All posts by Kyle

Amos, Buses and a YAV Year

Amos was both the best and worst Young Adult Volunteer.

He goes to faraway, unfamiliar land, Bethel, to prophesy about the social justice issues of his time, inequality and corrupt leadership.

The Young Adult Volunteer program sends people between 18 and 29 like me to far away from home national and international sites to work on a cause within the wider umbrella of social justice – the environment, gender equality, racial justice, homelessness, etc.

Even at the height of his work, he does not abandon his background as a shepherd. If he’s anything like any of the YAVs, he never felt totally at ease with his call, while constantly questioning his lack of training as an outsider.

YAVs rarely really understand or completely feel at ease with our calls and constantly question our place. Is it alright to just be present and act as a window into the work of the church around the country? Aren’t we supposed to be speaking truth to power and “changing the world” like Amos?

If you read my blog, you saw those comments.

Amos is essentially the ultimate YAV because he faithfully accepts a call that he did not completely understand.

Admittedly, Amos’ particular call would make him a problem YAV. There is literally no tact to “Jeroboam will die by the sword” and that if things stay the way they are “And Israel will surely go into exile, away from their native land.” YAVs are usually more subtle and the program certainly does not ask to emulate Amos.

Amos’ methods also remind me of the Joining Hands model, which I worked for in Peru. Joining Hands is part of Presbyterian World Mission with offices in Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Peru and other developing countries. In each country, the focus is to unite disparate NGOs and target the root causes of poverty. In the old “teach a man to fish” mantra, it’s like asking why all the fish are gone.

Joining Hands identifies local issues, like mining contamination and identifies ways to target those issues at the local level by informing people, national through laws, and international levels through trade deals and pressure on international (i.e. US-based) corporations. There’s a lot more I could say, so please ask me afterward.

Mainly, Amos serves as a nice reminder of what it means to be a YAV. But he’s not the most concrete reminder in the last week.

Friday night, I was brought right back to Peru. I wasn’t conversing in Spanish. Nor was I eating cuy. I certainly wasn’t gasping for air at 16,000 feet or shepherding around an eager, well-intentioned but absent-minded pack of Presbyterians visiting Joining Hands.

I was waiting for a bus scheduled to take me hundreds of miles through the night… scheduled to leave two and a half hours before it actually did. Like in Peru, I could not understand the announcements garbled through the speakers. Just like in Peru, people stood and waited for a bus.

Now, even if you’re waiting for hours in Peru for a bus, people are generally pretty patient. But here? Not so much.

Then I missed my connection in New York. As I spent the night, shivering in the North Wing of the Port Authority while doors opened and closed all night, I was reminded of a trip from Huancayo to Lima. With everywhere closed but the unheated terminal situated at 10,692 feet over sea level, my supervisor suggested we arrive three hours early to wait for 11:00 p.m. bus. Which was late. And we almost missed because we couldn’t understand the garbled announcements.

Bussing was central to my YAV year. Really bussing is central to what I know of Latin America. When you’re priced out of air travel you take the bus and the bussing industry flourishes. Of course, the best and most exclusive bus in Peru is still 5 times cheaper than the worst bus I’ve ever taken, i.e. Friday night’s Greyhound. Latin America does bussing better.

For the Peruvians I met night busing is the preferred transport into the Andes. Sleep on the bus, show up for a meeting, sleep on your return journey home. You save on hotel fees and you put you wake up somewhere new.

So in the midst of Friday night’s misery, I was reminded of my travels in Peru. My first lengthy bus ride in Peru taught me about altitude sickness as I ventured to the small city Ayacucho where I would spend the next two months frustrated with my placement.

It was on a bus that Jenny and I ventured home after my first placement in Ayacucho fell apart in November. An outcome that I would process for the rest of my time in Peru and make me question whether I had a place in Peru.

And I remembered a plane and a car that took me to my first retreat with my fellow YAVs, AJ and Rachel. With them, I was able to share my pain, my guilt, and even my shame over my failed placement in Ayacucho. It was with the help of that community, a community that prayed for me by laying their hands on my shoulders, than I began a process of healing that would last months. Every time I think of the weight of their hands, I am reminded of the redemption of community.

Other bus trips brought me to different, but equally important communities. Each week an hour-long bus ride brought me to La Congregacion Cristo Rey, a Lutheran congregation that I attended with my host brother David. I started to play guitar there and attended the youth group on occasion. The congregation welcomed me, and trusted me, likely sensing my baggage. I took small steps and was slow to engage with people for almost three months, but still they welcomed me.

It was on buses that I ventured around the outskirts of Lima or to Huancayo or Huancavelica to meet with artisans and barely scratch the surface of their incredible stories through video interviews. (Sometimes we’d also take cars through herds of llamas and sheep.)

On several occasions I corralled packs of Presbyterians from bus to bus bringing them to see the scarred landscape and people of La Oroya, a product of centuries of poor mining regulation and placing profits over cleanup.

By the end I knew several roots on the dizzying bus “system” in Lima. I also learned to manage lengthy nocturnal bus trips.

More often than not though, you’d find me lamenting my struggles with the imperfect Peruvian bus system to whomever would listen. Until finally, a friend, called me out.

One day my host brother, his girlfriend, Lizbeth, and I waited for a bus to take us home from church. Eventually our bus came up and zoomed right past the designated stop without waiting – a regular, frustrating occurrence in Lima.

In that moment, I jokingly raised my head and cursed “Peru!” to which Lizbeth said, “No, Kyle. Es un bus.” “No, Kyle. That’s one bus.” And she was right. The moment passed, I apologized, but I was shaken by my dismissive, unhelpful anger.

Of course, I blogged about that moment, but more importantly I tried to take the chip off my shoulder. YAVs rarely feel completely at home in their host countries and that can come out in different ways. For me that meant scapegoating the country for my transit troubles. Public transportation is a complex and touchy problem for many Peruvians, especially in Lima. Petty insults like that only hurt.

Luckily, Lizbeth continued to be my friend. My host mother and brother started to make fun of me for it. That bus is full. “We’re in Peru.” Traffic makes me late to church. “We’re in Peru.” Kyle stubbed his toe. “We’re in Peru.”

Another great example of the redemptive power of community in my year. Even though I kept screwing up, and sometimes said hurtful things, my host family still managed to love me.

And then there’s the community I’m visiting today, coincidentally via bus. All of you here at Trinity. A community cannot thank enough for your unwavering support. Between the letters, emails, financial, Facebook messages, and candy, I was only better prepared to work through my year. So thank you.

Not only did you provide me with comfort and support, you have always pushed me to keep an open mind in life and specifically my year. It’s not like I have it all figured out, but I’m continually finding ways to lend my hands to environmental racial, and other justice issues. What I learned in Peru did not end because I left the country.

The Joining Hands model emphasizes international action in solving local problems such as what has happened with mining in La Oroya.  There is a petition started by the Joining Hands Network in Peru to push the state government to maintain regulations on mining operations in the area. If you’re interested in learning more and possibly signing it, let me know.

Even more concrete, consider fair trade organizations like Bridge of Hope when purchasing gifts for others this year. Maybe we could collectively purchase appropriate fair trade items for the adopt-a-family this year. I would be happy to coordinate that.

Or consider continuing to support the YAV program. With prayer, with funds, or if you’re 18-29 or no somebody in that group, consider taking a year.

Feel free to ask me more later. Just get to me fast because as may come as no surprise, I’ve got a bus to catch at 3:30.

Headed home

Tonight I will board a red eye flight for Houston, and–crossed fingers for no delays– arrive in Newark tomorrow afternoon.

I’m not sad. I’m not leaving Peru with a heavy heart. I’m not happy either. I’m just boarding a flight and ending my 11 months in Peru.

That lack of emotion concerns me. It’s largely because my emotions do not seem to have caught up to what my brain knows.

Tomorrow nearly guarantees that I will never again wake to the sounds of Isis telling Mama Luz to eat all the food on her plate. Tomorrow I stop negotiating with cab drivers for the lowest possible price, ningúna sol más que diez! Tomorrow I stop boarding combis packed shoulder to forehead with those around me. Tomorrow David and I will not talk about feminism, racism, homophobia or theology. Tomorrow I won’t work through the crossword in El Popular, Ojo, or Perú21. Tomorrow Isis won’t scold me for cracking my knuckles or else they’ll be fat when I’m old. Tomorrow I will not catalog artisans’ work for sale in the office.

Tomorrow I will be in Newark. I will greet my parents and visit cousins in New York before returning home to Scotia for the first time in nearly 48 weeks. Tomorrow will be a day of transition from the recent familiar to the distant familiar, which I’m sure have far better psychological names.

Today I don’t feel much out of the ordinary. I am considering the few errands I must complete (mostly gift purchasing) before departure, with a similar attitude to that with which I considered everyday office tasks.

That concerns me. That concerns me because I feel like a mirror of who I was 11 months ago. In August, I sat on a Lima-bound flight, I looked back at my fellow Peru YAVs, each buzzing with excitement and anxiety for the upcoming months, and I did not see myself reflected in their eyes. I feigned a calm and collected shell, lacking context for the months to come. What were 11 months of new experiences, but a blur of memories down the road?

Ignorant and cocky, I felt nothing out of the ordinary as I flew south.

If you’ve been following along, you know that this year drained me within two months. Unforeseeable roadblocks and trials of my own creation and beyond my control pushed me beyond a breaking point. Honestly, I even came up short in the face of those challenges I expected to face. I trace much of that struggle to that unpreparedness.

With all that in mind, I’m concerned to find myself in a similar emotional place as I depart. Will I be similarly drained two months into my new life in Washington, DC? What trials am I not anticipating? What roadblocks am I underestimating?

During our final retreat, Jed pointed out that it is more or less impossible to predict every challenge in re-entry. “You’ve been immersed in a different sociocultural atmosphere for months, it is difficult to know exactly how that’s affected you.”

That, more or less, is why I’m worried.

Of course, I am hopeful that I am not a mirror of the person I was 11 months ago, but someone who can handle the same situation better. Jed and Jenny also suggested that it best not to view our YAV year as a change, but a fuller realization of ourselves. Right now that is more than a nitpick at the definition, but a way for me to depart this year with a greater sense of hopefulness.

I look confidently toward the next steps I will take after this year, knowing I am more capable in ways big and small to face the expected and unexpected challenges. I trust that when I reach new limits and fail to see any reprieve, I will manage to overcome.

For now, that increased confidence is my greatest takeaway from this year of service. I have a few qualms with how self-interested that is, especially as I depart those who I met and will continue to struggle. Plus, I question how integral Peru and the resources spent in bringing me here are to my grand realizations. There is value to exploring those qualms moving forward, but they are unchangeable at this point.

Likewise, these qualms do not invalidate my more hopeful confidence, which will help me tackle new challenges, starting with the impact as my emotions catch up with my intellectual understanding of what it means to leave Peru.

Ally Cookie Monster

Hello, my name is Kyle and I’m addicted to ally cookies.

That’s a crass way to put it, but it’s true. There’s nothing like the feeling when a marginalized member of society offers me a white privilege macadamia nut by liking a Facebook comment I wrote in solidarity. When someone mentions my support publically, I chow down on sweet, sugary social justice pie.

It’s so good in fact, I find myself diving into Facebook comments’ sections to call out folks for their racism, homophobia, sexism, or whatever other systemic hate. That act in itself is not bad. As I understand it, it’s vital that those allying with the marginalized intervene when people with privilege choose to hate. It’s why white folks are often discouraged from ending Facebook friendships with those publishing bigoted posts.

I’m disgusted by bigotry and hate to see it, but that disgust is in itself a privilege. Awareness of that privilege requires that I work to end violence against marginalized peoples and raise their voices.

Even as I write that, a small part of me is hoping that a person of color or trans friend will come along and offer me that sweet rush of a simple thank you. And that is where we get issues.

You see, that search for validation often motivates me to intervene in comments’ sections or real life conversations. I want to be seen being a good person, even while I am motivated to be a good person because it is the right thing to do.

Sometimes I tell myself that the purity of my motivation is just a philosophical issue, which is effectively irrelevant to day-to-day conversations. As long as I keep reminding myself that these conversations are about more than my own self-satisfaction, it’s just part of my own internal battle against subconscious racism.

Except this is not just a philosophical issue, it has very real consequences. I write my comments knowing that social media is a public platform and others can see what I like and support it. Specifically, I try to write messages that will attract validation instead of ones that might help bring someone posting bigotry around.

That often results in grandstanding and preaching. Establishing my moral superiority will not bring someone around to recognize that their actions are hurtful. It will inevitably end in terminated friendships and connections across social media, as someone feels hurt and judged by my pointless moral superiority. In the end what good did my intervention really do?

For that reason, it’s critical to explore new resources and keep pushing to the limits. Likewise, it’s important for those working to be an ally to support one another and suggest better strategies.

I did just that after a series of really ineffective Facebook debates and reached out to a friend, Will Dierenfield, who is far better than me at all of this. He intentionally challenges his own views and those of the people around him, and has helped me connect the dots on the many ways I could be better. In general he is far better informed on solidarity and is just the fantastic sort of person who wants to help.

He offered countless valuable suggestions such as seeking to ask questions and avoiding morality, which can easily be misconstrued as labeling someone as immoral or evil (think Facebook debates that end in comparisons to Hitler). People do not want to find out they are wrong, especially when their error lands them on the side of hate. That, he said, is part of why it takes so long to bring someone around. One back and forth on Facebook will not be enough, it’s an ongoing discussion.

Now as for my own addiction to ally cookies, I found guidance in the person who originally introduced me to the metaphor, ray(nise) cange. They run the site Awkward Trans Kid, where they share informative videos they face as members of the trans and black communities. A recent video suggested that allies avoiding putting people of color on the spot by tagging them in posts. More importantly, ray(nise) suggested using privacy settings to block people of color from seeing the awful things said in the process of educating others (i.e. white folks). As ray(nise) puts it, “The only reason I can think that you’re doing that is for ally cookies.”

That sounds a bit odd at first, but consider how social media has shaped dialogue. Ten years ago, your conversations about racism were not openly available to thousands of folks on Facebook. Now that can be extremely useful to activism, but it has a dark side.

By blocking, you are not seeking to isolate yourself from criticism, but to take away just one of the many sources of harassment or violence faced every day. It’s important to remember that this is directed at those who are already acting like an ally and constantly reading and promoting the voices of color.

ray(nise)’s advice helped me recognize my own issues with ally cookies. They and so many others have helped me grow as an ally, which is ongoing process.

As Will aptly (though I believe unoriginally), “Ally is a verb, not a noun. It’s something you do, not something you are.”

(By the way, I am incredibly lucky, even blessed, to know such exceptionally compassionate and insightful people.)

Peruvian Pride

I have to be honest, it felt really cool to march in the LGBT Pride parade in Peru the day after the Supreme Court announced the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling in favor of marriage equality. There was a sense of pride as I passed a newsstand with several front page spreads featuring with IGUALDAD in bold print over a rainbow print of Obama. Plus, it did feel good acknowledging the congratulations from each person I met in the parade.

Even so, the parade contextualized the Supreme Court decision. Specifically, it showed just how small of a drop we’d made in the overall Civil Rights bucket. A fact many friends have not been shy to point out in the aftermath of the victory. In addition to providing context, the Peruvian LGBTQIA+ community displayed a hopeful, fiery pride, rooted in the struggle.

Peruvian LGBTQIA+ did not have some great accomplishment to celebrate. The lone push for Civil Unions got shot down earlier this year following stunningly uninformed debate in the Congressional committee hearing. Peru’s LGBTQIA+ community has little going for it beyond apathetical support and far more working against it.

That apathy extends to media coverage. Consider the news spread I mentioned seeing on my way to the march. Ignoring the pseudo cult of personality (and how misplaced that is), the Obama print represented the greatest media coverage of the LGBTQIA+ movement. The Peruvian Pride Parade received spotty coverage in the newspapers without a single front page story in the popular daily papers and tabloids, which the majority of Peruvians read. When I watch the news, coverage of LGBTQIA+ issues is saved for late at night when children are likely asleep and viewership has diminished.

That gaping lack of coverage stretches well beyond ignoring a Pride parade. Neither of the more civil union-focused protests that I marched in received highly viewed coverage either. Nor did a stark Annual Report on the Human Rights of LGBT People in Peru.

A report stating that four LGBT youth committed suicide. There were 13 registered homicides and the same number of invasions of personal security between 2014 and 2015 by the police, family members, friends or strangers. Admittedly, that was a drop from the previous year overall, though the violence against transfolk increased. The few positives in the report included a push by the state against general discrimination and to start keeping better track of these incidents. Take a moment to consider the mood after the message, “Well the deaths are down from last year and now we’re going to start recording better.” Then remember that it is off the majority population’s radar.

LGBT Peruvians did not shy away from that reality at Pride. One marcher put on makeup to appear beaten and carried a sign asserting that “The state is our worst aggressor.”

In some ways, the movement within Peru feels very much like the U.S. gay rights movement. LGBTQIA+ Peruvians are fighting for recognition and attention. Affirming discotecas sponsor floats full of beautiful people dancing to upbeat pop music. Transwomen dress “fabulous,” though it’s unclear if that’s a choice or a sense of obligation. Gay marriage seems to be prioritized because it is a tangible way the state can change their policies and offer fuller personhood. Many focus on the equality of homosexual love with heterosexual love.

Peruvian Pride had a very distinct character to that in the United States. Recently, I saw an article asking when straight suburban teens took over U.S. Pride celebrations. Without evaluating that the legitimacy of that critique, it would have no traction in Peru. Peruvian Pride is not a commercial affair, but one of struggle.

I did not see any businesses seeking to profit off of the event or sell their wares. Several businesses and celebrities have expressed their support, but few attended to sell rainbow products.

Without businesses there, the messages were less obscured. A group of trans Peruvians held banners for a Gender Identity Law, which would allow Peruvians to change their identification cards to reflect their gender identity. Considering the roots of Pride in the actions of a Latina transwoman, Sylvia Rivera, it was powerful to see these Peruvian trans folks marching proudly and openly.

Peruvian Pride’s character is deeply rooted in the struggle. As one sign I saw put it, “Proud to be the shame of my country.”

“We’re in Peru”

Recently, I came across the tumblr “Daily struggles of living in Lima.” The page features memes representing very real quirks of life in Lima, many of which resemble my experience. Given that familiarity, I smirked knowingly at a meme showing someone destroying the phone after receiving “one more text message from [telecommunications company] Claro.” I even went so far as to rhythmically exhale through my nostrils at a gif of a baby falling off a rocking horse to render the experience of a sudden stop on a bus. The url, “gringosinlima,” states the obvious: This blog is a space for the largely white expat community to make light of the quirks and annoyances of another culture. At the same time, the title seemed more than a little bit out of touch. Not only was the expat community based in snide shots at Peru, it completely ignored the actual struggles of the majority of the population in Lima.

My unproductive SJW indignation levels peaking, I was readying a takedown in the form of a pseudo-constructive blog post heavy on social justice buzzwords and half-baked pop cultural references.

Much of the year, I have not avoided discussing racism and xenophobia in my blog. It’s one small way I can challenge structural racism and more importantly work through how best to be a white ally.

In the case of this tumblr, a few moments in my daily life gave me pause before launching into a vindictive, semi-constructive post. First, I realized I identified with the frustrations in the tumblr too much to not feel somewhat hypocritical in my critique. Second, I had developed a habit quite similar to what motivated “daily struggles,” the phrase, “We’re in Peru.”

Like a more harmful and ignorant, “Thanks Obama,” my use of “We’re in Peru” became a way to pin every daily annoyance on my hosting country.

Why can’t I put the paper in the toilet bowl? We’re in Peru. Why does some food get me sick on a monthly basis? We’re in Peru. Why do the buses keep stopping in different locations? We’re in Peru. Why do the cobradores pack us three-wide in the bus aisle? We’re in Peru. Why do we always start choir 45 minutes late at minimum? We’re in Peru. Why do the artisans not warn us if they will not meet a deadline? We’re in Peru.

Not only are many of those experiences actually unrelated to Peru, they’re mildly hurtful at best.

Of course, I rationalized. If this helps me cope while I work at bigger picture problems it’s not an issue.

Except that thinking requires a lot of arrogance about the amount of good a few blog posts and assistance with Joining Hands can do. Plus, these actions can be enormously hurtful to those in my community.

Like the day I shouted in anguish “PERU!” in front of Lizbeth, David’s girlfriend as a bus flew by us instead of allowing us to get on at the designated stop location. Literally taken aback, she stepped away from me and took me to task. “Not Peru, Lima, and really just that one bus on one bus line.” I was taken aback, apologized and then rationalized that I’d say that about any country.

Later that week, my host mother, Isis, explained away high rates of petty theft in Lima with a pointed “We’re in Peru.” That is just the way Peru is, she meant, but I already know that considering how much I reminded those around me.

My coping habit was just hurting those around, those who have welcomed me, those who I have come to personally care about. Peruvians who are well aware of the issues within their country and do not need me reminding them.

Recognizing that, I could not honestly critique “Daily Struggles” without recognizing my own form of alienating Peruvians for my comfort. The “Daily Struggles” tumblr is out of touch by nature of the title, but I do not come from a place of moral authority. I do come from a similar place of having my own microaggressions that I need to name and end. I can speak from that place to those who are failing to recognize their own errors to help push them, even as I push myself even more.

New mining: Recognizing the premium on comparative advantage

Recently, I sat in on a presentation about an initiative, which Joining Hands supports, to create a more regulated or “new” mining system.

Joining Hands’ director, Conrado, offered the presentation to a group representing Joining Hands partner, the Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery. The plan privileges agriculture and water systems over mining. It also sets up a monitoring agency separate from that which grants mining concessions to investors. Overall, it creates a more sustainable system that will increase the expenses of owning and operating mining operations.

And so what?

The mountainside of La Oroya is scarred white from acid rain. Just one sign of the larger contamination in the area.
The mountainside of La Oroya is scarred white from acid rain. Just one sign of the larger contamination in the area.

That might seem a bit crass or lacking in nuance, but it’s where I’ve arrived after a considerable amount of thought. Of course, as this blog is my privileged space to spew my less than adequately researched thoughts and reflections, I’ll continue on with that practice.

First of all, the current system has created far too many La Oroyas, Lake Agrios, and Herculaneums. Evidently we need to change the issue.

Second, new mining uses Peru’s resources of precious metals to continue development through job creation and investment. Additionally, it recognizes Peruvian sovereignty over its environment, which is an integral, but non-economic part of development that many Peruvians seek.

Third, it helps internalize the social costs of mining into the market. New regulations will increase the costs of mining, which will then increase the prices for precious metals on the industrial and consumer market, which will reduce the quantity demanded. The amount of shift depends on the elasticity of demand, which I will not explore here, but the reduction in quantity demanded and overall sales reflects consumers taking on additional social costs. An imperfect mechanism regulations and taxes squeeze positive results out of greed.

Many argue that greed will instead shift jobs out of Peru to more investor-friendly environments. Low wages and lower health and safety regulations led to the outsourcing of manufacturing and telecommunications jobs to south and southeastern Asia.

That is real, except you cannot outsource minerals. As Conrado put it, minerals are in Peruvian soil and are not going anywhere until somebody sets up shop to take them out. Of course, companies may shift away to mineral-rich countries with lesser regulations, but it’s a finite resource. Plus, Peru will hopefully serve as a leader among mineral-rich nations to enforce new regulations.

Even if Peru goes ignored, the stock of minerals in less regulated countries will run out and soon. Then the options would be synthesis or Peru. Maybe the moon will be an option?

Admittedly, that’s not exactly realistic. More than likely, companies will continue to operate in Peru and find some way to meet the new regulations because they can.

It will be a bumpy ride for a bit, but that is better than the train wreck that is La Oroya or protests within Tia Maria. Plus, I pull knowledge of this movement from Peruvians working in the NGO-sector and from these areas. In spite of the stock they have in growing Peru’s economy, they have prioritized mining reform. I stand with them to push companies based in the Western world to comply.

Joining Hands Network Model: Example La Oroya

I realize I may not have really ever explained what Joining Hands is or does. If you’re a regular reader, you might be aware that it’s a development-oriented NGO. If you’re an occasional reader, you might know I work there. If this is your first time, you might be looking for the inevitable explain that follows this cliché introduction. Please, continue.

The Presbyterian Hunger Program founded the Joining Hands Network after realizing that localized development projects fell short of ending poverty. Sure these projects helped pull folks out of poverty and empower them, but it did little to address the structural issues like climate change, corruption or corporate privilege that foster poverty. That’s where Joining Hands steps in.

Joining Hands unites local, national and international efforts to resolve the same issue. In doing so, it answers the question: What can I even do from my home besides give money? Joining Hands offices work with partner organizations around the world to identify the root structural issues at the international level, which drive issues at the national level and create the problems manifested at the local level around the world.

Joining Hands model applied

I’ve been fortunate enough to hear Jed Koball, mission co-worker in Peru and one of my many bosses, outline Joining Hands’ model as it applies to Peru, specifically around mining. We start with La Oroya, which I have mentioned in writings before. In the 1920s, a mine and lead smelter opened in La Oroya and continued operating under up until a decade ago. Throughout the time period, poor regulation led to high levels of contamination.

In 1997, the Peruvian Government sold the smelter to Doe Run Peru, a subsidiary of the U.S.-based Renco Group, owned by the meanest of the famous Iras, Ira Rennert. That sale involved contractual obligations for Doe Run clean up the factory and the Peruvian state to clean up the local soil. Neither followed through.

At the local level, Joining Hands stepped in to raise awareness in La Oroya with the member organizations, FILOMENAS and CAMBIALO. FILOMENAS taught folks about environmental and public health issues and encouraged them to protest for better mining regulations. CAMBIALO provided programs to empower children affected by mining to tell their story and work for change in the future.

In 2005, Joining Hands arranged for a study by the University of Saint Louis revealed that Oroyeños, including children born recently, had 11 heavy metals in their blood including lead, arsenic and copper. This study marked a turning point in advocacy for La Oroya at the national level. Eventually, Doe Run closed down and the smelter stopped operating.

In an effort to get reparations in place for La Oroya, the director of Joining Hands, Conrado wrote an ordinance allowing for full medical coverage for those affected by mining activity. Though unanimously passed three years ago, the network and other partners are still pushing for implementation for those continuing to be affected by 90 years of contaminant buildup.

The issue does not stop at the national level though. Doe Run soon filed for bankruptcy. Rennert sued the Peruvian government, blaming the financial problems on unfairly high expenses to meet their contractual obligation to clean up the operation in La Oroya. The suit was possible via the Peru-United States Trade Promotion Agreement, which includes an investor-state arbitration clause. Investor-state arbitration allows companies to sue sovereign governments for taking actions that restrict their investor rights and prevent free trade.

In theory, this protects companies from countries that unfairly seize assets or raise taxes to oust them or get them to abandon their property. That would be unjust though most large corporations could handle the setback.

Unfortunately, like many seemingly sound theories, arbitration courts have worked against their purpose. Companies use this process to challenge environmental and public health laws. This is a practice that economists call “rent seeking,” the spending of money to allocate yourself more wealth than the market equilibrium. Imagine renting out the invisible hand to slap governments around a bit.

There are many such cases, which largely involve mining companies resisting environmental regulations. Canada-based mining company Pacific Rim (now owned by OceanaGold) is suing El Salvador for placing a moratorium on mining activity following a water crisis in 2008 due to mining contamination after granting Pacific Rim exploratory permits. British-based Philip Morris International Inc. and British American Tobacco sued the United Kingdom for for plain packaging of cigarettes as part of a public health movement.

Corporate lawyers handle the arbitration cases and losing countries are forced to payback large sums for lost profits. Worse than the economic setback is the nullification of relevant laws and an overall reduction in sovereignty for the state. If Peru loses to Doe Run it will call into question Peru’s right to enforce environmental regulations put in place as part of mining contracts.

In fact, that is holding up the sale of the lead smelter to a Chinese mining company. The negotiations are stuck on environmental regulations and awaiting the outcome of the Doe Run suit.

Joining Hands has identified investor-state arbitration suits as a vital issue for international advocacy by supporters from around the world. Right now, Peru is involved in negotiations for a 12-country multilateral trade agreement, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which encompasses 40 percent of the global economy. It will supersede all prior trade agreements and provides a clean slate for removing certain unjust trade provisions.

The TPP has been negotiated behind closed doors by heads of state and corporate executives. Leaked text indicates a similar investor-state arbitration clause to those that allowed Doe Run to sue Peru over its bankruptcy.

The TPP, as a U.S.-directed initiative, must first be passed by the U.S. before it can proceed for ratification by other countries. Our constitution allows us the Senate and House of Representatives to approve the “fast track” of treaties, wherein the President negotiates a treaty and then the legislative chambers vote for or against the entire document.

While more efficient, that puts legislators in a bind. Free trade is one of the more economically sound strategies out there and partnerships help facilitate cooperation and smooth out the kinks in trade. Specifically, the TPP could reduce customs expenses for Bridge of Hope. Of course, that is also a vote in favor of the questionable clauses rumored to be part of the agreement regarding state sovereignty, labor conditions, the environment, agricultural, and several other issues.

Unfortunately, the Senate has already approved “fast track,” but the House vote could occur as early as this week. If the House votes against the “fast track,” they can amend the agreement to remove clauses that are not the will of the people before passing it.

That will be a messier process. Once the Congress manages to get the wording fixed it will be sent to other countries for debate and they may also seek to refine wording.

I do not apologize for the lack of expediency though. We are not suffering so greatly in the United States that we will be unable to continue on without a new free trade agreement to bring down prices. Likewise, it will take time for developing countries to receive the benefits of the TPP, much of which would be overshadowed by potential challenges to sovereignty.

Personally, I’d rather get it right.

Joining Hands suggest that you in the U.S. write your congresspersons to vote “No” on the “fast track.” If that is accomplished, you can then step up to urge the removal of the international arbitration clause to remove a structural injustice that leads to La Oroya.

Please write a letter to your representative telling them to vote “No” on the Fast Track. Citizens Trade’s campaign offers an adaptable form letter. The effects of reshaping the TPP will ripple throughout the world and into the forgotten spaces like La Oroya.

Neglected story: Chosica mudslides

If you’ve been keeping up with my blog in the last month, I have notably shifted my attention away from Peru. While that is in some part due to the crises happening in my own country and in other developing countries, it also reflects some neglect of attention to Peru and the crises that happen here in this still developing country. I failed to speak about a catastrophe in Lima’s backyard and the hit-or-miss witness to hope and resilience in the history of environmental degradation and current recovery process.

Following abnormally heavy rains toward the end of March, several mudslides crashed through the Chosica, a small Peruvian city just 47 km outside of Lima. Boulders crashed through the poverty-stricken city of Chosica. At least seven people died, 65 houses were destroyed. Water, electricity and sewage systems were wrecked.

Amidst that sadness, many in Lima stepped up to assist. Chosica is still living amidst a 60-day state of emergency in order to restore those utility services. An NGO started collecting donations of clothing, water and cash in the plaza around the corner from my home. The Peruvian army and many students traveled to Chosica to help clean up the city. Even folks who could not be present in direct recovery efforts still remained in solidarity to some degree, as many districts in Lima cut off their water access for a few days to speed up the repair process and provide residents of Chosica with water.

Not everything was perfect about the response. The mayor of Lima (who is known for corruption) spent those days in Madrid, Spain and was slow to act on the issue. The majority in Lima, myself and most expats included, did not engage in the direct relief effort to clean up Chosica, which is still reeling to some degree.

Worst yet was the realization that these heavy rains were not the only reason for these boulders. Chosica is at the base of the foothills of the Andes, which have been deforested for profit over the last several decades. Without trees to help with erosion, this year’s mudslide was just the worst in a series of annual mudslides in Chosica.

Of course, I am hopeful as many Peruvian friends choose to speak louder in protest of deforestation and in support of reforestation efforts. Lima’s parks and recreation department, SERPAR started a program to plant one million trees “selected by forest specialists to be ideal for Lima’s ecosystem” by 2018, having planted 50 thousand in 2015. SERPAR is by no means perfect and seems to waste water with frequency, but they were at least attentive to Chosica and helped in reconstruction efforts.

Still, I know that many in Chosica will never receive full reparations. Also, many Peruvians I know expect the government to fall short of truly replanting trees and reducing the magnitude of future mudslides. In that case, it is best to look to the example set by areas like Nepal, where communities band together where their government fails.

*I learned about this work after it was mostly completed, but still I wish I had explored getting involved when a few U.S.-national exchange students spoke about volunteering.

Nepal: Stay attentive to repetitive news

“Nepal earthquake, magnitude 7.4, strikes near Everest” I read, a little bewildered. Are my friends are behind the curve on posting current events to Facebook, I wondered. Maybe Facebook’s News Feed algorithms slipped up?

But again in rolled the bulletin coverage and Facebook updates that my friends in Nepal “were marked as safe.”* I realized that somehow the news was a near carbon copy from two weeks ago.

This repetition brought to mind the rapid succession of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita landing along the coasts of Louisiana and Texas. Worse still are entirely human-drive tragedies of increased police violence along racial lines and deaf ears to protests of structural violence. It starts to feel to crass to remind folks to give, pray and stay informed again. I mean, what difference does it make?

At the same time, a second seismic event only doubles the need for those actions.

In many ways, it proves further that we can do nothing to stop seismic events whether they happen in Nepal, Peru or California. We can only work to build community through recovery and reorganize to reduce the tragedy attached to these events in the future. Many in Nepal have been doing just that, both now and in the past. A friend in Nepal, Sarah, shared a piece written four months ago for National Earthquake Safety Day, which highlighted the incredible way the Nepalese communities have “prepared to be prepared” as the founder of the National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal, Amod Mani Dixit put it. Even while legislation was stagnant at the national level, people have come together before and after to be in community.

That’s one part of the message I forgot to share last week. It’s essential to be in community after these events, to realize our great potential as a united force. Perhaps “Be In Community” is its own step, but in my opinion Give, Pray, and Stay Informed all form part of that greater goal. Mostly, I just wanted to call attention to the incredible witness to that community I am seeing in updates from Nepal even amidst a second earthquake.

*If you’re one of those people not in Nepal marking yourself as safe, stop. Unmark yourself and think about why you felt the need to do that. (If it’s a glitch or a misclick, no hard feelings.)

Nepal: Responses to a tragedy

Earlier this week, I posted the following related to earthquake reveal in Nepal:

Give, pray (if you do), stay informed of other ways to help. / Donar, orar (si hagas), informarse de otras maneras para ayudar.

And the link:

To me, those are the three key steps to response to a tragedy. As always happens when I seem to know something innately, I reflected on each. Naturally that took the form of a blog post.

  1. Give — Moving forward from this sort of tragedy takes money. Especially when it occurs in the developing world, i.e. Nepal. Even the richest countries in the world would suffer and Nepal is far from that. Poor infrastructure left Nepal in far worse shape. It is right and just to give money to Nepal.

Except giving is not just the act of willfully releasing money. It means researching where that money goes and ensuring it will be used to help those who receive it. This step is not complete without ensuring that.

According to several friends on the ground in Nepal, the link I posted is a responsible place to send money. I urge you to send money there or another source that you know is reputable.


  1. Pray — I hesitated to put prayer forward because sometimes it gets lumped in with other parts of slacktivist culture. Many see prayer as a passive way to feel like you’ve “done enough,” much like writing #bringbackourgirls. Whether or not hashtag activism is effective, there is truth to the fact that some people do disengage after throwing out a few lines on the internet. Critics of prayer often suggest that it will influence similar apathy.

I argue that that is not in fact the case. Prayer is what you do when you have reached the limit of what you can. Of course, God does not need you to ask to send assistance. God is not a slacktivist. Prayer helps you keep the matter on your heart, in your thoughts, on your conscience, or whatever other metaphor you want to put to it. As God assists in the tragedy, God can assist you to resist complacency and keep in active mind, which can assist in my last step.

  1. Stay Informed — This is the most frustrating step. The step when you need to stay involved without actually doing anything. We cannot stop plate tectonics from shifting. Of course, it is critical to keep that in perspective. That frustration is nothing alongside the suffering felt by those inside the tragedy. Prayer can help you internalize that solidarity and compassion over frustration. It can also help you listen for new ways to get involved.

That does not necessarily mean volunteering. Most of us cannot exactly relocate to volunteer and oftentimes the infrastructure is not in place for volunteers to assist in any meaningful way. That said if you called to it, figure out how to do it right and volunteer.

For the rest of us, I am talking about innovative strategies to assist beyond a donation and prayer. Strategies that may not be super straight-forward, like working to reduce the tragedy when the plates inevitably shift again in Nepal or elsewhere in the world.

Peru could easily become Nepal within the next few decades. The infrastructure is disorganized and aging. The poorest live in houses like the one for which we helped to build a retaining wall back when we arrived in August. They are built on loose, rocky soil and up the sides of hills and mountains. Peru is situated on several shifting plates. Again, we cannot stop them shifting.

That does not mean we should ignore how human institutions contribute to the tragedy, especially in the developing world. We can generally reorganize such that no one is relegated to the most vulnerable areas of the world and extent promote earthquake-friendly infrastructure.

While most of us do not have the position or power to direct that planning, we can advocate and support accordingly. The HILTI Foundation or Earthquakes without Frontiers offers an intriguing and capable model for how to move forward and build intelligently and equitably to reduce tragedy in the future.

Of course, I am no expert in this. Urban organization is not specialty, but it is other folks’ primary area of interest. Best to just start with listening.

Also, remember to keep your expectations in check. Recognize that you may not be able to change everything, but that does not justify abandoning the cause. Prayer can ostensibly help you with that as well.