It has been over two years since Peruvian authorities found that water in Cuninico contains toxic heavy metals and other substances. As of today, the indigenous communities still do not have access to safe, clean water. According to the Secretary General at Amnesty International, “[t]he fact that the Peruvian authorities choose to do very little . . . is not only cruel, but a violation of their right to health.”
In 2014, Peru’s Regional Health Authority, DIRESA, first reported that the water in Cuninico was contaminated with aluminum and other toxic substances. Zero health centers are operating in Cuninico. The closest one is over an hour away by a speedboat. Instead, the country has installed “telemedicine” centers: a shack with thin walls, a tin roof, and a computer where an individual may talk to a doctor located in the capital via teleconference. Without steady electricity and internet service, Peru’s “telemedicine” programming is not working well.
The Peruvian government may have declared the situation a public health emergency, but there has not been a single concrete step to provide adequate healthcare or to address the water contamination other than the telemedicine centers. The contamination is likely a result of international mining companies. One company, Xstrata, is even facing charges in London for hiring a police force to beat environmental activists protesting one of their mines. Recently, indigenous groups struck a deal with the Peruvian government that would implement emergency health care programming for communities located near the mining fields and would implement environmental cleanups as well. The ramifications of the health care deal and the environmental cleanups, however, are unclear.
This crisis is not an isolated incident. The government has historically valued the money from foreign investments over the rights of its indigenous populations. About eight years ago, Peru’s indigenous populations faced harsh violence for protesting against oil development, resulting in the death of over thirty people. This crisis is longstanding, and it is doubtful whether ten days of healthcare and environmental planning are going to do much to benefit the indigenous populations. Under the new agreement, President Kuczynski promised to enact an indigenous rights law before awarding any new or long-term drilling contracts. The agreement does not discuss current contracts, however.
Peru has a legal obligation to provide adequate healthcare to its indigenous populations. Under Article 25 of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (No. 169), Peru has a duty to provide adequate health services or the resources so that Indigenous people have the “highest attainable standard” of healthcare. Peru’s Water Resources Law codifies the Convention 169 into its own law, stating in Article 64 that no law shall diminish the rights established in the ILO Convention. Further, under Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), ratifying parties must recognize the right to attain the highest standard of physical and mental health. Under the ICESCR, the state is responsible for the “improvement of all aspects of environmental and industrial hygiene” to ensure the full realization of the right to health. General Comment 15 to the ICESCR outlines specific water protection laws and rights people have, including the freedom from water contamination on the part of third parties or corporations. Most notably, the General Comment specifies that any “violation of the obligation to protect” can come from the state’s failure to protect its citizens “from infringements of the right to water by third parties,” including, the “failure to enact or enforce laws to prevent the contamination” of water resources.
Peru has not adequately provided healthcare or clean water to its indigenous populations. Under the ILO convention and Peruvian national law, health services should be based within local communities. Health services should be planned and administered in conjunction with all of Cuninico’s geographic, economic, and social conditions. Under the General Comment to the ICESCR, states are supposed to adopt “necessary and effective legislative . . . measures to restrain” any third party from polluting water supplies. Any new legislation that Peru passes should ensure the construction of adequate health centers in the region, or at least provide the indigenous populations with the resources to provide themselves with adequate healthcare. The new law should prevent mining companies from contaminating indigenous populations’ drinking water, through strict prevention and by constructing pumping devices to purify any contaminated water.
Under national and international law, Peru’s government has a duty to protect its indigenous populations but has failed to do so. Due to a longstanding crisis between indigenous populations and mining companies, the government has put economic interests before the health of its indigenous populations. While there is some hope for a new agreement to protect its indigenous populations, it is still uncertain whether the government is going to take the necessary steps to protect its citizens.