In Peru’s Highlands with Máxima Acuña

April 27, 2016

Program Officer Ryan Mack looks back at his first meeting with Goldman Prize winner Máxima Acuña in the northern Peruvian highlands of Cajamarca in early 2016. They are photographed above standing in front of the pristine Laguna Azul:

Thick fog crawled along the hillsides of Cajamarca’s highlands, engulfing Laguna Azul and the surrounding mountains. The wind picked up, rustling the grasses of the surrounding hillsides. The dry grasses belied the massive amounts of water underneath our feet. As our voices quieted, we could hear the gurgling stream running under the earth and toward the lake.

Laguna Azul and its closest inhabitant, Máxima Acuña, have become icons of the struggle against Newmont Mining Corporation of Denver, Colorado and Buenaventura Mining of Peru. With the Yanacocha mine nearly tapped out, the mining companies hoped to expand to another massive deposit of gold and copper. The project, known as the Conga mine, would threaten five watersheds, including the headwaters of the Marañon River (a major tributary of the Amazon). These highlands also contained nearly 700 natural springs! These lakes, rivers, and springs not only constitute a unique and fragile ecosystem, but provide water for communities and families both near and far — families, like Máxima’s.

Soon, the fog lifted and the lake came into view again. We hiked down to the shores of Laguna Azul and the wind picked up, whistling as it tousled the grasses. High above, on the dirt road, the tall antennae of the mining company’s 4×4 pickup became visible. Our every move was being monitored by the mining company. On the hillside of Máxima’s home, they have installed a llama farm behind a large fence, patrolled by several security guards. I never saw any llamas, but I did see security personnel watching us. “It’s an excuse for them to keep an eye on us,” Máxima’s son, Daniel, tells me.

“Our every move was being monitored by the mining company.”

The air is thin at 13,000 feet, and we slowly made our way back up to Máxima’s house, a simple adobe structure with a corrugated metal roof. We gathered under the small overhang as she and her daughter tended to the wood stove, located just outside the front door. “We need a new house,” she’d mentioned to me. But when they had begun to build one not far away, police and security forces had entered her property and destroyed the half-built structure, and beat Máxima and her daughter.

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Máxima Acuña tends to her land in Tragadero Grande. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

“I used to have cows and goats,” Máxima tells us. She was renowned for her preparation of queso fresco — a fresh, soft cheese typical in the Peruvian countryside, especially in Cajamarca. “But I received threats that people would kill them or steal them. So I sold them. They’ve even told us that we can’t grow crops, [tubers] like oca, olluco, o papas! But my son planted a small crop of potato under the cover of night.” The small parcel of potatoes will not grow enough for them to sell, but will at least help them remain on the land and have some food to eat.

The clouds closed in on us and then the rains came, its sound amplified by the metal roof. We all gathered in close around the stove to enjoy a bowl of hot potato and bean soup. Máxima spoke again, her voice tinged with sadness, “Where else am I to go? What am I going to do in the city? I can’t read or write. This is all I know how to do.”

Máxima’s fight is a struggle to protect a fragile ecosystem and precious water resources from destructive mining. But it’s also a fight to protect a way of life. Due to ongoing threats to her and her family, she currently does not stay on her land, but she visits regularly. Her son, Daniel, has stayed behind to look after the property. But the struggle is starting to take a toll on him too. Almost two months after I visited Máxima and Daniel on their family’s property, the mine’s security forces entered their land and destroyed their only remaining crop of potatoes. The mining company has also installed a fence on the boundary of the family’s property, restricting Máxima’s ability to travel overland to neighboring communities.

“Máxima’s fight is a struggle to protect a fragile ecosystem and precious water resources from destructive mining. But it’s also a fight to protect a way of life.”

Even after Cajamarca’s Supreme Court cleared her of any wrongdoing after four years of legal proceedings, the company has not stopped its legal threats: Máxima is now facing a lengthy civil suit in the courts.

Despite being attacked through physical, psychological, and even legal means – and the fact that she cannot live in her own home – Máxima maintains an amazingly upbeat persona. In fact, she prefers not to dwell on her suffering over the past few years. She weaves beautiful bedspreads and tablecloths – and, someday, I think she’d really like to start her own small cheese shop. Her smile is contagious – and nothing seems to bring her greater joy than her one-year-old grandson, Max (named in her honor after her court victory). She has also taken to telling her story by singing about it in the hauntingly lyrical sing-song Spanish of Peru’s northern highlands.

Even though she might shy away from the spotlight, Máxima has inspired people and communities across Latin America. She is the voice of the people. In her own words, during an interview with the New Internationalist, “I may be poor. I may be illiterate, but I know that our mountain lakes are our real treasure. From them, I can get fresh and clean water for my children, for my husband and for my animals! Yet, are we expected to sacrifice our water and our land so that the Yanacocha people can take gold back to their country? Are we supposed to sit quietly and just let them poison our land and water?”

The same day Máxima returned to Peru, someone fired gunshots near her home in Tragadero Grande. Her husband, alone on their land, was not sure if he would be attacked or killed. Despite these ongoing threats, Máxima plans to return to her land and join her husband.

Please join us and Earthworks by calling on Newmont Mining Corporation to help ensure Maxima’s safety, withdraw security forces from the area, and drop their legal actions against Máxima and her family.

“I may be poor. I may be illiterate, but I know that our mountain lakes are our real treasure.”

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Máxima and I (left) and the crew that filmed her profile video. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

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