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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

A Peruvian activist takes on the fishmeal industry

by Michelle Nijhuis

Grist Magazine

18th April 2003

Maria Elena Foronda Farro.
Photo: Richard Goldgewicht.

Maria Elena Foronda Farro was born to be an activist. Her father, a union lawyer in Chimbote, Peru, taught her -- through words and by example -- about the importance of social justice. Foronda, who grew up in Chimbote and earned a master's degree in sociology in Mexico, is now applying her father's lessons to her hometown.

Peru is the world's largest producer of fishmeal, a substance used in fertilizers and animal feed, and the industry dominates Chimbote and other coastal towns. Many of the factories are located in the middle of residential areas, where they pollute the air with soot. They also discharge fish remains, oils, and proteins into public drains, often blocking them and flooding the streets with wastewater. Irresponsible industry practices are linked to serious health problems in Peru, including a cholera epidemic in the early 1990s; the life expectancy in Chimbote is 10 years shy of the national average. The industry has also been a disaster for the environment. Factories decimate fisheries with bottom-net dragging and dump heated water into the ocean, creating dead zones along the coast.

Foronda, 44, has worked to empower neighbourhoods affected by the fishmeal industry. Through projects such as the School of Leaders for Local Development, an environmental leadership program, Foronda says many residents have become more aware of their legal rights to a clean environment, and are demanding that the government and the fishmeal industry recognize those rights.

Such work is dangerous in Peru: In 1994, Foronda and her husband were falsely accused of membership in the terrorist group Shining Path and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Thanks to local and international campaigns, the couple was released after about a year, and Foronda has returned to her work in Chimbote. She continues to encourage activism in local communities, and she and others at NATURA, the nongovernmental organization she founded, have helped convince eight fishmeal producers to clean up their practices.

On April 14, Foronda was awarded one of six 2003 Goldman Environmental Prizes. Because of visa problems, she could not attend the ceremony in San Francisco; her father attended on her behalf. She spoke with Grist via an email correspondence in Spanish.

Grist: How did you first learn about the environmental and social problems in Chimbote?

Maria Elena Foronda Farro: It was a gradual process of talking to people, of hearing the testimonials of the communities in Chimbote. Though their words were simple, I was moved by the truth in them. I began to recognize what industrial contamination meant in practice. I looked at technical reports, which corroborated the stories people told. I reviewed the environmental laws of my country -- many people don't even know about them, much less exercise them. Discovering these laws, and putting them at the service of the people, was really inspiring. The people became leaders, and started to care about their struggle and their future.

Grist: How did you decide to become an activist and fight the problems in Chimbote?

Foronda: I've been a social activist since I was a child. My father is a lawyer, and he's involved with the defence of labour rights and the rights of poor communities in my country. From him, I learned that you have to take action against problems, especially against the environmental problems that affect our lives so directly. It's my life's work. In our city, the environmental problems have become so obvious that they are common knowledge. You only need a tiny spark of social consciousness to become an activist.

Grist: What was the first step you took?

Foronda: I was convinced that this work was worth the trouble, convinced in the heart and in the head that it was possible to change the social and environmental conditions in Chimbote. I worked for greater public recognition of the environmental problems. I also worked with the communities of Chimbote to develop their self-esteem, their sense of strength, their faith in their own rights and their citizenship. I helped develop training programs that helped empower them and strengthen their ability to negotiate on equal footing with the government. They stopped being survivors and started being full citizens.

Grist: How did you convince some of the fishmeal producers to change their methods?

Foronda: We showed them it was profitable to invest in clean technology. It reduces the losses in their entire production process, they save on raw materials, improve their productivity, lower their costs -- and they don't harm the environment or the health of the communities. They can quickly recoup the investment they make in the new technology, since it generates more profits for them. And the conditions of the international markets, the international environmental rules, have gradually become stricter. Producers are being forced to change their behaviour, to take a new approach to business and social responsibility. However, the majority of producers -- about 60 percent -- are still using obsolete technology.

Grist: I understand that now you're talking with larger fishmeal producers. What is your strategy with them?

Foronda: Through the School of Leaders for Local Development, I've organized conferences between [these larger producers] and socially responsible businesses. The businesses talk about their successful experiences and demonstrate that environmental investments are a profitable and sustainable business strategy.

Grist: Did your year in prison change the way you do your work?

Foronda: It's reinforced my convictions. When I got out of prison, I didn't doubt for a moment that I would continue in Chimbote. I had more vigour and certainty than ever. But it did change my confrontational strategy. It gave me the opportunity to travel outside my country [to visit international activists who had fought for her and her husband's release] and see another dimension of environmental campaigns, one that achieved greater success through strategic planning and negotiation. Because the violations of human rights were so serious during the [Alberto] Fujimori dictatorship, continuing in the original way would have been a grave personal and institutional risk.

Grist: What does this prize mean for your work?

Foronda: It's a chance to put the environmental issues of my country
on the international scene and to form alliances that can give us
technical and financial help in continuing our work -- our campaign
to make Chimbote a city of life. We have a lot of opportunities, like
the restoration of Ferrol Bay and the valuable ecosystem in the Villa Maria
wetlands. We'd also like to start monitoring programs for air quality and
environmental health, to improve the quality of life of the population.

The Goldman Environmental Prize

The recognition isn't just personal, it's for a big team, for my companeros and companeras at NATURA who have great spirit and courage -- and, above all, a great desire for service and love for others.

Grist: How do you plan to spend the money?

Foronda: I'd like to use it as seed money for a sustainable development fund, to help fulfil the promise of other institutions, people, and international organizations that want to solve urban environmental problems and empower the communities that confront them.

Prize Fighters ~ Odigha Odigha ~ Julia Bonds ~ Von Hernandez ~ Eileen Wani Wingfield ~ Pedro Arrojo-Agudo ~ Maria Elena Foronda Farro

Michelle Nijhuis

Michelle Nijhuis is a freelance writer in western Colorado. Her work appears in the forthcoming Best American Science Writing of 2003 (Ecco Press).