A subsistence farmer in Peru’s northern highlands, Máxima Acuña stood up for her right to peacefully live off her own property, a plot of land sought by Newmont and Buenaventura Mining to develop the Conga gold and copper mine.
Peru’s race for mining
Over the past two decades, the mining industry in Peru has been growing at breakneck speed. With promises of jobs and economic prosperity, the Peruvian government awarded mining licenses across the country. Despite these promises, rural campesinos, who were rarely consulted in the development of mining projects, largely continue to live in poverty. In many communities, mining waste has polluted the local waterways, affecting local people’s drinking water and irrigation needs.
In the northern Peruvian highlands of Cajamarca, where almost half of the region’s land has been given away in mining concessions, Colorado-based Newmont, along with Peruvian mining company Buenaventura, owns and operates the Yanacocha Mine. It is one of the largest—and at its height, one of the most profitable—open-pit gold and copper mines in the world.
As the company tapped out the deposit, it began looking for expansion options. In 2010, it proposed developing a new mine to extract a gold deposit just 10 miles away from Yanacocha. The project, dubbed the Conga Mine, called for draining four nearby lakes. One of these, known as Laguna Azul, would be turned into a waste storage pit, threatening the headwaters of five watersheds and Cajamarca’s páramo ecosystem, a high-altitude biologically diverse wetland.
A peaceful life, interrupted
In 1994, Máxima Acuña and her husband bought a plot of land in a remote corner of Peru’s northern highlands known as Tragadero Grande. They built a small house on the property and lived a peaceful life raising their children. The family lived off the potatoes and other crops they grew, and kept sheep and cows for milk and cheese. Occasionally, she made the long trek into town to sell vegetables, dairy, and woolen handicrafts. Acuña never learned to read or write, but she understood that the land was her lifeblood.
One day in 2011, the mining company came to the Acuñas’ door, demanding that she leave her land. When Acuña refused, she was met with brutality. Armed forces came and destroyed her house and possessions, and beat her and one of her daughters unconscious.
The persecution continued. The company sued the family in a provincial court, which found them guilty of illegally squatting on their own land. Acuña was sentenced to a suspended prison term of almost three years, and fined nearly $2,000—a huge sum for a subsistence farmer in Peru.
Traumatized, homeless, but undeterred
Acuña sought legal help from GRUFIDES, an environmental NGO in Cajamarca that was representing local community members in cases against mining companies. With help from her attorney, Mirtha Vásquez, she appealed the ruling and began gathering documents such as her land title that proved she held legitimate property rights to the land claimed by Newmont.
In December 2014, the courts ruled in Acuña’s favor. Her prison sentence was overturned and the court halted her eviction. As a result of this legal victory, the Conga mine has been kept out of Tragadero Grande. Newmont has been unable to move forward with any mining in the area around Laguna Azul.
Acuña continues to face threats and harassment from the mining company and its militarized security contractors. The mining company has built a fence around Acuña’s land, restricting her ability to move about freely. They have destroyed her potato crops, and maintain a close watch on her property to prevent her from planting more. Meanwhile, the legal fight continues to play out in the Peruvian Supreme Court, with more appeals and lawsuits a near certainty.
Despite the trauma and exhaustion, Acuña maintains a remarkable sense of optimism in her continued fight for justice. She has become widely known throughout Latin America for her inspirational courage in standing up against a multinational mining company. The Conga mine has not moved forward. The community has rallied behind Máxima and her victory has brought new life to the struggle to defend Cajamarca’s páramos, water supplies, and people from large-scale gold mining.