I will never give up my land

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‘I will never give up my land’

In April 2016, Peruvian farmer Máxima Acuña won the Goldman Environmental Prize. She fought against the Newmont Mining Corporation, the world’s second-largest goldmining company, to protect the environment. This is her story.


© Roxana Olivera

I had no problems here before the mine. I have been poor all my life, but I always lived in peace.

I grew up in the mountains of Cajamarca. When I was a child I never had any toys and I never went to school. So I never learned how to read or write. I worked in the fields, helped around the house and took care of my deaf younger brother. In my spare time, I made hats and clothes for other children’s dolls.

As a teenager, I never went to the movies, to theatres or parties, or on any dates. I got married when I was 14. I had no choice. My husband Jaime was 16. He worked in agriculture. At first, I didn’t know what marriage was. My first baby died in childbirth. Then I had four more wonderful children – each time I was alone. They all went to school so they can read and write.

When my children were growing up, Jaime and I worked on other people’s lands. We often took care of animals: goats, sheep, horses, pigs and cattle for several farmers from our community. Sometimes they gave us a young animal. We grew roots and potatoes. We exchanged it for grains and fruits with people from the region. We usually kept half to eat and sold the other half. That’s how our local economy worked then.

In 1994, we bought 27 hectares of land from my husband’s uncle in Tragadero Grande. We sold everything we had (a bull, a young horse, and some sheep and other animals) to build a small hut there. For many years, my family and I had a peaceful life here. We live high in the mountains near a beautiful lake called Laguna Azul. We got our drinking water and our life from the lake.

But, in May 2011, the mining company, Minera Yanacocha came. They wanted to destroy our lakes and mountains and steal the land that my husband and I had bought with a lot of hard work. They wanted us to leave so they could build the Conga Mine, a huge open-pit goldmine [part-owned by US giant Newmont]. Where in the world are lakes for sale?

One day, a team of engineers from Yanacocha, with private security guards and police, came to make us leave our land. They said the land was not legally ours.

I showed them our legal paper for the land, but they didn’t care. They destroyed the fences and our home. I went to the Celendin police station to complain, but they told me to go away.

On 9 August 2011, Yanacocha’s engineers came back with heavy machinery and many riot police and soldiers. My youngest daughter tried to stop them destroying our house. She knelt down in front of one of the bulldozers. They kicked us all over our bodies. They beat my daughter and me. They left us lying unconscious on the ground. Then, the police pointed their machine guns at the heads of my husband and youngest son. My eldest daughter recorded all this with her mobile phone.

They destroyed our new hut. They took everything we had: our beds, our clothes, our cooking pots, even our food.

We told the authorities at the Celendin district attorney’s office, but they did nothing. We were desperate for justice, so we asked Mirtha Vásquez from [non-governmental organization] Grufides to help us. She agreed and became our lawyer.

Then, Yanacocha told lies about us and took us to court. The court found us guilty of illegally living on our own land! I was given a [suspended three-year] prison sentence, and ordered to pay money to Yanacocha. And the judge ordered us to leave our own land in 30 days.

But our lawyer kept fighting for us. In December 2014, the courts agreed that we were right. When I heard about it, I thanked God for listening to our prayers.

But now, Yanacocha is taking the case to the [Peruvian] Supreme Court. Yanacocha has built a fence around our land and a watch-tower with guards to check who comes and goes. Security guards from Securitas working for the mine destroyed all our potato crops, killed our animals and destroyed the support for the roof of our house. They don’t let us enter or leave our property. They have said they will kill us. This is the mining company, with the support of the police.

When I won the Goldman Prize, I was surprised that I wasn’t the only one having problems with a mine. There are so many people in other countries with similar problems. A woman was killed in Honduras for defending the land of her indigenous community. I dedicate this prize to them, and I hope that it will help more people to protect our environment, to defend our lakes, to defend our human rights, and to let the world know about all the lies of development and progress that these companies tell so they can steal our land. I will never give in to Yanacocha, and I will never give up my land! No-one should!

Maxima told this story to Roxana Olivera, a journalist in Toronto.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: https://www.newint.org/features/2016/07/01/interview-maxima-acuna/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).