Maxima Acuna-winner-Goldman Environmental Prize

In a David-and-Goliath battle, community activists in Peru have, so far, succeeded in shutting down the creation of a $5 billion open-caste gold and copper mine next to a pristine lake.

The story of Maxima Acuña – a farmer who owns a 60-acre plot of land on the exact site where the  giant Newmont Mining Corporation has pursued a land grab, is a reminder that even the world’s largest companies can be held in check by activists.

The mother of four was awarded one of six prestigious Goldman Environment prizes this year for leading the fight. Here is part of her story:

With promises of jobs and economic prosperity, the Peruvian government awarded mining licenses across the country. Despite these promises, rural peasant farmers, who were rarely consulted in the development of mining projects, largely continue to live in poverty. In many communities, mining waste has polluted the local waterways, affecting local people’s drinking water and irrigation needs.

The plans for Conga Mine called for draining four nearby lakes. One of these would be turned into a waste storage pit, threatening the headwaters of five watersheds and an entire ecosystem of high-altitude biologically diverse wetland.

Maxima and her husband had built a small house on the their property and lived a peaceful life raising their children. The family lived off the potatoes and other crops they grew, and kept sheep and cows for milk and cheese. Occasionally, she made the long trek into town to sell vegetables, dairy, and woolen handicrafts. Acuña never learned to read or write, but she understood that the land was her lifeblood.

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When the mining company tried to throw her off the land, and sued her, Acuña sought legal help from GRUFIDES, an environmental NGO in Cajamarca that was representing local community members in cases against mining companies. With help from her attorney, Mirtha Vásquez, she appealed the ruling and began gathering documents such as her land title that proved she held legitimate property rights to the land claimed by Newmont.

In December 2014, the courts ruled in Acuña’s favor. A previous prison sentence was overturned and the court halted her eviction. As a result of this legal victory, the Conga mine has been kept out of Tragadero Grande. Newmont has been unable to move forward with any mining in the area around Laguna Azul.

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Despite the trauma and exhaustion, Acuña maintains a remarkable sense of optimism in her continued fight for justice. 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.

You can read more about her in this recent article the Guardian.
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