Author: Maxime Degroote
Ghost town Choropampa: Twenty Years after the Mercury Spill
On June 2, 2000, a truck with a load from the Yanacocha mine lost about 150 kilograms of mercury in the small community of Choropampa in the province of Cajamarca, in northern Peru. Twenty years later, the village seems to be completely forgotten, while the inhabitants are still dying from the consequences of the disaster.
It’s June 2, 2000, around five in the afternoon. Loud voices can be heard on the street, shouting. “Everything in front of my shop is mine”, exclaims Julia Angelica. A sparkling, clear, silver-colored sort of liquid slides like some sort of jelly over the road that runs straight through the village. “Mommy, mommy, look”, you can hear elsewhere, “there is something shiny and sparkly on the street and everyone is collecting it. I am going as well!”
Children pop in the middle of the mysterious stuff, collect big, empty bottles of Coca Cola and Fanta and fill them with the shiny liquid. They play with it, throw it in the air and walk under it, rub it on their bodies, even consume it. Is it gold? How much would it be worth? The confusion reigns, but it must be worth something. Wealth for Choropampa.
Children passing out
Nothing turns out to be less true. Twenty years later, we are standing on that same spot, on the long road that connects the important mining city of Cajamarca with Lima, the capital of Peru. The road on which trucks of the Yanacocha mine pass on a daily basis, and where exactly twenty years ago today, such a truck from the transport company Ransa, contracted by Yanacocha, lost 151 kilos of mercury. No gold, but 151 kilos of shiny, sparkly, but deadly poisonous mercury, spread out over 27 kilometers of road between San Juan and Magdalena. The community of Choropampa, in the middle of that road, got hit the worst. Directly or indirectly, all three thousand inhabitants were exposed to it.
The mercury destroyed the whole community. It entered the ground, the water, the plants, the air. Water measurements show that the level of mercury in the water grows over time. The harvest is yielding less and less, and no one wants to buy or consume agricultural products from the region of Choropampa.
People who hadn´t had physical contact with the mercury, inhaled it. And still inhale it. When the weather is hot, the mercury that´s still in the soil evaporates and rises. Inhalation even turns out to be worse than touching it.
Inhaling mercury breaks the protective membrane of the brain and mainly causes problems with the nervous system. Salomón Saavedra from Choropampa confirms that. “When it’s hot, you often see children passing out on the street, on their way home from school. They pass out from all the mercury they inhale. They are taken to the health post, they recover a little, but they remain sick. They continue to have the same symptoms. Like all of us, for the rest of our lives.”
Hours after the mercury spill, the health post in Choropampa filled with people with the same complaints. Nose bleedings, headaches, stomachaches, hives over the whole body. The list of symptoms grew over time. Vision loss, severe pains in the bones, joint pains, peeling of the skin, blood in the urine, irregular menstruations, menstruations that fail to occur, infertility, ectopic pregnancies, deformed children, and so on.
We find ourselves in the small living room of Juana Martínez. When we ask her whether she can tell us what happened the day of the disaster, she looks at us desperately. “I don’t know… I really don’t. We are losing our memory because of the mercury.”
Forgotten. Not only the authorities have forgotten about Choropampa, also the memory of the inhabitants themselves is failing them.
Around ten villagers have gathered in the small room to tell their stories. Others couldn’t walk the few blocks to Juana’s home, and we visit them in their own houses. The stories are similar.
“It looked so pretty,” María Clementine Hoyo Zabreda remembers, “so pretty how it decorated the street. But it turned out to be poison. Look at my body.” She pulls up her skirts and shows her swollen legs. Different women follow her example. Hands, feet, spots everywhere and skin peeling off.
Vision loss is another serious consequence of the disaster. “The whole village needs to wear glasses. And change those glasses every year”, they say.
Melisa Castrejón Hoyos wasn’t in Choropampa when the mercury spill happened. She arrived to her home in Choropampa six days later, to hear poison had arrived to the community. Poison that was just sitting there in a glass bottle in her home. “I was so scared. I didn’t dare to come close. There I was, with my baby of barely two months old in my arms… Now my son is basically blind. He can’t read. He is studying, but I think that he won’t finish his studies, just as most of the rest of the youth of Choropampa.”
Santos Mirando does remember the day of the mercury spill very well. He ran out to scoop the mercury up with his bare hands. “I have the most terrible headaches. All the time. And all the doctors prescribe me is paracetamol. My wife is shaking so hard that often while she is cooking, she drops the plates. My seven-year-old daughter has severe pains in her bones and can´t see anymore. She hadn’t even been born when it happened. And we are poor. We can’t do anything. Nothing. Just wait.” Santos wipes the tears from his cheeks. “We will just have to push through the pain.”
Wait. That’s the only thing that rests the people of Choropampa, while slowly the villagers are dying. “My niece died from lupus,” says Helena Portilla, “and right after that my son died. He was only 23 years old. They gave him three months when he got to the hospital. Little afterwards also my daughter in law passed away. She felt bad around one, and at seven she had died.”
Many villagers fled the community and went to other cities to look for a healthier way of living, but no one can escape the death of Choropampa. Even children and youth born after the mercury spill have high levels of mercury in their blood and urine, and severe health issues.
Judith Guerrero Martín suffered a miscarriage. “I can’t get pregnant. Many women are at risk during pregnancies. There are women who lose their child after three, four months of pregnancy. Or their children are born deformed. When I lost my baby, my doctor told me that it was better this way. That it was an ectopic pregnancy, as many women have here. A friend of mine even died during her pregnancy.”
Sentenced to chair
The mayor of Choropampa brings us to a house a little further down the road. A new face, with the same look of desperation. She talks quietly and it’s hard to understand her words. Headaches, backaches, pain in her arms. For the last three years, she had barely been able to move. Three years in which she hasn’t been able to do anything. She can’t fold her hands, she can’t stretch her arms. She can’t wash herself, she can’t comb her hair. She is sentenced to her chair.
“My life is so sad”, says Modesta Pretel. “I can’t do anything anymore. I can’t work on the field. I can’t cook. I can’t knit. What the doctors say of my case? I have no idea. I can’t remember. I forget everything, like most of us. Even my daughter, who is born after the disaster, suffers from memory loss.”
Close to where the accident happened, we meet Imelda Guarniz Ruiz. She also suffers because of the impact of the mercury in her community. “I was a strong woman, and now? I can’t even walk anymore. My kidneys hurt. There is no solution. They give me ibuprofen and paracetamol. How is that going to help me? The people from the Yanacocha mine make fun of us. And I can´t do anything anymore. Before I sit down, I always have to find someone who will be able to help me stand up afterwards”, she says. She reinforces her words by calling her son to help her get up from the stairs she is sitting on.
Four deaths a month
The complaints aren’t new, but they are getting more and more serious with the years. Around the time of the accident, about 100 people died. “Doctors from Germany and the United States told us that everything would be way worse in five, ten, fifteen years”, Juana Martínez says. And look at the situation now. “In the past we had one death every three, four years. Now we have three to four deaths every month.” The impact of the disaster is more visible than ever, twenty years after it happened.
It took a long time before the villagers heard how poisonous the mercury was. Two days after the accident, employees of Yanacocha arrived in Choropampa. The villagers remember how they arrived in special suits with protection goggles. It raised questions, but still no one had informed the local population about the risks of mercury. The workers only reported that they had come to buy the spilled mercury, and offered money in exchange for the collected mercury.
Children ran out on the streets again, looking for whatever was still left of the mercury. Five to ten soles they got, depending on how much mercury they could gather. “A circus had just arrived to our community,” mayor Ronald Mendoza Guarniz says, “and with five soles the children could do a lot. For a kilo, they would even give them up to 100 soles. Our children ran back and forth with their hands full of the shiny liquid.”
Yanacocha was able to recover only a third of the spilled mercury. The rest stayed behind in Choropampa, in the fields, in the houses, even in the bedrooms.
The damage was done and very fast the irreversible consequences of the spill became clear. Choropampa got sick. And Choropampa protested. They wanted an analysis; they wanted to know what was wrong with them. Fifteen days after the spill, the contamination in the villagers was measured.
The analysis showed that the villagers had high levels of mercury in their blood and in their urine. But the results of the analysis disappeared. And twenty years later, they still haven’t been found.
While inhabitants of Choropampa all ended up in the hospital with similar complaints, Yanacocha returned to the community with lawyers.
Yanacocha offered money to the inhabitants of Choropampa. Any amount of money, depending on what the villager said yes to. 2500 soles (about 650 euros) for one person, 5000 (about 1300 euros) for another. Whatever they agreed on, to buy their silence.
After all, to receive the money, they had to sign a document. An extensive document with several clauses, clearly stating that Yanacocha is not to blame for what happened, that Yanacocha pays only to end the controversies about the disaster. And by signing, the villagers said goodbye to their rights to sue Yanacocha for what had happened or take any legal action against the mine.
Almost all of Choropampa signed. The majority of the people by leaving his or her fingerprint. At the time, 85 percent of Choropampa was illiterate and could neither read nor sign the document.
The villagers used the money to cover their medical costs. They ran out of money quickly, even before the true impact of the health issues reached the population. It wasn’t about a few temporary health issues. These were lifelong complaints that would only get worse over the years. But what choice did they have? Even the then Minister of Women and Human Development traveled all the way to Choropampa from Lima to advise the community against hiring lawyers to help them.
Choropampa was silenced. Nobody was allowed to speak. For years, the inhabitants of Choropampa have been silent under the weight of the documents. Twenty years later, while the number of deaths from the consequences of the disaster suddenly starts to increase rapidly, they give up their obligation to remain silent. If we die anyway, we might as well open our mouths; seems to be the motto.
Next to money, the inhabitants of Choropampa also received health insurance for five years from Yanacocha. Health insurance they can barely use in Choropampa.
Right next to where the mercury spill changed the lives of three thousand Cajamarquinos, we find the health post of Choropampa. On this health post, everyone agrees. “We have let go of the hope to receive help or medication. The only thing we still ask for, are tranquilizers and painkillers. Either way we can never be cured anymore.”
We knock on the door of the health post, but can’t be let inside. It´s better to come back in a day or two, they tell us. Then they will be able to show us the post.
The look on the mayor’s face says it all. “There is nothing to show. Nothing. The health post is empty. That is the problem that we have had for years. There is no medication in the health post, no help. They only check your pulse and give you some sort of sedative. But I’m sure if Yanacocha knows you’re here, with the cameras, they’ll come with a car full of medication. That’s why they need a two days’ notice to let you in.”
A day later, we suddenly receive a video from the health post from an anonymous source, filmed that same day. The racks are empty. There is no medication in Choropampa.
“We are dying,” Helena Portilla says, “this is no life for us. We have been forgotten. We are asking for justice from Yanacocha, but nothing happens. They came, poisoned us, and abandoned us.”
Also in other cities, the population of Choropampa seems to have difficulties to find help. “We lie. We tell them we are from Magdalena or Cajamarca. Nobody wants to help the people from Choropampa. We are nobody”, they say.
The cemetery of Choropampa is filling extremely quickly. The dates of death on the crosses follow each other up faster and faster. Two per month, three per month, four…
Mayor Guarniz looks at us with a desperate look on his face. He is still young, was still a kid when the mercury spill happened. As was his wife. Seven days after the accident she ended in the hospital for the first time. Five years later, she came back with the same complaints. Two years later again. “And what now? Do I take her back within a year? And then every month?” Guarniz asks.
The previous mayor was only 28 when he died. They quickly brought him to Chiclayo, but he died almost immediately upon arrival. “And such quick deaths are the rule rather than the exception”, Guarniz says. “Today we feel good, tomorrow we might feel bad, and poof, straight to the cemetery. What are we still waiting for? We are completely left to our own devices.”
Only eighty inhabitants of Choropampa didn’t sign the document of Yanacocha twenty years ago. They are the only ones who can still take legal action against the company, although most lawsuits were filed quickly. Only three of them were reopened.
In twenty years Choropampa has lost all hope of help. “We have been deceived so much already,” says Julia Angelica Guarniz Luis, “twenty years have passed and still nothing has happened. We are going to die. Soon it will be done with Choropampa. All that´s left for us is wait until God says it is enough.”
Twenty years have passed and still there is no solution for Choropampa, the village in which the inhabitants continue to die and are more and more intoxicated with every breath they take. It is time for Choropampa to get justice.