Peru’s conflict with its ordinary people due to its dependency on mining came into a harsh spotlight this week. Maxima Acuña received the Goldman Environmental Prize.
Acuña is a rural woman from Cajamarca. She has become a hero to many in her single-handed defense of her home, family, and land against the Newmont Mining Corporation of Colorado and the Peruvian mining company Buenaventura over the the Conga Mine Project and the Yanacocha mine.
The fourth largest gold mine in the world and is a 251 Km2 open pit near the city of Cajamarca. It has a history of environmental destruction and poor relations with local rural people. Because productivity was declining, Newmont and Buenaventura, along with the World Bank, proposed an expansion called Conga which motivated substantial local protests and formed one of the first major crises of the Ollanta Humala presidency.
Acuña became fiercely involved when Yanacocha tried to take her land. The mining companies needed the land to access the highland lakes that were vitally important to their plans for expansion. They tried to force her and her family to sell, but the illiterate grandmother refused. Yanacocha sued her in court and also tried to force her and her family off the land by arguing they occupied it illegally.
Acuña won the suit, but Yanacocha sent machinery to destroy her home, arguing it was built on land they owned.
Now, Acuña and her struggle has been recognized by the San Francisco based Goldman Environmental Prize. In the award ceremony Acuña began by singing a song of her composition in a traditional style. She entoned:
I am a Jalaqueñita and I live in the mountains. I pasture my sheep in fog and rain. When my dog barked, the police arrived. They burned my little home. They took away my things. Dear food, I could not eat. I only drank water. Dear bed, I did not have one. I covered myself with dear straw.
For defending my lakes, they tried to take my life. Engineers, Security. They stole my sheep. They drank my soup from lamb’s head in their camp in Congo. With this, goodbye, goodbye. Beautiful laurel, you remain in your home and I go on to suffer.
Acuña’s struggle and the award, which led her to argue she would never give up and has no fear of multinational corporations, point out the struggle of rural people against mines throughout Peru and how little support they receive from their government which finds itself bound by the need for international investment, the money from mining, and the international obligations they have entered into with the mining companies.
Recently, the indigenous Yanawara people from the area of another big mine, the multinational Las Bambas mine close to Cusco in Apurimac, came to Lima seeking an audience and help in their struggle over the environmental degradation caused by this enormous open pit copper mine and its economic importance that made them almost invisible in their own capital.
They celebrated their relationship with the ancient Chanka civilization of Peru´s highlands and joined with people from 47 other communities to draw attention to their suffering due to the mine. In Lima they carried out a hunger strike but gained little attention.
Acuña’s award casts light on what is likely to be a difficult and, probably, violent problem as Peru’s indigenous and rural activists struggle to be heard and to obtain government action to protect their interests in the face of mining and petrochemical enterprises with multinational support. Both presidential candidates promise a neoliberal government which gives preference to international resource extraction over the rights and interests of small holders.