A woman looks at the camera and says, “Only death awaits us here.”
She is a resident of Sitio del Niño, El Salvador, where thousands of tons of lead from a decade of industrial operations found their way into the community’s water, food, soil and air. The disastrous result of this poisoning is the subject of The Site of Lead, a new ethnographic documentary film by Prof. Hugo De Burgos at UBC’s Okanagan campus.
De Burgos, who has a PhD in medical anthropology, created the 40-minute film to document Sitio del Niño’s experience of lead contamination from a car battery factory operating in the community since 1997. Although the factory closed in 2007, residents are still struggling to remove more than 32,000 tons of lead slag and to decontaminate their natural environment and people.
“I went to Sitio del Niño in 2009 with the aim of making a documentary on people’s narratives of trauma – how they talk about trauma in a non-clinical, non-pathologized fashion, which is something that often helps them build character and makes them more resilient,” says De Burgos. “But I ended up focusing on more immediate and recent trauma – the lead contamination, which was causing all kinds of trauma, not only physiological but physiological.”
The World Health Organization claims that more than 10 micrograms of lead per decilitre of blood in a person poses a serious health risk. In Sitio del Niño, however, some people have more than 50 micrograms. The average child in the community has 32 micrograms of lead in the blood, a level that can affect the neurological system, liver, bones, and also cause anemia.
“I was interested in both the politics of this lead contamination and the subjective experience of being contaminated by lead – how the people in the community talk about their illness,” says De Burgos.
De Burgos filmed for three months with a small crew of colleagues and family.
“People in the community wanted to tell the story not only to the El Salvadorian population but to the international community,” he says.
“The film examines structural ?violence – a form of violence based on the systemic ways in which a given social structure or institution harms people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs,” says De Burgos. He notes that in medical anthropology, the term “macro-parasite” describes how societies can be organized in such a ?way that human sickness and death is the result.
“Inequality and social power put some people at risk for being ill – that is exactly what happened in Sitio del Niño. The people were contaminated by lead not because lead particles naturally liked these people, but because their position in the El Salvadorian society made them more vulnerable.”
De Burgos says his film highlights how organized community action can exercise enough political pressure to fight a corporation, and brings awareness about how humans organize society and how this structure can be detrimental to some of its members.
“The way we structure our society can prevent some humans from developing their full human potential, and sometimes make them sick or kill them,” he says. “This is very difficult to detect because one of the main characteristics of structural violence is that it is difficult to see, but by creating awareness we can start changing our society for the common good and not only for the benefit of a few.”