The Right to Health of Indigenous Peoples Exposed to Toxic Metals in Peru

In the briefing A Toxic State: Violations of the Right to Health of Indigenous Peoples in Cuninico and Espinar, Peru, Amnesty International exposes how the Kukama Indigenous community of Cuninico and the Kana Indigenous communities of Alto Huarca, Cala Cala, Huisa, Huisa Collana, Alto Huancané and Bajo Huancané in Espinar are currently facing a health emergency from exposure to toxic metals, contamination of their water sources, and a lack of protection and support from the Peruvian State.

Fisherman on the shore of the river by the community of Cuninico - edited
Fisherman on the shore of the river by the community of Cuninico © Amnesty International. Photographer: Daniel Martínez-Quintanilla

The communities Amnesty International visited in Espinar are located in the basins of the Salado and Cañipía rivers in the Andean region of Peru. From these rivers emerge creeks that the communities use as their only source of water for drinking, cooking, bathing and also as the water supply for their livestock. Similarly, the Indigenous community of Cuninico, located in the Amazon region of the country, has traditionally depended on the river for their basic needs: bathing, washing clothes, cooking and drinking.

Government tests show that the Indigenous communities in Espinar and Cuninico are exposed to heavy metals and other toxic chemicals and that their principal sources of water are contaminated with toxic metals, although the source of this contamination has not yet been determined. The Peruvian state has clear obligations, established in national and international frameworks, to fulfil the right to health of the Indigenous Peoples of these communities.

In particular, Articles 24.1 and 24.2 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) state that “Indigenous individuals also have the right to access, without any discrimination, to all social and health services […] Indigenous individuals have an equal right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” Furthermore, Article 23 of the UNDRIP recognizes that “indigenous peoples have the right to be actively involved in developing and determining health, housing and other economic and social programmes affecting them.”

CARMEN CATALINA CHAMBI holding a cup of contaminated water taken from a water source in her community - edited
Carmen Catalina Chambi holding a cup of contaminated water taken from a water source in her community  © Amnesty International. Photographer: Diego Cardenas

Nevertheless, the state has failed to fulfil these obligations in numerous ways. By failing to implement an adequate response to the dangers posed by exposure to toxic metals in Cuninico and Espinar, the Peruvian state is not fulfilling its obligations to ensure these communities’ right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. The state must also involve the Indigenous Peoples of these communities in the design, delivery and implementation of culturally appropriate healthcare services that are adequate for meeting their needs.

Despite multiple demands, agreements, recommendations and commitments, the communities in Espinar and Cuninico continue to wait for the Peruvian State to protect and guarantee their right to health.


 Profile: Melchora Surco Rimachi, resident of the community of Alto Huancané

MELCHORA SURCORIMACHI de Alto Huancané - edited
Melchora Surcorimachi of Alto Huancané © Amnesty International. Photographer: Nataniel Furgang

Melchora was born in the Pacpacco sector of the community of Alto Huancané in Espinar and has lived in the community almost all her life. She told Amnesty International that she no longer lives a happy life like she did in years before: over the years, her sisters and brothers, children and grandchildren have left her community due to the problems caused by contamination by toxic metals. However, despite the risks posed by the contamination, Melchora refuses to leave her land: “for us, our land is a treasure”, she expressed to Amnesty International.

Melchora is now 63 years old, but says that she looks and feels a lot older because she is worn out.  She is suffering various health problems: “My head hurts, my eyesight has deteriorated. My whole body hurts. I no longer have the strength to work… My bones [hurt]. I can’t travel far. It seems all my bones are thin, full of holes, so I really feel the cold, and the sun.” In 2013, she was examined for the presence of toxic metals in her blood and urine. The tests revealed that she has 17 toxic metals in her body.

Melchora is a leader of the Association for the Defense of Pacpacco Affected by Mining (ADEPAMI), an organization that is pressuring the public authorities to addresses the contamination that is affecting their community and provide them with adequate healthcare. Melchora is demanding that the “authorities provide us with treatment. But to date, nothing has been done… The State has not fulfilled its promises.”


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