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.
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.
Later in the year, the harassment — this time at the hands of local police — 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 — 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.