Arica (Chile) (EFE).- When Daniel Bembow walks through the Sica Sica town, where he was born, on the outskirts of the Chilean city of Arica (north), he is moved. He transitions between sadness, anger and frustration: “It gives a little nostalgia to remember these things. For me, it is difficult, ”he tells EFE while he shows a childhood photo of him in which he is seen with his sister in the same place that is near toxic waste.
“We grew up here, less than 100 meters from where the Promel mining company was located and where tons of toxic waste was dumped decades ago,” says the young man.
How did the toxic waste get there?
Between 1984 and 1989, the Swedish mining company Boliden dumped nearly 20,000 tons of polluting waste on the outskirts of Arica, capital of the region of the same name on the border with Peru and Bolivia. From Stockholm, they paid the Chilean company Promel, which hoped to obtain gold and silver in exchange for processing Swedish waste, in a recurring practice in the 1980s by developed countries towards those of the Southern Hemisphere.
The toxic materials –with high concentrations of arsenic, mercury, cadmium and lead– were spilled in the open air, on the ground, in an area known as “Site F”, located 200 meters from Sica Sica and adjacent to a sector known as Los Industriales, where in 1989, during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), social housing was built for vulnerable families.
“In this area in the afternoon it is very windy and since it was unprotected, the wind spread the toxic waste throughout the city,” Luz Ramírez, who came to live in Los Industriales in 1990 when she was 15 years old, explained to EFE.
“Our amusement park was a dump”
“Most of the children in the sector played in ‘the swamp’, which were large holes used to extract aggregates where Promel dropped the toxic waste tailings; when the sun dried them they became a kind of chalk with which we scratched the floor and walls. My sister wrote her name in yellow there and it is still marked, ”recalls Bembow, pointing to the fence that surrounds the place where the mining company operated until 1989, today converted into a truck parking lot owned by Bienes Nacionales de Chile.
“Our amusement park was a dump,” he adds, but no one knew that then.
The first complaint
The community filed the first environmental complaint for the existence of “a black hill from which strong smells of metal emanated” in 1997.
After analyzing the deposited material, a year later, the stockpiles were transferred to Cerro Chuño, in the Quebrada Encantada area, an a priori “safer” place, but where several illegal settlements of low-income people had been installed, which they baptized the new landfill as “the Swedish graveyard”. Although the area was evicted, the State allowed other people to occupy the place again until today.
“These minerals were deposited here because they couldn’t find a way to return them to their place of origin; They were transferred within the town in vehicles that were without protection, only with a tarpaulin that was lifted, so the dust was still spread,” Marisol Maibe, a former neighborhood leader from Cerro Chuño, told EFE.
“When the Investigation Police (PDI) intervened our sector, they found that it was totally contaminated,” he adds.
“Those who need medical attention are ignored”
Diseases of all kinds and, in some cases, even deaths, plague the residents of Los Industriales and Cerro Chuño. Most are unaware of the origin or cause that caused them, but all of them have in common a long period of direct exposure to heavy metals.
“My sister started having serious health problems very early and they have already removed two tumors, the first one weighing 2 kilos”, says Daniel Bembow.
Maibe, who lived for 18 years 600 meters from the stockpiles, says that during that time the ailments did not stop afflicting her children: internal bleeding, skin diseases and damage to internal organs. Her husband, who came to register 70 points of arsenic in the body – below 35 is considered “normal” – suffered several episodes of myocardial infarction and she a molar abortion for which her uterus was removed.
The UN studies the case
In June 2021, UN human rights experts concluded, after visiting the area, that “the residents of Arica continue to suffer serious health problems caused by the dump” and warned that “12,000 people have been affected by the waste, and many have lost their lives.
Among the pathologies included in the report are cancers of different types, joint pain, respiratory difficulties, allergies, anemia, abortions and birth defects.
“Even today, those who need medical attention are ignored,” the experts concluded.
Bembow, who is now an environmental activist in a local organization, criticizes that those who left the toxins “never showed their faces” and “never helped” those affected with their health problems. “People are dying, children are sick,” she says.
Mauricio, 13, the youngest son of Luz Ramírez, has respiratory problems and also suffers serious intestinal problems. “He contaminated himself in my womb because he absorbed arsenic and lead from me. The first exam was done when he was one year old and since then he has not stopped having arsenic in his body, ”says the woman.
People search for answers to the causes of their diseases, immersed in the doubt of how many of their ailments are directly related to the contamination to which they were exposed and how far the consequences will go.
“It’s hard to talk about this topic without getting emotional and looking for an answer to why we get so sick. We live with the uncertainty that at any moment we will be diagnosed with cancer”, laments the activist.
The Chilean State, open to an agreement
One of the few achievements of the community has been the Polymetals Law, approved in 2012 under the Government of the conservative Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014 and 2018-2022) that offers health monitoring, educational support and relocation to safer areas, among other measures.
However, for the residents, this rule is insufficient today because it only covers a part of the affected population and leaves many children who later became infected in oblivion.
The other fight occurs in the judicial field. In 2013, almost 800 inhabitants of the area denounced Boliden before the Swedish Justice, but the court considered that the alleged crimes had prescribed and the case was dismissed.
Earlier, in 2008, for another reason, the Chilean Supreme Court ordered the State to compensate a part of those who denounced the State and Promel, but excluded more than half of them “without a clear justification,” Antonia Berrios told EFE, lawyer for the NGO Environmental Prosecutor (FIMA), in charge of the lawsuits. After that chapter, those involved filed the complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
“In June 2022, the Chilean State responded to the IACHR and dismissed the complaints, however, it opened up to the possibility of reaching a friendly solution,” says the lawyer.
Almost 40 years have passed since the beginning of this environmental disaster, but until now, no one – neither the two companies nor the two States – has taken it upon themselves to repair the physical, psychological and environmental damage. Those affected feel that they remain forgotten by all. Bembow sums it up: “We don’t ask for money, but we need dignified healthcare for our families. They did us a lot of damage and that left us abandoned.”