Article by Canadian Journalist Roxana Olivera ‘Life yes, gold no!’
Behind the rhetoric of Peru’s economic boom and corporate social responsibility lies the struggle of indigenous communities to defend their land and their right to clean water. Máxima Acuña is one of the faces behind that struggle. Roxana Olivera meets her.
With a blue plastic sheet and an alpaca blanket wrapped around her shoulders, Máxima Acuña, 42, walked through torrid rain for 10 hours to appear in court in the picturesque Andean town of Celendin. From the splendid hills of Sorochuco, she tracked down slippery roads and winding footpaths to hear the case that the owners of the Yanacocha mine in northern Peru has launched against her and her family. It is not the other way around.
‘These Yanacocha people are just trying to rob me of my land!’ Acuña tells me, tears swelling her eyes. ‘God is my witness! He knows that I am the rightful owner of that land,’ she adds between sobs, as she shows me a set of loose sheets of paper that she grips in calloused hands.
‘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?’
In 1994, Acuña and her husband Jaime Chaupe purchased, according to the property documents, a parcel of 27 hectares of land in a remote corner of Peru’s northern highlands known as Tragadero Grande. It is situated in the district of Sorochuco, province of Celendin, department of Cajamarca. Set at 3,249 metres above sea level and against a backdrop of rolling mountains and natural water sheds, Tragadero Grande offers a breathtaking, colorful landscape. It looks a bit like Tuscany – but with potato fields and a few llamas. Acuña built a small shack atop one of those rolling mountains. And, like most campesinos – indigenous peasants – in her community, she, her husband and three children, have been, and still are, engaged in subsistence production as farmers and herders.
Sadly, beneath those majestic mountains, particularly beneath two of its pristine lakes, lie rich deposits of gold and copper, minerals that Minera Yanacocha is determined to extract at any price.
To do so, Minera Yanacocha – 51.35 per cent owned by US giant Newmont Mining Corporation, 43.65 per cent owned by Peru’s Compañia de Minas Buenaventura, while the World Bank holds the rest of the shares – has mounted an aggressive campaign to promote the development of the Minas Conga. Minas Conga will be an open-pit gold and copper mine in the heart of the region. Worth an estimated $4.8 billion, the project is slated to become the largest single investment in the country’s mining history, with an annual output of 580,000 to 680,000 ounces of gold and 155 million to 235 million pounds of copper during its first five years of operation. The total surface area of the proposed open pit is 2,000 hectares – 20 km2.
A section of the prospective Minas Conga sits on land that Acuña owns, and she has refused to sell it.
The proposed open-pit mine would destroy four mountain lakes while it also threatens to contaminate and deplete groundwater supplies in the high Andes region of Cajamarca. Two of the lakes would be drained for mining exploration and mineral extraction and the two others would be turned into tailings ponds for mining waste.
There are concerns that the contamination may even leach into the Marañon River, an important headwater of the Amazon. Needless to say, the mining project also threatens to endanger the health of the local indigenous communities.
‘I fear for my life, for the life of my husband, for the lives of my children and for the lives of the people in my community who defend us and our water’
Yet, Minera Yanacocha claims that the Minas Conga venture meets rigorous environmental standards, and it promises to build four water reservoirs to replace the mountain lakes. ‘Water management practices incorporated in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA),’ the company proclaims on its website, ‘were based on more than 10 years of hydrology and engineering studies conducted by respected independent firms.’
But the company has a questionable reputation in Cajamarca.
With a 19-year-history of mining operations in the region, it was responsible for a mercury spill that poisoned more than 1,200 villagers in the nearby community of Choropampa.
And, according to health records featured in a documentary film that is currently on the festival circuit, it appears that many workers at the nearby Yanacocha mine – the largest open-pit goldmine in Latin America and the second largest in the world – are suffering from severe mercury poisoning.
As for promises of greater benefits from gold extraction, it is noteworthy that after 19 years of mining activity in Cajamarca, the province has sunk from being the fourth poorest province in Peru to the second poorest.
Defending the real treasure
Fully aware of that dubious past, Máxima Acuña doesn’t buy into any of Minera Yanacocha’s public relations rhetoric on economic opportunities and corporate social responsibility.
As she puts it, ‘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!’ She then adds, ‘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?’
In spite of her valid property documents, and without being served an official eviction order, according to Acuña, Minera Yanacocha has made several attempts to forcibly remove her from her land.
In May 2011, she says, a team of mining engineers from Minera Yanacocha, along with private security guards and police, marched into her property, tore down fences, and dismantled her shack. She went to the Sorochuco police to report the incident, but, she says, they simply told her to go away.
On 9 August 2011, the mining engineers returned with heavy machinery to Acuña’s plot of land. They were escorted by a large contingent of Peruvian riot police and soldiers. On this occasion, they destroyed what was meant to be her new shack. They confiscated all of her possessions: her bed, her clothes, her cooking utensils, even her food – cooked and uncooked.
‘Then, they beat me and my daughter without compassion,’ Acuña recalls, her voice cracking. ‘And, the police had their machine guns pointed at the heads of my husband and small son.’
She wipes tears off her face with her poncho. ‘These mining people have tried to kill us, and they have threatened to come back again to kill us,’ she whispers, looking at me intently. ‘I fear for my life, for the life of my husband, for the lives of my children and for the lives of the people in my community who defend us and our water.’
Holding his wife’s hand, Jaime Chaupe steps in to fill in the blanks. ‘I saw the police beat and kick my wife. I saw them whack my daughter on the back of her head with their machine guns,’ he tells me, his voice fading away, despite his attempts to hold back his tears. ‘When I saw my wife and daughter lying unconscious on the ground, I thought they were already dead!’ he mutters. ‘While they tried to catch me, I heard my children scream in fear. They cried: “Help us! Help us! They’re gonna kill us all! They’re killing us!”’
Asked about media coverage of the eviction attempts, Acuña speaks bluntly. ‘Our national media have completely ignored our struggle and our suffering.’ Pause. ‘They have failed to report on how mining companies are stealing land from us, the poor; how they’re taking away our only source of food,’ she adds, more tears streaming down her face. ‘And, they have failed to report on how our authorities at the district attorney’s office and at the public ministry have sold their souls to the devil. The world ought to know all this, but they don’t write about any of it!’
The forced eviction that Acuña and Chaupe describe took place under the watchful eye of Minera Yanacocha’s team of engineers. Acuña’s 23-year-old daughter Ysidora captured images on her mobile. The clips are now available on YouTube.
With forensic photographs and video images in hand, Acuña and her family reported the violent assaults to the authorities at the Celendin district attorney’s office. But the authorities simply shelved their complaint.
Although mining representatives and government officials claim that there is full local support for the Minas Conga project, recent polls show that 78 per cent of the people in the area reject it outright.
Protests against the Minas Conga open-pit mine have become widespread.
On 3 July 2012, Peruvian police and soldiers open-fired on a crowd of protesters against the project. Four people were killed in Celendin and one in Bambamarca. Dozens were seriously injured.
Immediately after the bloody incident, President Ollanta Humala declared a state of emergency in the region, suspending civil liberties.
On 21 October 2012, more than 200 campesinos – many of them with infant children – mobilized to defend their mountain lakes. Acuña welcomed the protesters to stay on her land.
Vida Sí, Oro No!
Back in court, on 29 October 2012, Acuña crosses herself while she awaits the judge’s decision.
The judge finds Acuña and her family guilty of the charge of squatting on Minera Yanacocha’s property. She gives them a three-year suspended jail sentence, orders them to pay civil reparations in the amount of $200 soles (roughly US$70) to Minera Yanacocha, and to leave the contested land – within 30 days. Acuña faints. She is taken to hospital, and everyone leaves the courtroom.
The lawyer representing Acuña and her family has appealed the ruling, arguing that Minera Yanacocha has not established proof of ownership.
In the meantime, the 200 protesters, bearing signs that read ‘Vida Sí, Oro No!’ (Life Yes, Gold No!) and ‘Agua Sí, Oro No!’ (Water Yes, Gold No!), continue to camp on Acuña’s land in order to protect their mountain lakes. More than 400 heavily armed riot police and military soldiers surround the protesters. More are on the way.
Facts about mining
In order to extract one (1) gram of gold, vast amounts of water mixed with toxic substances, including mercury and cyanide, are required. A mere 0.1 gram of cyanide can be lethal.
Approximately 10,000 litres of water are required to produce one single gram (0.0032 troy oz.) of gold.
While a peasant family uses 30 litres of water per day, a small mine – much smaller than that proposed by Minas Conga – consumes 250,000 litres of water per hour. In other words, in a single hour, a mining company uses the same amount of water that a peasant family consumes in 20 years.
Minas Conga predicts that it will have an annual output of 580,000 to 680,000 ounces of gold and 155 million to 235 million pounds of copper during its first five years of operation.
Roxana Olivera is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to New Internationalist.