Every now and then, David once again defeats Goliath. This time, the rock hit the giant in the Peruvian Andes, where Máxima Acuña, who won the Goldman prize for the environment in 2016, won a new battle against the mining company Yanacocha, owned by the U.S. Newmont Mining Corporation.
Last Friday, the Constitutional Court upheld the complaint filed in 2016 by the peasant woman who has become a worldwide symbol of the fight against mining, ordering the company to respect her family’s right to privacy by removing the surveillance camera located 300 meters from her home and refraining from using drones above her plot.
This is the last chapter so far—while it’s likely that others will follow—of a complex judicial case that began as early as 2011, when, in the Cajamarca region, Yananocha decided to expand the exploitation area of the mine of the same name, the largest open pit gold mine in Latin America.
However, the expansion project, known as the Conga project, ran into a stumbling block: the 24.8 hectares of land in Tragadero Grande, in the Sorochuco district, legitimately obtained in 1994 by Máxima Acuña, who did not want to sell. At any price.
Yanacocha tried everything, even sending two police officers to the woman’s house in January 2014 to order her to leave the house immediately. Claiming that they purchased hundreds of hectares directly from the community of Sorochuco, including, according to them, Máxima’s land (whom no one even bothered to question, however), the company charged her with illegal possession, until in December 2014 the woman was recognized as innocent by the Cajamarca court.
But Yanacocha did not give up. With a history of such exploits as the devastating mercury spill in Choropampa in 2000, which cost the lives of more than 70 people and went unpunished, it was certainly unwilling to be stopped by a peasant woman. So, while the trial about the ownership of the plot went on, in February 2015, about 200 policemen raided her field, demolishing a part of the house built as shelter from the rain. The following year, again in February, it was Yanacocha’s security forces who destroyed the potato crop that Máxima and her family were growing for their livelihood, claiming that the potatoes had been planted illegally.
The pressure did not stop: together with the camera and drones, the company erected a metal fence around her land, like a cage, and has deployed security personnel on the dirt road in Sorochuco, the only way for the family to enter and leave. Thus, whoever wants to visit them has to pass through a checkpoint and wait for a pass.
Not even the Supreme Court of Justice’s ruling in May 2017, in which the Acuña Chaupe family was recognized by the Supreme Court as the owner of the 25 or so disputed hectares, was enough to stop Yanacocha, while outside the Palace of Justice a multitude of people raised signs saying: “Máxima no está sola” (“Máxima is not alone”). The company not only announced it was still pursuing other legal avenues, but also refused to stop its aggression and intimidation. Last year, in a not-coincidental event, her son Daniel Chaupe denounced the poisoning of more than 1,000 trout raised by the family.
However, Máxima did not give in, despite the dangers, sacrifices and fears so well described by Mirtha Vásquez—a lawyer of the Grufides Association, which took charge of the costs of the various trials against the company—in the aftermath of the 2017 judgment: “These five years have been years of enormous tension for them: every day surveyed, every day threatened, every day with the fear that they would invade or that they would drive them out or take away their land or even kill them… And all this is a lesson of great value, not only for them, but also for all the people who have always been afraid in the face of power.”
All the more so because their struggle is not only for the protection of their legitimately owned assets, but also for the defense of the entire regional ecosystem exposed to the threat posed by the Conga project. The project was suspended in November 2011 following protests by the population, worried about the planned destruction of four mountain lakes, including Laguna Azul on Tragadero Grande, which provide farmers in five valleys with water for drinking, agriculture and livestock.
Moreover, in a country where more than 20% of the national territory is covered by mining concessions of various kinds and where the Defensoria del Pueblo, in its last report in 2019, recorded 186 mining conflicts, the Peruvian people soon had to learn how to fight. And in some cases, they even managed to win.