It's an unlikely match between a 47-year-old Peruvian subsistence farmer and a giant American mining corporation, and yet the former is winning the battle.
One of the much-anticipated winners of the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s largest prize for grassroots environmentalism, has been announced. Her name is Máxima Acuña and she is a 47-year-old grandmother and subsistence farmer from the Andean highlands of northern Peru.
For many years, Acuña and her husband lived a quiet, peaceful life. In 1994 they purchased 18 acres of land located at the edge of Laguna Azul, a high-altitude lake that provides drinking water to the family, livestock, and neighbors downstream. There they raised their children, tended sheep and cows, made cheese from the milk, lived off potatoes and other vegetables they grew, and occasionally made the distant trek into town to sell dairy products, vegetables, and woolen handicrafts.
But everything changed in 2011 when the Peruvian government granted a 7,400-acre concession to an American mining company called Newmont Mining Corporation. The concession included Acuña’s property, which Newmont needed in order to access Laguna Azul. Its plans for the new Conga Mine included draining the lake and converting it into a tailings pond to collect the toxic mining byproducts, such as cyanide and arsenic.
Acuña refused to give up her land. Instead, she became a fierce environmental activist, fighting to defend her beloved land from the takeover and destruction that she knew would be inevitable, should Newmont gain full control. Despite never having learned to read or write, Acuña launched herself fully into the battle against Newmont and the conspiring Peruvian government.
Newmont took Acuña to court, winning a lawsuit in 2012 that accused her of squatting on land that was not rightfully hers. At that point, Acuña enlisted the help of GRUFIDES, a local non-governmental organization that provides assistance to rural communities fighting mining companies. The group advised Acuña to take the case to a higher-level court in order to appeal the verdict; she did so by walking a ten-hour and often treacherous hike to make court appearances. She won in 2014 when the court overturned the original verdict, preventing Newmont from proceeding with the mine development.
The company has been harassing Acuña and her family ever since. State police, hired as private security contractors on behalf of the Newmont, have threatened to evict her, built a fence around her land to restrict movement, razed her home twice and stolen belongings, and destroyed her potato crops. Once she and her daughter were even beaten to the point of unconsciousness when they tried to intervene.
The battle is not over yet, but Acuña continues to hold her ground, refusing to give in to Newmont’s bullying. Organizers of the Goldman Environmental Prize state:
“She has become widely known throughout Latin America for her inspirational courage in standing up against a multinational mining company. The Conga mine has not moved forward. The community has rallied behind Máxima and her victory has brought new life to the struggle to defend Cajamarca’s páramos, water supplies, and people from large-scale gold mining.”
In a region of Peru where half the land has been granted to extraction projects, Acuña’s strength and determination to protect the land and a traditional way of life are deeply important. She sets a precedent for other grassroots activists and inspires others to stand up to this destructive industry. She is living proof that even the smallest voice, if sufficiently stubborn, can make a huge difference.