Bad Ass Peruvian Grandmother Who’s Standing Up to Big Mining
Maxima Acuña is not your typical activist. She stands around 4½ feet tall, and has never set foot inside of a school. She can neither read nor write, and has never been affiliated with any outside organization. However, the 47-year-old subsistence farmer and grandmother has been successfully resisting the largest multinational mining project in Peru for the past five years, standing up for indigenous communities across the region.
Over the past two decades, Peru has championed the runaway success of its mining industry while conveniently ignoring the poverty-stricken rural communities that now struggle with polluted waterways and loss of family land. In 2011, Máxima Acuña decided that she’d had enough. The 47-year-old grandmother may not look like a traditional activist, unable to even read or write, but for the past five years, she has single-handedly held up a massive mining operation that threatens indigenous communities throughout the region.
The struggle began in 2010 when Colorado-based Newmont Mining Corporation signed a deal with the Peruvian government to build a $5 billion gold and copper mine across 7,400 acres of land. When locals learned that the company planned to drain four of the region’s lakes to use as mineral depositories, violent clashes erupted that led the government to declare a state of emergency; the Conga mine project was even temporarily halted.
Once Acuña became involved, the development crawled to a complete standstill. It just so happens that the family farm she, her husband, and her children have lived off of for more than 20 years is located on a stretch of land that provides access to one of the four lakes Newmont needs to move the project forward. When approached to sell her land, Acuña refused.
Even after Newmont’s Peruvian subsidiary, Yanacocha, filed a lawsuit accusing her of illegally occupying the land, Acuña refused to back down. Though she was sentenced to a suspended prison sentence of three years and fined nearly $2,000 (not a small amount for a subsistence farmer in Peru), Acuña sought out help from a local environmental NGO and challenged the initial ruling in court. In December 2014, her sentence was overturned and her eviction from the land halted.
Since then, the Conga mine project has been unable to move forward. Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story. In the months since her victory, Yanacocha continues to threaten and harass her family. The company constructed a fence around her property to restrict her movements, destroyed her potato crops, and has even raided her house and attempted to illegally evict her. (In one incident, she reports that she and her daughter were both beaten and left unconscious. Her son, she says, was hospitalized from the attack.) The company continues to insist that the family is illegally squatting on the land and that the assaults are justified.
The legal battle continues to play out in Peru’s Supreme Court, but both the local community and international organizations have rallied behind Acuña to offer their support. This month, she was one of just six recipients of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, which honors grassroots environmental activists from around the world. Not only does the award give her cause international visibility, but the $175,000 prize will help level the playing field against the multinational corporation she’s up against.