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Maxima Acuña, one of this year’s six winners of the Goldman Environmental Awards, is doing what many are across the world: protecting the land, water, the rivers and streams from resource extraction.
Acuña’s fight in defending the earth against multinational corporations intent on raping the land is no light task.
Just last month, Berta Caceres—an indigenous Lenca woman of Honduras and 2015 Goldman Award winner—was assassinated for standing up against such powers.
When Acuña got up to accept her award on April 18, she sang her story in oral tradition, an achingly vivid description of the destruction of her home, her belongings and the violence she and her family have faced.
Acuña, a 47-year-old mother and grandmother, standing tall at 4’ 11’’, has been a giant in the fight against the Conga open-pit gold mining project. She has become the voice of the movement to stop the mine.
She and her husband bought land in 1994 in Tragadero Grande, the region of Cajamarca next to the Blue Lagoon of Celendin in Peru’s Andean highlands. This area landed in the sights of the Denver, Colorado-based Newmont Mining Corporation, after the Peruvian government granted them a 7,400-acre concession to build the mine—disregarding that Acuña owned land in that area.
Her land is key because it would provide access to her beloved Laguna Azul, one of four lakes that Newmont plans to drain and convert into “tailings,” ponds to collect toxic mining byproducts such as cyanide and arsenic.
Newmont, along with Peruvian mining company Buenaventura, owns and operates the Yanacocha Mine in northern Peru. Almost half of the regions land has been given away in mining concessions.
“Yanacocha mine is Latin America’s second largest open pit mine—and the world’s most profitable. The mine has destroyed our water sources and drained our lakes,” said community organizer Milton Sánchez. “Our water has turned orange and there is cadmium, lead and arsenic.”
Acuña is determined not to let that happen to Laguna Azul. Mining companies tried to bully her by saying she didn’t really own the land. When she presented a deed, they destroyed her home—twice—and harassed and threatened her. They also took her to court, accusing her of being a squatter on her own land.
“They came and asked me to sell my land, but that’s an absurd idea. I will never sell it,” said Acuña in her Goldman interview. “I stepped out with the title to my land and I said: ‘Gentlemen, there are no grounds to kick me out. My husband and I bought this land with the sweat off our backs.’ I was attacked by the police and the company security team.”
Ultimately she won the case, but now she says things are worse.
“They ruled in our favor and I thought the conflict was finally over, but things are worse because they won’t leave us alone, not for one second. My house is surrounded and they even built a fence around it,” she said.
Newmont may appeal the regional court’s decision in the Peruvian Supreme Court in order to move forward with the mine. For the time being, Acuña has managed to block the construction of the Conga Mine in a region of Peru where half of all land has been granted to extraction projects.
Acuña faces continued threats and lives in constant vigilance due to threats to “make her disappear” and to the imposing presence of Yanacocha and their workers. Despite the fact that Acuña and her family have been granted protective measures (“medidads cautelares”) by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, the state has taken no action to secure the family.
Even in the face of such threats, Acuña said she will never back down. The fight, she said in a press conference, is “for the youth, to understand why we fight and why we are confronting these large corporations. So they will know that ‘yes, we can defend our lives— for our children and for our future generations.’”
“I will never kneel before Yonacocha,” said Acuña. “I will never give up.”