Lady Of The Blue Lake, Peru’s Unlikely Environmental Hero

Maxima Acuna, an illiterate farmer in the northern Peruvian region of Cajamarca, faced years of litigation — and police beatings — to protect her property from the bulldozing and toxic dumping of a US-based mining firm.

Acuna, Lady Of The Blue Lake
Acuna, Lady Of The Blue Lake
Jesus Mesa

Máxima Acuña didn't set out to be a symbol of resistance. Nor did she seek the kind of international recognition that comes with winning a Goldman Environmental Prize, as she did last week. All she wanted to do was save her home and stop a pair of mining firms from turning her local lake into a toxic dump.

"I am poor and illiterate, but I know our lake and mountains are our real treasure. And I'll fight so that the Conga project doesn't destroy them," says Acuña, a Peruvian subsistence farmer who has engaged in a David vs. Goliath struggle against the Colorado-based Newport Mining Corporation and its Peruvian partner, Buenaventura.

The companies, through a joint venture called Yanacocha, have been looking to expand mining operations in Cajamarca, in northern Peru. Their Conga project, for which they were given concessions by the Peruvian government, called for draining four lakes to extract underlying gold reserves. One of the lakes was to be used as a waste storage pit.

There are plenty of examples of big economic interests riding roughshod over ordinary people in Peru, where mining has become a chief engine of "Chinese-style" economic growth in recent years. But in this particular case, the companies seem to have met their match in the diminutive Acuña and her family, who have won a series of legal actions.

Acuña told reporter Joseph Zárate that the fight began when, upon returning home after a stint away, she noticed that the country road leading to her house was being widened. She then learned that Yanacocha wanted to use the lake by her home, called Lago Azul (blue lake), to store mining waste. When Acuña inquired about the matter, company officials told her the land surrounding the lake belonged to them. "The Sorocucho community sold it years ago. Didn't you know?" she was told.

How was this possible, she thought, when she had bought the plot from a relative in 1994, and had documents to prove it. The firm didn't just dismiss Acuña; she says it also began to harass her. In May 2011, she returned home to find her cottage burned down. She filed charges against Yanacocha the next day, but that led nowhere for lack of evidence.

Blocking bulldozers

Later in the year, the harassment â€" this time at the hands of local police â€" intensified. She told the Peruvian website Ojo Público that on Aug. 8, 2011, police arrived and kicked over the pots and pans that were on the boil, telling the family they had to leave the plot. The next day, police and vigilantes returned and burned the house, again.

On Aug. 11, police came back in great numbers, outfitted in anti-riot gear and backed by a bulldozer. Yanacocha engineers were seen observing the scene at a distance behind. Police began to beat Acuña, her husband and sons, while their daughter stood in front of the bulldozer â€" Tiananmen-Square style. One of the officers hit the daughter, Jhilda, so hard she was knocked out. That's when the police finally decided to leave. But part of the violence was filmed and loaded onto YouTube.

Yanacocha flatly denied it was behind the incident. But as social media began spreading the news, people in Peru and abroad took an interest. The firm accused the Acuñas of squatting on its land. For thousands of people in Cajamarca, she became the "Lady of the Blue Lake."

The Acuñas went to court again over these incidents, and in 2015, an appeals court ruled that Acuña and her family had indeed bought the disputed plot in 1994, effectively rejecting the firm's claims that it owned that land since 1996 or 1997.

That is what it took to win just one battle in an ongoing war that spans much of Latin America, and pits ordinary folk on one side and persistent and shameless mining firms on the other. Hovering somewhere in the shadows, meanwhile, are conniving governments hoping to pocket some tax revenue without seeming like the bad guys.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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