“Yes to Life! No to Gold!” Indigenous Communities in Peru Struggle to Defend Land From Mining
by Roxana Olivera
…in a remote corner of Peru’s northern highlands known as Tragadero Grande. It is situated in the district of Sorochuco, province of Celendin, department of Cajamarca. Set at 3,249 metres above sea level and against a backdrop of rolling mountains and natural water sheds, Tragadero Grande offers a breathtaking, colorful landscape. It looks a bit like Tuscany – but with potato fields and a few llamas. Acuña built a small shack atop one of those rolling mountains. And, like most campesinos – indigenous peasants – in her community, she, her husband and three children, have been, and still are, engaged in subsistence production as farmers and herders.
Sadly, beneath those majestic mountains, particularly beneath two of their pristine lakes, lie rich deposits of gold and copper, minerals that Minera Yanacocha is determined to extract at any price.
To do so, Minera Yanacocha – 51.35 per cent owned by US giant Newmont Mining Corporation, 43.65 per cent owned by Peru’s Compañia de Minas Buenaventura, while the World Bank holds the rest of the shares – has mounted an aggressive campaign to promote the development of the Minas Conga. Minas Conga will be an open-pit gold and copper mine in the heart of the region. Worth an estimated $4.8 billion, the project is slated to become the largest single investment in the country’s mining history, with an annual output of 580,000 to 680,000 ounces of gold and 155 million to 235 million pounds of copper during its first five years of operation. The total surface area of the proposed open pit is 2,000 hectares – 20 km2.
The proposed open-pit mine would destroy four mountain lakes while it also threatens to contaminate and deplete groundwater supplies in the high Andes region of Cajamarca. Two of the lakes would be drained for mining exploration and mineral extraction and the two others would be turned into tailings ponds for mining waste.
There are concerns that the contamination may even leach into the Marañon River, an important headwater of the Amazon. Needless to say, the mining project also threatens to endanger the health of the local indigenous communities.
Yet, Minera Yanacocha claims that the Minas Conga venture meets rigorous environmental standards, and it promises to build four water reservoirs to replace the mountain lakes. ‘Water management practices incorporated in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA),’ the company proclaims on its website, ‘were based on more than 10 years of hydrology and engineering studies conducted by respected independent firms.’
But the company has a questionable reputation in Cajamarca.
With a 19-year-history of mining operations in the region, it was responsible for a mercury spill that poisoned more than 1,200 villagers in the nearby community of Choropampa.
And, according to health records featured in a documentary film that is currently on the festival circuit, it appears that many workers at the nearby Yanacocha mine – the largest open-pit goldmine in Latin America and the second largest in the world – are suffering from severe mercury poisoning.
As for promises of greater benefits from gold extraction, it is noteworthy that after 19 years of mining activity in Cajamarca, the province has sunk from being the fourth poorest province in Peru to the second poorest.
Defending the real treasure
Fully aware of that dubious past, Máxima Acuña doesn’t buy into any of Minera Yanacocha’s public relations rhetoric on economic opportunities and corporate social responsibility.
As she puts it, ‘I may be poor. I may be illiterate, but I know that our mountain lakes are our real treasure. From them, I can get fresh and clean water for my children, for my husband and for my animals!’ She then adds, ‘Yet, are we expected to sacrifice our water and our land so that the Yanacocha people can take gold back to their country? Are we supposed to sit quietly and just let them poison our land and water?’
In spite of her valid property documents, and without being served an official eviction order, according to Acuña, Minera Yanacocha has made several attempts to forcibly remove her from her land.
In May 2011, she says, a team of mining engineers from Minera Yanacocha, along with private security guards and police, marched into her property, tore down fences, and dismantled her shack. She went to the Sorochuco police to report the incident, but, she says, they simply told her to go away.
On 9 August 2011, the mining engineers returned with heavy machinery to Acuña’s plot of land. They were escorted by a large contingent of Peruvian riot police and soldiers. On this occasion, they destroyed what was meant to be her new shack. They confiscated all of her possessions: her bed, her clothes, her cooking utensils, even her food – cooked and uncooked.
‘Then, they beat me and my daughter without compassion,’ Acuña recalls, her voice cracking. ‘And, the police had their machine guns pointed at the heads of my husband and small son.’
Máxima Acuña shows the bruising to her arms following the beating by the police in 2011.
She wipes tears off her face with her poncho. ‘These mining people have tried to kill us, and they have threatened to come back again to kill us,’ she whispers, looking at me intently. ‘I fear for my life, for the life of my husband, for the lives of my children and for the lives of the people in my community who defend us and our water.’
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