Canada: Mount Polley disaster in British Columbia and its impact on Indigenous peoples’ rights

“Our economy walks on the land and swims in the waters”

In a one-room, circular building, modelled on a traditional Secwepemc winter pit house, water defender Jacinda Mack stands before the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights and describes the effects of 150 years of colonialism on her people, the Secwepemc of British Columbia. The consequences of more than 150 years of government assault on Indigenous identity and self-determination are personally exhausting, she says. However, her love of her people and the waters of her territory motivate her to keep fighting for justice.

Jacinda is the coordinator of First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining. She tells the UN representatives during their first country visit to Canada that the 2014 Mount Polley copper mine disaster is a “death that is not yet over”. The disaster destroyed aquatic life in Hazeltine Creek and inundated Quesnel Lake with 25 million cubic meters of mine tailings, comprised of copper, arsenic and other mine processing chemicals when the earthen tailings dam burst. Quesnel Lake is the incubator to 25 percent of the province’s endangered wild salmon and a sacred place of birth for the Secwepemc people. Those tailings, she told them, remain at the bottom of Quesnel Lake and people no longer trust the safety of its water and fish.

“Our people are grieving. My grandchildren will never know what it’s like to swim and fish in Quesnel Lake”, Jacinda says.

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Inter-generational Canadian activists call for justice for the Mount Polley mine disaster and show their #sisterstreams solidarity with Indigenous peoples affected by the disaster. © Amnesty International Canada

Mount Polley is Canada’s largest environmental mining disaster. Its impacts on the food security and cultural practices of Indigenous peoples in the disaster zone are still unfolding. A health impacts scoping study commissioned for the First Nations Health Authority concluded that the health, psychological well-being, food security and cultural practices of the region’s Indigenous peoples were seriously harmed by the disaster. It called on Canada to implement free, prior informed consent for all aspects of mining operations.

In May, 2016, BC’s Auditor General released a scathing report into the ‘decade of neglect’ of BC’s mining sector and blamed the Ministry of Energy and Mines for a culture of weak oversight and compliance enforcement which contributed to the disaster. The Auditor General noted that MEM’s dual role of mining promoter and regulator puts it in an ‘irreconcilable conflict’ in terms of protecting the environment from harm and recommended that MEM move compliance enforcement to a unit outside the Ministry. The government rejected the recommendation and continues to operate ‘business as usual’.

A criminal investigation into the disaster by the Conservation Officer Service, RCMP and Fisheries and Oceans Canada is underway, but three years on, the company has not faced charges or fines. On June 23, 2016, the mine resumed full operations despite the outstanding criminal investigation and lack of a long-term water management plan. Indigenous peoples have not received any reparations for their losses from any level of the Canadian government.

Instead, several Indigenous nations have been forced to file costly lawsuits in British Columbia’s Supreme Court. The outcomes of those court cases are many years away.

Jacinda Mack, First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining & member of the Secwepemc and Nuxalk Nations. © Amnesty International Canada

“We are accused of being ignorant about our own lands and of being troublemakers. We are silenced when we disagree and our concerns are not listened to in so-called consultation processes,”Jacinda says. She recounts how in 2017, against the wishes of Indigenous peoples, the BC government gave Mount Polley Mining Corporation a 5-year permit to dump mine waste water – which is not required to meet BC’s drinking water guidelines – into Quesnel Lake.

Jacinda and other Indigenous leaders in British Columbia say the company does not have their consent to dump its waste water into their sacred waterways.

“We are afraid to eat our fish. We don’t want that sickness in our bodies and our children’s bodies,” Jacinda told the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights. “We call on Canada to respect our Indigenous law and our rights. This is a crisis situation for our people and our land. We are in crisis, as are the salmon, the moose and the water for our children. I want to be able to look my children and grandchildren in the eye and to say I did all I could to protect the land and water.”

In 2014, the company’s President, Brian Knyoch, apologized for the disaster, saying, “I know that for our company it would take a long time to earn the community trust back”.

In August, 2017, UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination reviewed Canada’s policies and practices regarding eliminating all forms of racial discrimination. It heard formal testimony from Indigenous peoples about the harms caused by the Mount Polley disaster. Civil society organisations like Amnesty International also provided CERD with written submissions. In its Concluding Observations, CERD noted the disproportionate and devastating impacts of the disaster on water, traditional foods and the health of Indigenous peoples. It called on Canada to monitor and address the health impacts of the Mount Polley disaster on Indigenous peoples and provide them with safe water, food, access to health care, fair remedy and reparations.

Amnesty International stands with Jacinda Mack and Indigenous peoples in British Columbia to call on Canada to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to ensure justice for people and nature harmed by the Mount Polley mine disaster.


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Failing Indigenous Women: The Right to Justice and Freedom from Sexual Violence in the United States


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“I don’t know what to do anymore.  I don’t get any answers.” –Relative of a young woman who was raped nine months earlier. © Amnesty International. Photographer: Adam Nadal

In the United States, Sexual violence against women from Indian nations is at epidemic proportions and survivors are frequently denied justice. Native American and Alaska Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be raped than non-Native women. 1 in 3 Native women will be raped during her lifetime. What’s more, many Native survivors of rape and sexual assault will then struggle to receive basic post-rape care. Amnesty International’s report, Maze of Injustice: The Failure to protect Indigenous women from sexual violence in the USA confirmed what Native women and advocates had long known: Native women are denied their basic rights to freedom from violence and to justice.

Sexual violence against Native women is the result of a number of factors and continues a history of widespread human rights abuses against Indigenous Peoples in the U.S.  Historically, Indigenous women were raped by settlers and soldiers. Such attacks were not random or individual; they were tools of conquest and colonization. The attitudes towards Indigenous Peoples that underpin such human rights abuses continue to be present in in the U.S. today. They contribute to the present high rates of sexual violence perpetrated against Indigenous women and help to shield their attackers from justice; they contribute to the lack of urgency throughout the U.S. government and society to address such violence and ensure survivors have the care they need.

Native women face significant barriers to securing justice following sexual violence due to insufficient police responses, inadequate health and forensic services, and a lack of prosecutions.

In 2011 the Indian Health Service (IHS), the federal agency responsible for providing health care to Indigenous communities, implemented sexual assault protocols that include guidelines for post-rape care. However, Native health activists report that these protocols are unevenly, if ever, fully implemented.

10 years after the initial launch of the Maze of Injustice report, far too few gains have been made, and the United States continues to fail to act with due diligence to prevent, investigate, and punish sexual violence against Native women. As a result Indigenous survivors of sexual violence face prejudice and discrimination at all stages of federal and state investigation and prosecution. Rape kits, often the only route to justice for survivors, are frequently not administered, left unprocessed, or are not heard as evidence in court due to institutional failures within the IHS.

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J was told by the police department that her sexual assault forensic examination had been destroyed.  Because of the lack of evidence available, the District Attorney advised her to drop the complaint after the preliminary hearing. © Amnesty International. Photographer: Adam Nadal

According to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Articles 21(2) and 22, States must pay special attention to the rights of Indigenous women to guarantee their full protection against all forms of violence, an area in which the U.S. government is grossly failing. Article 23(1) states that Indigenous peoples have the right to determine and administer their own health programs, and Article 24(2) states that Indigenous peoples have a right to the highest standard of healthcare possible. Unfortunately, U.S. federal jurisdiction over reservations means that Indigenous peoples have little control over their health resources. The IHS decides which services to provide to Native communities, and its current failure to implement comprehensive sexual assault protocols indicates a lack of concern for the rights of Native women.

The U.S. was among four U.N. member-states to shamefully vote against the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) when it was adopted in 2007.  Fortunately, in 2011, the government reversed this position and announced its support for the Declaration.

And yet, the United States has failed Native women across the country through its failure to build on that commitment and protect, respect, and fulfill their most basic rights.

Sexual violence is a human rights issue, and Native women deserve the same resources and routes to justice as non-Native women.


Profile: Charon Asetoyer

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© Amnesty International. Photographer: Adam Nadal

Charon Asetoyer (Comanche Nation) is the Executive Director and founder of the Native American Community Board and the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center, located on the Yankton Sioux Reservation, South Dakota. Her activism focuses at the intersection of reproductive justice, environmental justice, and Native American rights.

Charon has been an undeniable force in improving her community’s health and wellbeing, providing resources like health information, a domestic violence shelter, and transitional housing. Her work to make change in her community and across Native communities has helped change national law and policy to better serve Native women, including ensuring non-Native men can be prosecuted by tribal courts for assaults on Native women and ensuring access to emergency contraceptives for Native women. As Charon related to Amnesty, changes must be made at every level: “Government accountability from the highest level to the community level needs to enforce one standard of law for all women including Native American women. Sexual violence is no exception, our dignity must be guaranteed and protected by the law.”

At every level of government, Native women’s activists like Charon face enormous challenges.  Even agencies like Indian Health Service, ostensibly meant to ensure the health and rights of Native Americans and Alaskan Natives, suffer from deep-rooted colonial legacies: “It should never be as difficult as it has to get policy developed and implemented that improves the health and wellbeing of Native women and children. As long as there is racism within, we will have to fight for our right to equality within all governmental agencies, including IHS.”

Charon’s work has shown the difference that Native activists can and have made throughout their communities and across the nation.



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Desde 2015, Amnistía Internacional Australia ha estado trabajando en asociación con personas y organizaciones aborígenes y de las islas del Estrecho de Torres para poner fin a la proporción excesiva de niños y niñas indígenas en las cárceles, mediante la campaña “La comunidad lo es todo. En Australia, los pueblos indígenas son encarcelados en una proporción alarmante: componen el 27% de la población reclusa adulta, mientras que únicamente representan el 3% de la población adulta de Australia. Esta situación es aún peor para los niños aborígenes y de las islas del Estrecho de Torres. Respecto a las mujeres y niñas, los índices de encarcelamiento continúan aumentando.

Australia respaldó formalmente la Declaración de las Naciones Unidas sobre los Derechos de los Pueblos Indígenas el 3 de abril de 2009, después de haber sido una de las únicas cuatro naciones que la habían rechazado. Los tres informes de investigación elaborados por Amnistía Internacional para la campaña “La comunidad lo es todo” –A Brighter Tomorrow, There is always a brighter future y Heads Held High– identifican una serie de violaciones de la Declaración, así como de otros tratados de derechos humanos, cometidas por todos los niveles del gobierno australiano contra menores de edad en el sistema de justicia.

En lo que constituye una clara infracción del derecho internacional, Australia sigue encarcelando a niños y niñas de 10 y 11 años en todas las jurisdicciones. Esto afecta particularmente a los niños y niñas indígenas, que constituyen cuatro de cada cinco de estos menores de tan corta edad encarcelados.

En virtud del artículo 22 de la Declaración, los niños y niñas indígenas deben gozar de protección completa frente a la violencia y la discriminación. Sin embargo, se han revelado espantosos indicios de tortura y abusos contra niños y niñas en cárceles para menores en todas las jurisdicciones de Australia. Esos abusos incluyen encapucharlos y gasearlos, someterlos a un uso inadecuado de dispositivos de inmovilización o a reclusión prolongada en régimen de aislamiento, utilizar a perros para intimidarlos, someterlos a registros corporales sin ropa y privarlos de la comida y la medicación. En su mayoría, estos abusos tienen como víctimas a niños y niñas indígenas, que representan únicamente el 6% de la población juvenil del país, y sin embargo constituyen el 55% de los menores de edad en prisión.

Además, los expertos calculan que es probable que muchos de los menores encarcelados sufran alguna discapacidad. Las conclusiones preliminares de un estudio llevado a cabo recientemente en una prisión para menores de Australia Occidental sugieren que es probable que uno de cada tres niños o niñas encarcelados sufra trastorno del espectro alcohólico fetal. Sin embargo, el artículo 21 de la Declaración dispone que debe tenerse especial consideración respecto a las necesidades de los niños y niñas indígenas con discapacidad.

No se debe permitir que continúe esta vergüenza internacional para Australia.

Por suerte, las comunidades indígenas tienen las respuestas, y es hora de que los gobiernos escuchen. Los artículos 11 y 34 de la Declaración establecen que los pueblos indígenas tienen derecho a practicar y revitalizar sus tradiciones culturales, y a promover y mantener sus prácticas tradicionales. Hay numerosos ejemplos de éxito en programas de prevención y de desvío de prácticas nocivas encabezados por indígenas para niños y niñas, para ayudarles a mantener con fuerza su orgullo y su identidad, y a mantener fuertes lazos con su cultura y su comunidad, con el fin de que puedan tener un futuro brillante y no se vean atrapados en las arenas movedizas del sistema de justicia.

Amnistía Internacional pide al gobierno australiano, de acuerdo con la recomendación del relator especial de la ONU, que adopte un plan nacional de acción para poner fin a la proporción excesiva de indígenas en el sistema de justicia. Dicho plan debe incluir un aumento de la edad de responsabilidad penal hasta al menos los 12 años, e inversión en programas de prevención y desvío de prácticas nocivas encabezados por indígenas



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Indigenous Youth in the Australian justice system


Since 2015, Amnesty International Australia has been working in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations to end the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in prison though the campaign ‘Community is Everything’. In Australia, Indigenous people are locked up at alarming rates, accounting for 27% of the adult prison population but only 3% of Australia’s adult population. This is even worse for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. For women and girls, the rates of imprisonment continues to escalate.

Australia formally endorsed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (the Declaration) on 3 April 2009, after being one of only four nations to reject the Declaration. Amnesty International’s three research reports for the Community is Everything campaign, A Brighter Tomorrow, There is always a brighter future and Heads Held High, identify a number of breaches of the Declaration, as well as other human rights treaties, by all levels of Australian governments relating to children in the justice system.

In clear breach of international law, Australia continues to imprison 10 and 11-year-old children in every jurisdiction. This particularly affects Indigenous children, who make up four out of five of these very young children in prison.

Under Article 22 of the Declaration, Indigenous children must enjoy full protection from violence and discrimination. Yet horrific evidence of torture and abuse of children in youth prison has emerged in every jurisdiction in Australia. This includes hooding and gassing, inappropriate use of restraints, prolonged solitary confinement, use of dogs to intimidate, forcible strip searches and deprivation of food and medication. These abuses are mostly happening to Indigenous children, who make up only 6% of the youth population but 55% of children in prison.

Further, experts estimate that many children in prison are likely to have a disability. Preliminary findings from a recent study in a youth prison in Western Australia suggests that one in three children in prison are likely to have Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. However Article 21 the Declaration requires special consideration of the needs of Indigenous children with disability.

This international shame for Australia must not be allowed to continue any longer.

Fortunately, Indigenous communities have the answers, and it is time for governments to listen. Articles 11 and 34 of the Declaration state that Indigenous peoples have the right to practise and revitalise their cultural traditions, and promote and maintain traditional practices. There are many successful examples of Indigenous-led prevention and diversion programs for children, to help them be strong in their pride and identity, and to maintain strong connections with their culture and community so that they have a bright future, and are not caught in the quicksand of the justice system.

Amnesty International is calling for the Australian Government, in line with the UN Special Rapporteur’s recommendation, to adopt a national plan of action to end the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the justice system. This must include increasing the age of criminal responsibility to at least 12 and investing in Indigenous-led prevention and diversion programs.





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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.

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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.”

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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

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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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El derecho a la salud de los pueblos indígenas expuestos a metales tóxicos en Perú

En el informe Estado tóxico: Violaciones del derecho a la salud de pueblos indígenas en Cuninico y Espinar, Perú, Amnistía Internacional expone la manera en que la comunidad indígena kukama de Cuninico y las comunidades indígenas kana de Alto Huarca, Cala Cala, Huisa, Huisa Collana, Alto Huancané y Bajo Huancané, en Espinar, se enfrentan a una emergencia de salud por exposición a metales tóxicos, contaminación de sus fuentes de agua y falta de protección y apoyo por parte del Estado peruano.

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Pescador en la orilla del río por la comunidad de Cuninico © Amnesty International. Photographer: Daniel Martínez-Quintanilla

Las comunidades que Amnistía Internacional visitó en Espinar están ubicadas en las cuencas de los ríos Salado y Cañipía, en la región andina de Perú. De estos ríos salen arroyos que las comunidades utilizan como única fuente de agua para beber, cocinar, bañarse y dar de beber a su ganado. De igual modo, la comunidad indígena de Cuninico, situada en la región amazónica del país, ha dependido tradicionalmente del río para sus necesidades básicas: bañarse, lavar la ropa, cocinar y beber.

Los análisis realizados por el gobierno muestran que las comunidades indígenas de Espinar y Cuninico están expuestas a metales pesados y otras sustancias químicas tóxicas, y que sus principales fuentes de agua están contaminadas con metales tóxicos, aunque aún no se ha determinado el origen de esta contaminación. El Estado peruano tiene la obligación clara, establecida en marcos nacionales e internacionales, de hacer realidad el derecho a la salud de los pueblos indígenas de estas comunidades.

En particular, los artículos 24.1 y 24.2 de la Declaración de las Naciones Unidas sobre los Derechos de los Pueblos Indígenas establecen que “[l]as personas indígenas también tienen derecho de acceso, sin discriminación alguna, a todos los servicios sociales y de salud […] Las personas indígenas tienen igual derecho a disfrutar del nivel más alto posible de salud física y mental”. Además, el artículo 23 de la Declaración reconoce que “los pueblos indígenas tienen derecho a participar activamente en la elaboración y determinación de los programas de salud, vivienda y demás programas económicos y sociales que les conciernan”.

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Carmen Catalina Chambi sosteniendo una taza de agua contaminada tomada de una fuente de agua en su comunidad © Amnesty International. Photographer: Diego Cardenas

Sin embargo, el Estado ha incumplido estas obligaciones de múltiples maneras. Al no dar una respuesta adecuada a los peligros que entraña la exposición a metales tóxicos en Cuninico y Espinar, el Estado peruano no está cumpliendo su obligación de garantizar el derecho de estas comunidades a disfrutar del más alto nivel posible de salud física y mental. El Estado debe asimismo implicar a los pueblos indígenas de estas comunidades en el diseño, la aplicación y la realización de servicios de salud culturalmente adecuados que satisfagan debidamente sus necesidades.

A pesar de la multitud de demandas, acuerdos, recomendaciones y compromisos, las comunidades de Espinar y Cuninico siguen esperando que el Estado Peruano las proteja y garantice su derecho a la salud.


Perfil: Melchora Surco Rimachi, residente de la comunidad de Alto Huancané

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Melchora Surcorimachi de Alto Huancané ©Amnesty International. Photographer: Nataniel Furgang

Melchora nació en el sector de Pacpacco de la comunidad de Alto Huancané, en Espinar, y ha vivido en la comunidad casi toda su vida. Contó a Amnistía Internacional que su vida ya no es feliz como lo era años antes: en el transcurso de los años, sus hermanas y hermanos, hijos e hijas y nietos y nietas han abandonado su comunidad a causa de los problemas causados por la contaminación por metales tóxicos. Sin embargo, a pesar de los riesgos que entraña la contaminación, Melchora se niega a abandonar su tierra: “para nosotros, nuestro terreno es un tesoro”, dijo a Amnistía Internacional.

Melchora tiene ahora 63 años pero dice que se ve y se siente mucho mayor porque está acabada. Sufre diversos problemas de salud: “Me duele la cabeza, mis vistas se han cortado. Me duele el cuerpo, ya no tengo fuerza para trabajar […] Mis huesos [me duelen]. No puedo viajar lejos. Todos mis huesos parece que están delgaditos, como lleno[s] de huecos, entra frío, entra sol”. En 2013 la examinaron para determinar la posible presencia de metales tóxicos en su sangre y orina. Los análisis revelaron que tiene 17 metales tóxicos en el cuerpo.

Melchora es lideresa de la Asociación para Defensa de Pacpacco Afectada por la Minería (ADEPAMI), una organización que presiona a las autoridades públicas para que aborden la contaminación que afecta a su comunidad y le proporcionen atención médica adecuada. Melchora pide que la “autoridad que nos haga curar. Pero hasta ahora no hay nada, no se cumple. Sus promesas del Estado peruano no se cumplen.”


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