The Lady of the Lake Vs the Black Lagoon

When an unstoppable mining giant meets an immovable peasant woman: how the Peruvian arm of Denver’s Newmont Mining ground to a halt when it came face to face with Maxima Acuna. From Etiqueta Verde’s Joseph Zarate, an extraordinary profile of a woman and her attachment to her land; a place whose beauty and abundance must be destroyed to dig up a few grains of the yellow metal that lies beneath it:

One morning in January 2015, with the objective of building a foundation for a house, Maxima Acuna Atalaya was chipping rock from a hillside with the hard, sure chops of a lumberjack. Acuna is less than five feet tall, but she can carry rocks twice her weight, and butcher a 220-pound ram in minutes. When she visits the city of Cajamarca, the capital of Peru’s northern mountainous region where she lives, she is afraid of being run over by the cars, but on the other hand, she will face down a moving backhoe to defend her land, the only land around with enough water for her crops. She never learned to read or write, but since 2011 she has stopped a gold mining company from removing her from her home. For peasant farmers, human rights activists and environmentalists, Maxima Acuna is an example of courage and resistance. For those to whom the progress of the country depends on the exploitation of natural resources, Maxima Acuna is a stubborn, selfish peasant. Or worse, a woman looking to take money from a multi-million dollar company.

“They told me that under my land and under the lake there is a lot of gold,” says Maxima Acuna in her high-pitched voice, “That’s why they want me out of here.”

The lake is called Blue Lake, but now it looks grey. Here in the mountains of Cajamarca, at over 12,000 feet of elevation, a thick fog covers everything and dissolves the profile of things. There are no birds singing, no tall trees, no blue sky, no flowers, because almost all of them die in the cold that approaches freezing temperatures. All of them except for the roses and dahlies that Maxima Acuna wears stitched into the collar of her blouse. The mud, stone and corrugated metal house where she lives now, she says, is about to cave in from the rains. She needs to build a new house, although she does not know if she will get it done. Through the fog, several feet beyond her property, is Blue Lake, where a few years ago Maxima Acuna fished for trout with her husband and four kids. She fears that the mining company Yanacocha will take the land where she lives and turn Blue Lake into a slag pond for the some 500 million tons of chemical waste that would come out of a new mine.

In Quechua, Yanacocha means Black Lake. It is also the name of a lake that disappeared in the early ’90s to give way to an open pit gold mine, which at its height was considered the world’s biggest and most profitable. Under the lakes of Celendin, the province where Maxima Acuna and her family live, there is gold. To extract it, Yanacocha has designed a project called Conga which, according to economists and politicans, would carry Peru toward the First World: There would be more investment and because of that more jobs, modern schools and hospitals, gourmet restaurants, new hotel chains, skyscrapers and, as the Peruvian president announced, maybe even a subway in Lima. To get all that, however, Yanacocha says it will be necessary to dry up the lake located a bit over a thousand yards south of Maxima Acuna’s house, and turn it into a pit mine. Then, use two other lakes to deposit the waste. Blue Lake is one of those. If that happens, she says, she could lose everything her family has: the 60 acres brimming with Peruvian feather grass and other grasses fed by springs. The pines and Polylepis trees that provide firewood. The potatoes, olluco and fava beans in her garden. And, most of all, the water her family, five sheep and four cows drink. Unlike her neighbors who sold their land to the company, the Chaupe-Acuna family is the only one still living next to the future extraction site of the mining project: the heart of Conga. They say they will never leave.

“Some of the locals say it’s my fault they don’t have work, that mine is not running because of me,” Acuna says, “What am I supposed to do? Let them take my land and water?”

Maxima Acuna stops chipping away at the rock and dries the sweat from her forehead. Her fight with Yanacocha, she explains, began with the construcion of a road. One morning in 2010, Acuna woke up with a shooting pain in her abdomen. She an ovarian infection that kept her bedridden. Her kids rented a horse to take her to the shack she had inherited from her grandmother, in a village eight hours away, to convalesce. An uncle stayed to look after the farm. Three months later, when she was able to recover, she and her family returned home, but found something different in the landscape: The old dirt and gravel path that crossed part of her property was now a wide, flat road. Some workers from Yanacocha, her uncle told them, had come with steamrollers. Acuna went to make a complaint at their offices on the outskirts of Cajamarca. She insisted for days before an engineer met with her. She showed him her deed.

“That land belongs to the mine,” he said while he looked over the document, “The community of Sorochuco sold it years ago. You didn’t know that?”

Surprised and angry, the peasant farmer was left with only questions. How could it be true if she and her husband had bought the lot in 1994 from her husband’s uncle? How could she have raised other people’s cattle and milked cows for years to save that money? She had paid two bulls, each worth almost $100, to get that land. How could Yanacocha be the owner of the property at Tragadero Grande if she had a piece of paper in the her hand saying the opposite? That afternoon, the company’s engineer ushered her out of his office without giving any answers.

Six months later, in May 2011, days after her forty-first birthday, Maxima Acuna left early for a neighbor’s house to weave her a blanket from sheep’s wool. When she came back she found her home reduced to ashes. The pens for her guinea pigs were smashed. Her potato farm was destroyed. The rocks her husband Jaime Chaupe has gathered to build a new house were scattered about. Maxima Acuna filed a complaint against Yanacocha the following day, but the complaint was shelved for a lack of proof. The family built a temporary home. They tried to go on with their lives until August 2011. The story of what Yanacocha did to Maxima Acuna and her family that month is a sequence of abuses they are afraid will happen again.

On Monday, August 8, a policeman arrived at their shack and kicked over their pots where they were making breakfast. They told them they had to leave. They did not.

On Tuesday, August 9, a number of officers and security guards from the mine confiscated all their belongings, destroyed their home and set the rubble on fire.

On Wednesday, August 10, the family slept outside. They covered themselves in feather grass for warmth.

On Thursday, August 11, around 100 police officers with helmets, shields, clubs and rifles went to evict them. They also had a backhoe. Maxima Acuna’s youngest daughter, Jhilda Chaupe, kneeled in front of the machine to keep it from coming onto their property. While some officers tried to move her, others beat her mother and siblings. An officer hit Jhilda in the nape of the neck with the butt of a rifle. She fainted and the squadron, frightened, retreated. Ysidora Chaupe, the eldest daughter, filmed the rest of the scene with a cell phone camera. The video lasts a couple minutes, and can be seen on YouTube: her mother yelling, her sister unconcsious on the ground, the Yanacocha engineers looking on from a distance, standing next to their trucks, the police about ready to leave. That day was the coldest of the year in Cajamarca, meteorologists confirm. The family spent the night outside with temperatures at 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

The mining company has denied these accusations time and time again in court and to journalists. They ask for proof. Maxima Acuna only has medical records and pictures that register the bruises they left on her arms and knees. That day, the police wrote a report that accuses the family of having attacked eight officers with sticks, rocks and machetes, but at the same time recognizes that they did not have the right to evict them without permission from the attorney general.

“Have you ever heard of selling a lake?” Maxima Acuna asks while she lifts a heavy rock with her hands, “Or selling rivers, or a selling a spring and blocking it off?”

After the media broadcast her case, Maxima Acuna won followers in Peru and beyond, but also skeptics and enemies. To Yanacocha, she is usurper of land. For thousands of peasant farmers and environmental activists she is the The Lady of the Blue Lake, as they started to call when word of her restistance got out. The David and Goliath metaphor became irresistible: It was the word of one woman against Latin America’s most powerful gold mining company. But what was really at play involved everyone: Maxima Acuna’s case directly confronts the various visions of what we call progress.

Maxima Atalaya. Photo, Antonio Sorrentino / Phoss / EV

Maxima Acuna. Photo, Antonio Sorrentino / Phoss / EV

Except for the steel pots in her kitchen and the platinum tooth she shows off when she smiles, Maxima Acuna does not own any valuable metal objects. No rings, no bracelets, no necklaces. Not false or precious metals. It is hard for her to understand the fascination that people feel for gold. No other mineral has seduced and deranged the human imagination like the glitter of the metal with the chemical symbol Au. A look at any history book is enough to confirm that the desire to possess it has started wars and conquests, has fortified empires and has leveled mountains and forests. Today, gold shares our lives, from our dental crowns to components for our cell phones and laptops, from coins and trophies to gold bars stored in bank vaults. Gold is not essential for any living being. It functions, above all, as a way to feed our vanity and our illusions of security: around 70 percent of the gold extracted in the world is turned into jewelry, while 30 percent is used as financial reserves. Its main virtues –that it does not rust, lose its shine or deteriorate with time — make it the one of the most coveted metals. The problem is that there is less and less gold available to dig.

From the time we are young we have imagined that gold is being extracted by the ton, with hundreds of trucks hauling gold bars to bank vaults, but the mineral is actually scarce. If we could gather all the gold mined throughout history and melt it down, it would barely fill two Olympic sized swimming pools. [Ed. Note: the pools would have to be some 10 meters deep!] However, to get an ounce of gold — enough to make a wedding ring — 40 tons of earth must be extracted, enough to fill 30 moving trucks. The world’s richest deposits are running out and it is getting more difficult to find new veins. Almost all of the mineral that is left to be extracted — a third swimming pool — is buried in tiny quantities under inhospitable mountains and lakes. The landscape that remains after extraction reveals a stark contrast: While the mining companies leave holes so enormous they can be seen from space, the particles of gold they are mining are so small that up to 200 of them can fit on a pinhead. One of the last gold reserves in the world is below Cajamarca’s hills and lakes, in Peru’s northern mountains, where Yanacocha has been operating since the end of the 20th century.

Peru is the top gold exporter in the Latin America and the number six in the world, trailing China, Australia and the United States. This owes, in part, to the gold reserves in the country and the presence of transnational companies like Newmont, the colossus from Denver, possibly the richest mining company in the world and owner of a majority share of stock in Yanacocha. In a single day, Yanacocha excavates some 500,000 tons of earth and rock, a weight equivalent to 500 Boeing 747s. Entire mountains disappear in weeks. At the end of 2014, an ounce of gold cost around 1200 dollars. To extract that quantity, necessary to make a pair of earrings, nearly 20 tons or waste in chemical remains and heavy metals are produced. This waste is toxic for a reason: Cyanide must be dumped on the earth to extract the metal. Cyanide is a deadly poison. A quantity the size of a grain of rice is enough to kill a human being, and a millionth of a gram dissolved in a liter of water can kill dozens of fish in a river. Yanacocha insists the cyanide stays in the mine and is treated with the highest standards of security. Many residents of Cajamarca believe these chemical processes are not so clean. To prove their fears are not absurd or anti-mining, they tell the story of Hualgayoc, a mining province where the water in two rivers flows red and no one bathes anymore. Or story of San Andres de Negritos, where a lake that supplied the community was contaminated from waste oil seeping out of the mine. Or the story of town of Choropampa, where a truck transporting mercury spilled its poison on accident and intoxicated hundreds of families. As an economic activity, a certain kind of mineral exploitation is inevitable and necessary to live the life we lead. However, mining, even with the most advanced technology, is considered the dirtiest industry in the world. For Yanacocha, which already has antecedents in Peru, scrubbing their image of environmental errors may be a harder task than reviving the trout from a contaminated lake.

The rejection of the communities worries investors in mining, but as much as the possibility of diminishing profits. According to Yanacocha, they only have gold reserves in their active mines for four more years. The Conga project — which would be almost as big as a quarter of Lima — would let them stay in business. Yanacocha explains that it will have to dessicate four lakes, but that it will construct four reservoirs to be fed by rainwater. According to an environmental impact statement, it will be enough to supply the 40,000 people who drink from the rivers flowing from these sources. The mine would extract gold over 19 years, but promises to employ some 10,000 people and invest almost five billion dollars which it will give to the country in taxes. This is their offer. Businessmen would have dividends and Peru would have more funds to invest in public works and jobs; a promise of prosperity for everyone.

But just like there are politicians and leaders of public opinion who support the project for economic purposes, there are also engineers and environmentalists who oppose it for public health reasons. Water management experts like Robert Moran of the University of Texas and Peter Koenig, a former World Bank employee, explain that the 20 lakes and 600 springs that exist in the area of the Conga project form an interconnected water system, a kind of circulatory system created over millions of years that feeds the rivers and waters the prairies. Damaging these four lakes, the experts say, would affect the entire ensemble. Contrary to other parts of the Andes, the mountains in northern Peru — where Maxima Acuna lives — there are not glaciers that hold enough water for the inhabitants. The lakes in these mountains act as natural reservoirs. The dark soil and grass function as a kind of extensive sponge that absorbs rain and moisture from fog. The springs and rivers are born from this. More than 80 percent of Peru’s water is dedicated to agriculture. In Cajamarca’s central valley, according to a 2010 report by the Agricultural Ministry, the amount of water used for mining that year was almost half of what the inhabitants used in the same period. Today, thousands of farmers and ranchers fear that gold mining will contaminate the only water sources they have.

In Cajamarca and other provinces involved in the project, the walls along streets are painted with graffiti: “Conga won’t go through,” “Water yes, gold no”. In 2012, a year of tense protests against Yanacocha, the pollster Apoyo announced that 8 out of 10 people in Cajamarca were against the project. In Lima, where Peru’s political decisions are made, the bonanza is creating a mirage in which the country keeps filling its pockets with money. But that will only be possible if Conga goes through. If it does not, some leaders in public opinion warn, there will be a catastrophe. “If Conga does not go through, we will be shooting ourselves in the foot”, the former economic minister Pedro Pablo Kuczynski wrote in a column. For businesspeople, Conga would be a life raft, a milestone marking before and after. For peasant farmers like Maxima Acuna, it would also mean a departure: Their lives will not be the same if they lose their most valuable resource. There are those who say Maxima Acuna’s case is being used by anti-mining groups to oppose the country’s development. However, for some time now the local news stories have been tarnishing the optimism of those who want investment at all costs: Up until February 2015, an average of seven out of 10 social conflicts in Peru have been caused by mining activity, according to the public defender’s office. In the last three years, one out of every four residents in Cajamarca has lost their job. According to official statistics, Cajamarca produces the most gold in the country but also has the most people living below the poverty line.

 

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If someone attempted to visit Maxima Acuna, it is possible they could be stopped by a metal gate. It is a four-hour trip by truck from Cajarmarca, traveling through valleys, hills and over abysses to the shores of Blue Lake. It would not be so complicated if it were not for guard station set up by Conga mining project. If you are from Lima or outside the country, they will not let you in. If you say you are going to visit Maxima Acuna you will be stopped, unless you have a television camera running. “That woman has problems with the mine,” the guard will say to you, with his orange vest and walkie-talkie in hand. He will then make you get out of the vehicle and will write your name down in a little book and you will tell him that it is a public road and he will repeat that this road, sir, is only for locals. If you insist, he will call the police who patrol in a truck that belongs to the mining company. “It’s private property,” the police will say. Then maybe you pay your driver who got you there a little more to take a detour and travel two hours to Santa Rosa, the closest community to the Chuape-Acuna residence. You will arrive at night. In exchange for money, the peasant farmer will agree to take you by motorbike along a stretch of road full of potholes to close to the guard station. Then you will have to get off the motorbike and cross a hill, ducking in the dark so the guards from Yanacocha cannot see you. All around is mud and grass and fog. Some dogs will bark. You turn on your flashlight to make out the house. Walking around there at night is like being blind.

“We are living like hostages here,” Maxima Acuna said the night I met her, while she poked at coals to heat up a pot of soup, “We can’t go far. We can’t have visitors. We can’t walk around freely. It’s very sad to live the way I’m living.”

Maxima Atalaya. Photo, Antonio Sorrentino / Phoss / EV

Maxima Acuna. Photo, Antonio Sorrentino / Phoss / EV

Three decades before turning into the Lady of the Blue Lake, Maxima Acuna was a girl who was horrified of police officers. Every time she saw one of the streets of her village, she would cry and grab her mother’s skirt. These men dressed in green uniforms and dusty boots scared her. Maxima, the third of four siblings, was very shy. When visitors stopped by their home in Amarchucha, 45 miles north of Cajamarca, she would hide. She did not have friends. She did not play with dolls, but she did like making clothes for the newborns in the neighborhood. Her body changed with the years but her personality did not. She did not go out to parties. She did not talk to boys. “In reality, she didn’t talk to anyone and she was very stubborn,” recalls her husband Jaime Chaupe, who got married to her when she was 18, after courting her for four years. She spend her days knitting hats or cleaning the corrals for the guinea pigs or gathering wood and helping her mom on the farm. Her father died when she was girl and she never went to school. She wanted to grow quickly so she could get to work, have her own farm and buy herself shoes. If one day she had kids, she did not want them to go barefoot like her.

Maxima Acuna says she discovered she had courage when she saw the police beating her family in the first confrontation with Yanacocha. During the early years of her marriage, her husband’s family shunned her for being illiterate. That is why she was always very severe, even physical, with her children if they did not study. Over almost five years of trials, appeals and court dates she has had since they tried to remove her from Tragadero Grande, she has learned what she does not want. She decided, for example, that she never wanted to live in a city. The first time she went to Cajamarca to file a complaint for the destruction of her first shack, she was almost run over twice because she did not know what a red light meant. She discovered that the emissions from cars made her break out, that the noodles in the restaurants tasted disgusting to her, that she hates olives and that she cannot go out alone because she always gets lost. She also discovered she can express herself through song. Maxima Acuna likes singing. In the marches with the other peasant farmers and activists, someone also gets her to improvise a yaravi — a sad Andean song — that tells about her struggle. When she started her fight against Yanacocha, she also discovered her name: She had always gone by Maximina, what her mom called her, until her lawyer read her documentation and told her her real name was Maxima; there was no diminutive ending on Maxima.

 

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One day, before getting on a plane for bound for Geneva to give a speech the United Nations, Rocio Silva Santisteban, executive secretary for Peru’s human rights coordinator, recalls that she spent the afternoon with (Maxima Acuna) in her apartment in Miraflores. Silva Santisteban says that when they went for a walk along the waterfront, Maxima looked at everything with curiousity. She had never seen such tall buidlings, or crossed such brightly-lit avenues. She had never seen the sea at night from that distance. But what most intriguied her was how people in Lima carried water to the top floors of their apartments.

Before turning into an anti-mining icon, Maxima Acuna’s palms would start sweating and she would get nervous when she talked to authority figures. It was hard for her to defend herself in front a judge. After they tried to kick her out in 2011, Yanacocha accused the Chaupe-Acuan family of aggravated usurpation. According to the company’s lawyers, the family had taken over the land after attacking police and private security guards. The family was obligated to go to hearings — first in Celendin, the province where they live, and later in Cajamarca — but they did not have money for transportation. The couple had to get up at dawn and walk eight hours to the community of Sorochuco to take a bus to the courthouse. When they finally got there, the judges usually postponed the sessions because the Yanacocha representatives could not attend. In Cajamarca, Maxima Acuna’s four children were on guard. They live together in a rented room behind a carpentry shop. There they eat, study and sleep. They say they move every once in a while for a safety. One night, two men in ski masks threatened Ysidora Chaupe’s life while she was leaving the university where she studies accounting. Daniel Chaupe, the younger brother, who got sick after police hit him in the chest, was turned down for a job at a hardware store for being the son of an ‘anti-mining activist’. Meanwhile, in Tragadero Grande, Maxima Acuna and her husband claim they have suffered attacks from the company. They say company trucks sometimes parked across from their property up to six times a day. The guards took pictures and watched the family. One day, Maxima says, a company vehicle ran over two calves and stole two more. In another incident, they killed Mickey, the dog that look after the sheep and barked whenever anything came close to the land. They say they have heard gunshots on some nights. Everyone in the family says that. They would like to have a way to prove it.

In court in Celendin, the Chaupe-Acunas lost two trials. They were sentenced to nearly three years in prison and a fine of $2,000 in reparations to the mine. They had to leave the land they had ‘invaded.’ Mirtha Vasquez, Maxima Acuna’s lawyer, explains that the judges and attorneys did not take into account the proof that the family presented, like their title to the land and testimonies from relatives saying they had bought the land. The defense for the Chaupe-Acunas appealed to the Supreme Court in Cajamarca and started a new trial. During those months, with the support of the international community, Maxima Acuna and her older daughter traveled to Europe to tell their story outside the country. In Switzerland — Peru’s biggest buyer of gold — she spoke with an official from the UN’s high commission. In France, she met with representatives from the metal workers union and a senator who months later went to visit her in Peru. In Belgium, during a forum on human rights, they told her about other women who had similar stories. Yolando Oqueli, Guatemala: mother of two, shot at several times for leading peaceful protests against a mining project that would encroach on two rural communities. Carmen Benavides, Bolivia: threatened for fighting an industrial mine that is contaminating a river where her people live. Francia Marquez, Colombia: persecuted by paramilitaries who want to install a large-scale gold mine in her village. Francisca Chuchuca, Ecuador: accused for opposing a mining project that would contaminate two rivers that provide water for half a million peasant farmers. Between 2012 and 2013, Latin American Union of Women recorded 100 attacks on women protecting land and water across the continent. They accuse of them opposing progress.

Maxima Acuna, however, is different than all of them: She is not an activist, nor does she have aspirations of being a leader. “I just want them to let me live in peace on my land and for them not to contaminate my water,” she has said. Without setting out to do it, the woman who was chosen by the Latin American Union of Women as the Advocate of the Year in 2014 has gone from being a shy mother to an inspiration for those who are fighting to stay on their land. “She is one of the few people who has not sold out to the mine,” says Milton Sanchez, secretary for Celendin’s Inter-Institutional Platform, who has spent several nights at Tragadero Grande with advocates defending the lakes. Gladys Rondon, executive director for the Latin American Foundation for Monitoring Mining Activity and Maxima Acuna’s interpreter on her trip to Europe, says other activists who have a prepared discourse, while is Peruvian friend is more personal and intimate. “There are more Maximas in the world,” Rondon says. In 2003, an Argentine businessman accused Jose Luis Godoy of stealing the land he had lived on for six decades–and where he had his red granite quarries. In 2011, the police burned the home of Ecuadorian Alfredo Zambrano so he would leave the patch of tropical jungle where he lived and the government could build a dam. In 2012, hitmen took out the eyes of the son of Venezuelan Carmen Fernandez, who opposed that her people’s land be used for coal mining. In 2014, Nicaraguan Fredy Orozco was accused of being a guerrilla for not letting police remove him from his farmland to build a canal. Like Maxima Acuna, all of them have been accused of sacrificing the progress of the nations in favor of their own personal benefit, of victimizing themselves in the media to take advantage of companies, or being used by people and organizations who are out for their own interests.

“Everyone who questions the mines and is an ally of those who defend the land and water will be attacked,” says the activists and former priest Marco Arana, whom Yanacocha has filed criminal complaints against several time, “They call Maxima a landowner, and they call us terrorists.”

Maxima Acuna explains that she only wants to save the one life that she knows and belongs to her: growing potatoes, milking cows, knitting blankets, drinking water from the springs and fishing for trout in Blue Lake with a guard telling her it is “private land”. She would rather not have to fight to maintain her lifestyle, she says. That is why when she is asked to tell what the mining company has done, sometimes she refuses. She says that during meetings in Europe she repeated her story ten times a day. She ended up so fed up and depressed that she could not do anything but sleep when she got to her hotel.

Back in Lima after that trip, her health failed. For two months, amidst uncertainities in the legal process, she suffered dizziness, headaches and fainting spells. Rocio Silva Santisteban took her to the doctor. The diagnosis: severe stress, aggravated by menopause. She had to rest. They prescribed her sleeping pills and hormones. She went to a therapist. She stopped giving interviews. While Maxima Acuna gathered strength for her third trial in Cajamarca, Yanacocha expanded their team of lawyers to six and hired Arsenio Ore Guardia, an eminence of the country’s penal code and an adviser to other powerful mining companies like Barrick and Doe Run. The lawyer Mirtha Vasquez admits that she was intimidated by being in court with Ore Guardia, the author of books that she had studied obsessively in school. They had already lost two decisions, and now they were running the risk of losing a third against the master of law. Vasquez met with the Chaupe-Acuna family in her office. She wanted to be sincere: The upcoming decision, she told them, was their last chance to win. If they lost they would have to consider the possibility of going to live somewhere else. If they stayed their lives would be at risk. Maxima Acuna told them she would stay and die there.

Maxima Atalaya. Photo, Antonio Sorrentino / Phoss / EV

Maxima Acuna. Photo, Antonio Sorrentino / Phoss / EV

Towards the end of 2014, Cajamarca’s supreme court declared that the Chaupe-Acunas were innocent of the alleged illegal occupation of Tragadero Grande. After the ruling, Maxima Acuna thought Yanacocha would stop trying to run her off the property. To build her new house, she chose a knoll protected by a hill about about 600 feet from her old house, which was about to collapse from the rains. She and family dug ditches, collected rocks for the foundation and started to make walls from mud. But a few weeks after they had placed the first rocks, security guards and laborers for Yanacocha entered their land with picks and shovels and destroyed the foundation. Maxima Acuna, her husband and two kids who were helping build the walls, tried to defend it with rocks. The security guards chased them off with clubs. That afternoon, Yanacocha put out a video of what had happened. They said the place where the family was building was not on the land discussed in court and they had acted in defense of their land. Maxima Acuna’s lawyer refuted Yanacocha: The court ruling, she explained, involved all of the land in Tragadero Grande. It was, she said, an act of intimidation. The police in Cajamarca — which has an agreement to provide security for the mine — did not intervene. There was only a group of officers next to the road, observing from afar while Yanacocha dismantled in minutes what the Chaupe-Acunas had built.

 

 

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Some of the offices at Yanacocha’s headquarters in Lima have names like El Perol, Mamacocha, Chailhuagon, Azul. They are names of some of the lakes that could disappear from gold mining at Conga. The chemist Raul Farfan is the director of external relations for the company and his dispatch is next to one of these offices. He is a young man with slicked back hair and alert eyes who had me over to his apartment in Chicarilla, a residential part of Lima. His job is, among other things, to promote good relations the mining company and the communities. He, who has dedicated half of his life to issues of social responsibility in companies like Shell, Antamina and Xtrata said he understood the reasons why people distrusted Yanacocha — “It’s normal that in these cases we feel sympathy for the weakest” — but not everything the family had said was true.

“We didn’t destroy their house,” says Farfan, who had been at the job for ten months, “We only removed the foundation of the new construction so they would not keep invading our land.”

To explain the reasons for this decision, the chemist took out a map. On it were the two lots bought from the Sorochuco community in 1996 and 1997 for the Conga Mine. Amongst these purchases the Tragadero Grande property that Maxima Acuna’s family claims as their own would be included. The board of directors in Sorochuco signed the documents of sale. Samuel Chaupe, Maxima Acuna’s father-in-law, also signed and endorsed the land changing hands. In fact, Farfan said, there are satellite images that prove that the Chaupe-Acunas are liars when they say they have lived there since 1994: In those images there are neither shacks nor farms. According to the company, the family invaded this land recently, in 2011, when the conflict over Conga blew up. Yanacocha says the certificate of possession that Maxima Acuna displays is not a land title, that only the community of Sorochuco, which did have titles, could sell that land, and that is why they reported them and asked the police to remove them. That is their version of the story.

“With the construction of a new home, they are committing a new invasion,” said Farfan, “If you see a stranger building on your property, you have the right get rid of the foundation in the next 15 days. That’s what the law says. We’ve defended our position.”

Miguel Ayala, who was president of the Sorochuco community when they sold the first lots to the Conga project, says the company’s version is distorted.

“The company says the family has invaded the land, but how can that be if it was signed 15 years ago and gave the Chaupes the certificate of possession for their land?” The community is the witness for those who lived there even before they had certification.

Sitting in a corner at the store he has in Cajamarca, Ayala recalls that the Chaupe-Acunas would go to Sorochuco from Tragadero Grande to barter. The would bring potatoes and olluco and trade them for peas and corn that other community members like Ayala grew. High up in Celendin, Maxima Acuna lived next to her father-in-law, Samuel Chaupe, who sold his lot to mine and signed the document turning his land over to Yanacocha.

“Maxima and Jaime didn’t sign, “Ayala says, “Therefore, they didn’t sell their land.”

The dispute between the Maxima Acuna’s family and the mining company has also turned into an issue of numbers and geographical interpretation. In 2012, when the dispute had just begun, Carlos Cerdan, a civil engineer and expert for local government of Cajamarca, traveled to Tragadero Grande, the property in dispute. Cerdan, a skinny man with an angular nose and thick glasses, is an expert in maps. One morning, the specialist demarcated the exact property line using three GPS devices, an official map and the records from both parties. The study concludes that the lot aquired by the Chaupe-Acunas — over 60 acres — did not form part of the land bought by Yanacocha. Or only part of it, Cerdan explained to me, would fall within the company’s land, but not the entire parcel. This is because of a detail: Even though the property lines are clear on the documents on both sides, there are problems in calculations. It is all a jumble of numbers and papers that do not match reality. There are no accurate maps.

“But we all make mistakes,” the engineer said, “It could even be me who is wrong.”

The research done by the map expert was never considered at the trial. Both the defense for the Chaupe-Acunas and for Yanacocha have admitted that to resolve the dispute they would have to go to a civl court where each side could present their proof showing who is the owner. Even when this process has begun, Yanacocha will not let Maxima Acuna and her family build a new home.

“We want to avoid a systematic invasion of the land, of another family showing up and wanting to squat,” says Farfan, “We don’t want to set a precedent.”

The director of legal issues for the mine, lawyer Wilby Caceres, is more emphatic about his fears. According to him, anti-mining leaders have lived in the area where the Chaupe-Acunas are trying to build another house during protests against the Conga mine. “We’re worried the land will be taken over by them.” Even though other Yanacocha executives would not say it on record, there is an obvious reason: If Maxima Acuna and her family stay there, Conga will not move forward.

Maxima Atalaya with Jaime. Photo, Antonio Sorrentino / Phoss / EV

Maxima Acuna with Jaime. Photo, Antonio Sorrentino / Phoss / EV

The Lady of the Blue Lake is on her feet, watching her sheep graze on the prairie. A battery-powered radio hangs off her right shoulder, playing huaynos from a evangelical radio station called Tigre. A month has passed since she chiselled and hauled rocks on this hill, only now the earth she walks on is covered with a rubble of mud, straw and wet wood. These are the remains of the new house she was going to build. Next to them, a few feet away, Yanacocha has put up an extensive metal fence around a field to raise alpacas. Inside, there is a guard house directly facing Maxima Acuna’s house. She says one of the guards approached her husband a few days ago to offer him work. He said Yanacocha did not want to fight anymore.

“Now they want peace, they want to talk. Am I just a thing they think they can do anything with and nothing will happen?” complains Maxima Acuna, raising her voice in the middle of the prarie, “They have difamed me. They have beaten my children. Now they want to give me work. I would rather not have money. My land makes me happy, but money does not.”

Around that time, some media outlets broadcast the existence of other land deeds that showed the Chaupe-Acunas were the owners of another nine lots — almost 20 acres all together — in Sorochuco. This news was supposed to prove that the family occupied vacant land and appropriated it. Without subtlety, they presented Maxima Acuna as professional squatter. Ysidora Chaupe, the eldest daughter, remembers that after this news came out she received dozens of calls from people who supported their cause but wanted to know if they had other lots and why they had not mentioned it before.

“They have defamed us saying we have a house in Cajamarca, that my mom is a landowner, that she has worked at a restaurant in Lima, that she wants to get money from the mine,” Ysidora Chaupe told me while she breast fed her newborn, “But we don’t care if people don’t believe us. We have documents. We will declare everything in court.”

In the documents that Maxima Acuna has, those lots appear as an inheritance from her parents or purchases by her siblings, paid for with a sheep or a bull. They are dispersed lots, located on the sides of hills. Some have native grass, others firewood, corn or peas that can only be cultivated when it rains. It is estimated that, because of the difficulties presented, a peasant family in the mountains of Peru needs 32 hectares to produce what one hectare on the coast will produce. Tragadero Grande, says Maxima Acuna, is the only place she can live because of the abundant grassland, the space for lifestock and, most of all, because it is the only place with water sources: There are springs everywhere. Despite all this, some media outlets accuse her lawyer Mirtha Vasquez and the NGO Grufides of painting the Chaupe-Acuna family as victims. Vasquez says this is immoral and dishonest. The lawyer says they have even entered her home twice to break everything. She cannot say who they were for sure but she has her suspicions because they did not steal anything.

“They have to make us pay,” says Vasquez, who is also a university professor and the mother of two kids, “Yanacocha can’t forgive us for winning the trial. I fear for Maxima and her family. Sometimes I think this is costing us more than the value of 60 acre.”

Until March of 2015, Yanacoha had filed six more complaints of usurpation against the Chaupe-Acuna family. They have reported them for planting potatoes, for planting pines along the property line, for grazing their sheep on another part of the property, even for burning ichu to call on the rains, a tradition amongst peasant farmers in the area. Now there is a metal fence running along side their property, closing off the road to Sorochuco where they go to barter and buy food. The community members and activists that defend the lakes in Cajamarca are getting organized to build a house for the Chaupe-Acunas and set up guards to protect them. The regional president of Cajamarca, Porfirio Medina, has said that if something happens to her, “the people will fight all the necessary battles against the mining company”. Máxima Acuña only insists that the owner of Yanacocha must come to her in person to apologize for everything she has gone through.

“That is planted in me,” she says.

A heavy rain falls suddenly on Tragadero Grande. Maxima Acuna, wearing rubber boots, hastens her step to return home. A skinny white dog follows, barking at her incessantly.

“His name is Johnny,” says the peasant farmer, letting out an ironic laugh.

She says it is in honor of the Yanacocha security guard who burned her first house and who has the same name.

One of the last nights I spent in Tragadero Grande, days before they destroyed the foundation for the new home, the couple and I ate noodle soup, wrapped in blankets, sitting on mattresses. The security trucks for Yanacocha had parked in front of their property five times that day. One of the security guards — along with police with helmets, clubs and shields, but without identification — entered the property to take pictures and film what the couple was building.

“Something bad is going to happen. My coca leaf is bitter,” whispered the supersticious Jaime Chaupe as he chewed coca leaf and smoked a cigarette, “I don’t know. There are times that I want to get out of here.”

The rain beat down on the metal roofing like it wanted to break it.

“Don’t be intimidated,” said Maxima Acuna, “I’m not afraid of the police.”

Then she blew out the candle and went to bed with her husband.

Joseph Zarate Translated by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard