In April 2016, Peruvian farmer Máxima Acuña was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for her environmental advocacy and courageous stand against the Newmont Mining Corporation, the world’s second-largest goldmining company. This is her story.
Before the mine came with lies about jobs and economic development, I lived here without any problems. I have been poor all my life, but I always lived in peace.
I was born and raised in the mountains of Cajamarca. When I was a child I never had any toys, never went to school. So I never learned how to read or write. I worked in the fields, helped around the house and took care of my deaf younger brother. In my spare time, I would make hats and clothes for other children’s dolls.
As a teenager, I never went to the movies, to theatres or parties, or on any dates. By the time I was 14, I got married. I had no choice… My husband Jaime, then 16, worked in agriculture. At first, I didn’t know what to expect of marriage. My first baby died during childbirth. After giving birth four more times — each time pretty much totally on my own — I had four wonderful children, all of whom went to school so that they wouldn’t be illiterate like me.
When my children were growing up, Jaime and I laboured on other people’s lands. We often took care of animals, breeding goats, sheep, horses, pigs and cattle for several farmers from our community. In compensation, we would keep one of the offspring. We grew all sorts of roots and potatoes, which we exchanged for grains and fruits with people from the region. We would usually keep half of that produce for our own consumption and sell the rest. That’s how our local economy worked back then.
In 1994, we bought a parcel of 27 hectares of land from my husband’s uncle in Tragadero Grande, where we built a small hut. To buy it, we sold everything we owned: one bull, a foal, several sheep and a whole bunch of small animals.
For many years, my family and I had a tranquil and peaceful life here. We live high in the mountains near a beautiful lake called Laguna Azul, our source of drinking water and our source of life. For us, our lakes are our real treasure.
Our nightmare with the mining company began in May 2011. Minera Yanacocha wanted to destroy our lakes and mountains and rob us of the land that my husband and I had bought with the sweat of our brow. It wanted to kick us out to build the Conga Mine, a huge open-pit goldmine [part-owned by US giant Newmont]. Where in the world are lakes for sale?
One day, a team of engineers from Yanacocha, along with private security guards and police, came to our property to evict us, claiming we were not legitimate owners.
Upon hearing this, I ran to grab the title to our land and showed it to them. I told them: ‘Gentlemen, you have no legal grounds to kick us out. My husband and I bought this land. Here is the proof. We are the rightful owners.’ But they didn’t care. They tore down fences and destroyed our home. When I went to the Celendin police station to lodge a complaint, they told me to go away.
On 9 August 2011, Yanacocha’s engineers came back with heavy machinery and a large contingent of riot police and soldiers. To prevent further damage to our property, my youngest daughter knelt down in front of one of the company’s bulldozers. They became like lions. They kicked us all over our bodies… They beat my daughter and me without compassion. They left us lying bloodied and unconscious on the ground. If that were not enough, the police had their machine guns pointed at the heads of my husband and youngest son. My eldest daughter recorded all this with her mobile phone.
They destroyed our new hut. They seized all our belongings: our beds, our clothes, our pots and cooking utensils, even our food.
We went to report these violent assaults to the authorities at the Celendin district attorney’s office, but they simply shelved our complaints. Desperate for justice, we asked Mirtha Vásquez from [non-governmental organization] Grufides to help us. She agreed and became our lawyer.
Then, Yanacocha sued us, making completely false accusations. And, believe it or not, the court found us guilty of illegally squatting on our own land! I was given a [suspended three-year] prison sentence, and ordered to pay civil reparations to Yanacocha. On top of that, the judge ordered us to leave our own land within 30 days.
But our lawyer appealed against the ruling and kept fighting for us. In December 2014, the courts ruled in our favour, overturning the previous ruling. When I heard about it, I thanked God for listening to our prayers.
But our nightmare continues. Yanacocha is taking the case to the [Peruvian] Supreme Court and keeps filing more lawsuits against us.
What’s more, Yanacocha has built a fence around our land and set up a watch-tower with guards to monitor our comings and goings. Security guards from Securitas working for the mine destroyed all our potato crops, killed our animals and tore down a pillar that supports the roof of our house. They don’t let us enter or leave our property. They have threatened to kill us. I’m tortured by the mining company, with the support of the police.
When I won the Goldman Prize, I was surprised to hear that I wasn’t the only one having problems with a mine. There are so many people in other countries with similar problems. A woman was killed in Honduras for defending the land of her indigenous community. I dedicate this prize to them, and I hope that it will become a symbol of strength for more people to protect our environment, to defend our lakes, to defend our human rights, and to let the world know about all the lies of development and progress that these companies tell just to steal our land. I will never kneel before Yanacocha, and I will never give up my land! Neither should anyone!
As told to Roxana Olivera, an award-winning investigative journalist based in Toronto.