Peruvian campesina (subsistance farmer) Máxima Acuña, who has endured beatings and jail while defending her land against a massive gold-mining project, has been awarded The 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize for South and Central America.
Over the past five years Acuña, a mother of four and grandmother, has campaigned ceaselessly to be able to remain living on her 60-acre plot of land in Tragadero Grande, in the highlands of Northern Peru.
In 2010, mining companies Newmont (US) and Buenaventura (Peru) sought to expand operations from the Yanacocha project, one of the largest and most profitable open-pit gold and copper mines in the country.
The new Conga Mine project, which was approved by the Peruvian government, would involve draining local lakes to mine for gold and create space to dump toxic mining waste.
Environmentalists feared the mine could potentially poison local water sources, damaging local ecosystems and local biodiversity in turn, and likewise displacing communities dependent upon the lifeblood of the land.
In 2011, representatives of the mining company came to the Acuña household, near one of the lakes in question called Laguna Azul, urging them to leave their land to make way for mining operations. After refusing to do so, Acuña met a ferocious backlash, as armed personnel destroyed her home, her possessions, and beat her and her family severely.
The company then took Acuña to a provincial court, where she was charged with illegally squatting and given a suspended prison sentence of nearly three years. She was also fined US$2,000.
“The police beat us and the company mistreats us but the politicians always take the company’s side. Newmont should just leave Peru”, ruminates Acuña in the face of ordeal.
With support from a local NGO, Acuña appealed her ruling and eventually, in December 2014 the court overturned Acura’s sentence and her annulled her eviction. This decision has meant the mining companies involved have been unable to proceed with any extraction around Laguna Azul.
According to Goldman, Acuña continues to suffer from harassment and threats from the mining company and its armed guards. Her dog had its neck slit open but survived its ordeal. The company has also constructed a fence around Acuña’s property in what it purports to be a result of several unrelated incidents of theft.
“What’s happened too is that the company has put up these wire fences around the land, so they have us in their corrals—as if we’re in prison there—and so we don’t feel safe,” says Acuña.
In the interim, the legal disputes continue in the Peruvian Supreme Court, with more appeals and lawsuits likely.
According to Goldman, Acuña is now know around Latin America for her “inspirational courage in standing up against a multinational mining company… 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.”
The government-backed advance of mining in Peru’s Andean region has sparked widespread protests and conflicts, as locals say they were not consulted when licenses were approved. Following her prize, the world’s most prestigious environmental award, Acuña says it proves “humble people and farmers are able to fight for our rights and prevail.”
However, it remains a dangerous pursuit. At least 61 activists have been killed in Peru over the last decade, with almost 80% of deaths related to mining, according to human rights NGO Global Witness.
The mining companies at the centre of the dispute have levelled criticised at the decision to award Acuña the prize, stating the committee did not receive “balanced or complete information about the land dispute or the events surrounding it”.
The Goldman prize, the world’s most prestigious environmental award, was created in 1990 by a married couple and philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman. Last year’s winner was Berta Cáceres, the Honduran activist who successfully blocked the construction of a hydroelectric plant. Cáceres was murdered last month