Peru: One Peruvian Woman Is Standing Up To A Gold-Mining Goliath

Date of publication: 
12 February 2015

(This story was reported with Roxana Olivera, a Toronto-based investigative journalist living in Peru)

SOROCHUCO, Peru — On a remote farm deep in the Peruvian Andes, in a region where sheep outnumber people by a comfortable margin, a very small woman is foiling the plans of one of the biggest mining companies in the world.

Máxima Acuña, who stands just over 5 feet tall — if one includes in the measurement the traditional wide-brimmed hat she almost always wears — has withstood threats, beatings and legal challenges in her improbable bid to hang on to what she declares is her property: 67 acres of windswept grass framed by rolling hills and several high mountain lakes.

Last week, dozens of private security officers working for Minera Yanacocha, a Peruvian company that is majority owned by Newmont Mining Corp. of Denver, ripped apart the foundation of a new home the family was building as Acuña stood nearby, crying.

The cause of the conflict is the same that has haunted Peru since Spanish conquistadors first landed on its shores 500 years ago. There is gold on Acuña’s land. Or, more accurately, under it: at least 6 million ounces, here and on adjacent property, according to Newmont.

The company wants to build a $4.8 billion mine, known as Conga, to extract the precious ore. Buenaventura, a Peruvian company, and the International Finance Corp., the private-lending arm of the World Bank., hold minority stakes in the project, which is meant to replace a depleted mine nearby.

Acuña’s neighbors seem to have gotten the message that standing in the way of such a lucrative development is a losing proposition. They are long gone. But Acuña, who is 44, and her husband, Jaime Chaupe, have declared they won’t be intimidated into leaving.

“The Yanacocha clan can hire all the lawyers in the world, but let them produce documents to show that I sold them my land,” Máxima Acuña said recently. “They claim that I am squatting on their property. They claim that they are the legitimate owners, but they don’t show any papers that indicate that I sold them my land.”

Newmont says it purchased the Acuña property and surrounding acreage from the local community in 1997. Peruvian courts have twice affirmed its ownership, the company says.

Stories of individual resistance to lucrative construction projects in developing nations rarely end well for the stubborn holdout.

Acuña claims Yanacocha and its security forces, as well as allied police, have engaged in a campaign of harassment. In 2011, Peruvian police moved onto the disputed property and beat Acuña and her daughter “without compassion,” Acuña told the New Internationalist in an interview the next year.

In more recent years, even as local activist leaders leading the fight against the mine adopted her as their spiritual leader — at one point, she was even flown to Paris for an event — the endgame seemed to grow near. A 2012 court decision seemed to seal the family’s fate. The Acuñas, the judge declared, were squatters. Another court ruling in 2014 affirmed the same thing, the company says.

In December, however, a judge in Cajamarca, the regional capital, threw out a criminal complaint that Yanacocha, backed by Newmont, had filed against the Acuñas. The family and their attorneys from a nonprofit legal group for indigenous people celebrated the ruling as vindication that their claim to the land was valid. (In Peru, private parties can sue alleging criminal conduct, unlike in the United States, where such claims are reserved for government authorities).

The Acuñas live in a tiny grass and earth hut, highly vulnerable to the cold that is a steady presence at these high altitudes of more than 12,000 feet. In January — mid-summer in the Southern Hemisphere — they started to build a new home a few hundred feet away.

On Feb. 5, Yanacocha dispatched its security forces to the site. They wore face masks and carried riot shields.

What exactly happened next isn’t clear. Photographs taken by the company’s agents and posted on Yanacocha’s website depict the security forces facing off against two young men.

Eventually, the security forces ripped apart the house’s foundation, and left.

Newmont claims the new house was being built on Yanacocha land, outside the bounds of the property the Acuñas claim as their own. The December court decision changed nothing with respect to earlier rulings that confirmed its ownership of the property, the company says.

“Yanacocha remains committed to demonstrating respect for human rights and host communities, and will continue to seek measures to minimize conflict,” Newmont spokesman Omar Jabara said in an email. “At the same time, the company will take respectful, lawful and prudent measures to manage its lands safely, and prevent future — and new — unauthorized occupation on company property.”

The family and their attorney claim the structure was on Acuña property.

In Peru, the incident has dominated the news cycle, provoking condemnation even from some media outlets traditionally seen as business-friendly. At a press conference earlier this week, the father of Peru’s president declared that Acuña is a “heroine” for standing up to the mine.

For Newmont, the episode is another public relations mess in a region where its reputation is already tattered. For more than 20 years, it has pulled gold out of the ground of a huge mine near Conga, a development local peasant farmers blame for polluting their water and land.

In 2012, Peruvian police shot and killed five people protesting Conga, including a teenage boy. In the aftermath, Newmont declared that Conga was on indefinite hold while it builds reservoirs meant to replace water lost when several mountain lakes at the Conga site are dug up. There is no time frame on when the project will start up again, but Newmont has said it wants to marshall public support first.

Now, Newmont faces the prospect of more protests and turmoil. In Lima last week, a group gathered in support of Acuna outside of Yanacocha headquarters. Lynda Sullivan, an activist who lives in the town of Celendin, near the proposed Conga site, said organizers are attempting to stage a similar rally outside of Newmont’s Denver headquarters on Thursday, and at Peruvian embassies around the world.

For Acuña, the mantle of resistance hero is weighing heavy. She recently sought medical treatment for symptoms relating to exhaustion and stress. In recent days, her family has sought to deflect a swarm of reporters seeking interviews.

But this past weekend, she talked with a visiting journalist and issued one of the defiant declarations that have endeared her to supporters.

“Yanacocha wants to have my land for free,” she said, her eyes swelling with tears. “But I will not leave my land. I am the rightful owner of this land. I have property papers to prove it. God is my witness.”


PERU: Property Destruction and Intimidation of Peasant Family by Yanacocha Mining Company

Cajamarca, Peru – 6th February 2015

Conga Conflict –

On Tuesday 3rd February, in the highlands of Cajamarca, personnel from Minera Yanacocha S.R.L. along with the private security service of the mining company and 200 National Police of Peru invaded the property of Máxima Acuña de Chaupe and destroyed her house that was in construction.

Maxima and her family recently won their court case brought against them by Yanacocha which accused them of usurpation – claiming that the land the family have been living on since 1994 and for which they have proof of possession, was instead the property of Yanacocha. This land is of strategic importance to the mining company, the world’s second largest gold producer, as it resides in the heart of their planned mega-mining project – Minas Conga. However after four years, two court cases and two High Court appeals, the family was finally vindicated.

Yanacocha, composed of US-based Newmont (51%), Peruvian Buenaventura (44%) and the IFC of the World Bank (5%), owns and operates the largest gold mine in Latin-America in the province of Cajamarca and their next project would be Minas Conga, three times the size of existing operations.

Máxima, her husband Jaime, and two youths who were helping build the house, an improvement to their small earthen home so as to protect them from the intense cold, were met by this heavy contingent of police, mining personnel and SECURITAS personnel, the Swedish security multinational contracted by Yanacocha, who proceeded to destroy their new house.

The invasion was not justified by any judicial order or police warrant nor was a public prosecutor present. Yanacocha, in their defence, claimed that the house was being built outside the limits of the Chaupe family’s land. However, in the same press release they acknowledge that the land is within “Tragadero Grande”, the area of land identified in the court case and recognized as the family’s property.

The family’s lawyer, Dr. Mirtha Vásquez, belied the company’s assertion that they were protecting the property in a pacific manner. Primarily because the entry of 200 heavily armed police and security personnel without authorization is a clear act of aggression. Secondly, the defendant cannot defend territory that does not belong to them. This was proven on Thursday, 5th February when the company returned once again with a heavy contingent of police, mining engineers and security personnel with the purpose of demarcation of the limits of the mining company’s property. Sergio Sánchez, Manager of the Regional Government’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, also present, testified that the result of this demarcation only demonstrated that the house in construction was in fact within the limits of the family’s terrain.

Throughout the four years of the family’s ordeal, they have been converted into a symbol of the resistance for all those fighting the mining company. This further harassment of the family despite their court victory has caused great indignation amongst the local population and indeed amongst national and international solidarity networks.

Local organizations such as the Plataforma Interinstitucional Celendina (PIC) and the NGO GRUFIDES are appealing for support in the form of actions of solidarity, accompaniment, or donations. The family remains vulnerable and isolated and fears further attacks. Thursday 12th February will be World Solidarity Day with Máxima. Each organization, group or individual can elect their own form of showing their solidarity such as organising a demonstration or march, sending a video, photo, letter etc., or hold an awareness-raising or fundraising event. Please send information on actions of solidarity to congaconflict [at] gmail [dot] com.

Amnesty International has released an urgent action directed to Interior Minister Daniel Urresti:

Front Line Defenders have also released a letter that can be signed and sent to President Ollanta Humala:

For more information and donations: email congaconflict [at] gmail [dot] com or phone 0051 996179135