or in the media spotlight, Barreto’s enunciations demonstrate deft translations and fluid movement between a Catholic ethical register centered around the sanctity of life to a secular, liberal politics of evidentiary claims, human rights, and social inclusion, legible to the state and general public. Yet, perhaps more critically, Barreto also served as a legitimating conduit for the production of scientific knowledge on toxicity itself. Barreto’s involvement marked a “before and after” in the politics of lead in La Oroya, as described to me by other environmental advocates. In 2004, a US missionary organization partnered with local organizations in La Oroya and scientists from San Luis University in Missouri to generate a new lead exposure study of La Oroya’s denizens. While several other studies preceded it, there were prevalent concerns about their methodology and also the possibility that rampant political corruption and financial influence may have tainted their results.

This last point is critical: toxicity research in Peru faces suspicion and defamation if concern arises about the so-called “traffic of influence” by participating persons, institutions, and organizations. Shielding oneself from this almost inevitable suspicion within mining conflicts in Peru is incredibly difficult. Such was the case with this new study, whose participants—US missionaries and scientists—quickly became depicted as misguided foreign environmentalists, perhaps even affiliated with the Shining Path, the Maoist rebellion that led to decades of bloodshed in the 1980s and 90s. As the Presbyterian minister who spearheaded the study explained to me, the company “had succeeded with just a few articles in delegitimizing the movement, and we needed the Catholic Church desperately.” Without relative local acceptance, conducting the study in La Oroya would have proved very difficult, if not impossible. Barreto received his appointment as the Archbishop of Huancayo around this very time and the study’s organizers astutely recognized the potential for recruiting a very powerful ally. Faced with the harsh reality of La Oroya’s conditions, Barreto agreed to join the project and quickly became essential to its progress.

Monitoring for heavy metals downstream from a mine near La Oroya. Photo: Stefanie Graeter
Monitoring for heavy metals downstream from a mine near La Oroya. Photo: Stefanie Graeter

As members of the coalition explained to me, Barreto helped overcome various logistical impediments. For instance, when local health bureaucrats in La Oroya delayed signing the study’s human subjects protocol, which implied their own negligence, Barreto went door-to-door imploring them to sign. The Archbishop also helped to recruit participants, gather media attention, and diffuse tensions with company supporters. Upon completion, this study, marked with the seal of the Archbishop and Saint Louis University, become the most cited research of lead exposure in La Oroya. The case of La Oroya remains unsettled and many locals still question the importance of toxicity compared to the dire economic situation they face if the smelter closes permanently. Nonetheless, Barreto’s influence both established the authority of scientific evidence that documented widespread heavy metal exposure in La Oroya, as well as the biological and moral hazard posed by its presence.

Before their civil war, Peru was home to a growing contingent of Jesuit Liberation Theology, founded by Gustavo Gutiérrez, which put structural social injustice at the very center of its theology (Gutiérrez 1988). First threatened by the presence of the Shining Path, then-President Alberto Fujimori later dismantled the Catholic Church’s power in the Andes, construing their ideology as too similar to that of the rebellion. Whether conceived as a re-articulation of Liberation Theology or not, the emergence of a life politics resistant to extractive economic models in Peru is underway. Its articulation through science, liberal ethics, and Catholic theology pack a heavy punch in the heterogeneous climate of Latin American extractive politics. The Pope’s overwhelmingly clear message that a capitalist world system contradicts a Catholic ethics of life compounds the political potential of environmental activist assemblages aligned with local Catholic leaders in Peru. The implicit biopolitics of extractivism, which relies on toxic exposures to maximize its economic efficiencies, faces a true moral and political challenge in Peru. How this challenge will unfold, bolstered by the credibility of Pope Francis’ position, remains in the making.


Stefanie Graeter is a cultural anthropologist and postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University in the science in human culture program and department of anthropology. She completed her PhD at the University of California, Davis, in the department of sociocultural anthropology in 2015. Her ethnographic research on lead exposure politics in La Oroya and el Callao analyzes the ethical and epistemic disagreements about extractive-based economic models in Peru.


Works Cited

Catanoso, Justin. 2015a. “Peru’s Conundrum: A Popes Environmental Message Divides His People.” Mongabay, September 4. Accessed 22 January 2016. http://news.mongabay.com/2015/09/perus-conundrum-a-popes-environmental-message-divides-his-people/

———. 2015b. “Papal Encyclical Draws Harsh Criticism from the Private Sector.” Mongabay, September 24. Accessed 22 January 2016. http://news.mongabay.com/2015/09/papal-encyclical-draws-harsh-critique-from-perus-private-sector/

———. 2015c. "El dilema de Perú: Un mensaje del Papa sobre medioambiente divide al pueblo." Mongabay, 20 November. Accessed 7 April 2016. http://es.mongabay.com/2015/11/el-dilema-de-peru-un-mensaje-del-papa-sobre-medioambiente-divide-al-pueblo/

Defensoría del Pueblo. 2015. Reporte de Conflictos Sociales No. 142. Accessed 30 January 2016. http://www.defensoria.gob.pe/conflictos-sociales/objetos/paginas/6/48reporte-mensual-de-conflictos-sociales-n-142--dici.pdf

de la Cadena, Marisol. 2015. Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds. Durham, NC: Duke University Press

———. 2010. “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections beyond ‘Politics’." Cultural Anthropology 25:334-370.

Fassin, Didier. 2009. “Another Politics of Life is Possible.” Theory Culture Society 26: 44-60.

Foucault, Michel. 1997. Society Must be Defended. New York: Picador.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. 1988. A Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.

Li, Fabiana. 2013. Relating Divergent Worlds: Mines, Aquifers and Sacred Mountains in Peru. Anthropologica 55: 399-411.

———. 2015. Unearthing Conflict: Corporate Mining, Activism, and Expertise in Peru. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Mallon, Florencia E. 1983. The Defense of Community in Peru's Central Highlands: Peasant Struggle and Capitalist Transition, 1860-1940. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Villena Chávez, Jorge. 1999. “Estudio de Plomo en Sangre en un Población Seleccionada de la Oroya. [Study of Blood Lead Levels of a Selected Population of La Oroya]. Lima: MINSA/DIGESA.

Rose, Nicholas. 2006. The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Welker, Marina. 2014. Enacting the Corporation: An American Mining Firm in Post-Authoritarian Indonesia. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

World Bank. 2015. Peru. Retrieved 26 June 2015. http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/peru/overview

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