Is a corruption-free world sustainable

Máxima Acuña is a simple farmer from Peru. But it has been facing a powerful global corporation for years. Photo: HRffb / Maxima


Peruvian farmer fights against the world's largest gold producer

An 800 meter deep crater opens in the middle of dark green grassy hills and deep blue mountain lakes. Here, in the middle of the northern Peruvian highlands, the world's second largest gold mine digs like an upside-down pyramid into the otherwise almost untouched landscape. Gold has been mined here since 1993. Now that the Yanacocha mine is slowly running out of precious metal, it is to be expanded a few kilometers further. Shall more dark green hills be turned into light beige craters?

But there is an opponent. This opponent wears brightly colored cardigans and skirts, his long black hair dangling down his back in a plait. He has level-headed features and skin tanned from working in the open air, never went to school and yet takes on one of the largest mining companies in the world: Máxima. The 50-year-old lives with her family in a small hut in the hilly terrain that is to be turned into one of the largest mining projects in the world. She keeps sheep and chickens at 3,249 meters above sea level, grows potatoes and vegetables, weaves clothes and sells them at the market. She bought the land before the mining company came along. And she is determined to stay.

The Yanacocha mine in the Peruvian department of Cajamarca is one of the largest and most profitable gold mines in the world. Photo: hrffb / maxima

"If I give up, the country will turn into a desert," says Máxima Acuña in the documentary named after her that will be shown this week at the Human Rights Film Festival in Berlin. The film shows the farmer's fight for years against a global corporation, shows attempts at intimidation, court cases and award ceremonies. Shows how a woman who really only wants to grow her vegetables in peace becomes the figurehead of a fight that involves much more than 27 hectares of land. And stands symbolically for the countless environmentalists who fight all over the world for the preservation of their homeland and against large corporations. "Máxima represents the right that fundamental human rights take precedence over the economic interests of huge companies that want to dominate the market," says her lawyer Mirta Vásquez.

They have been mining for gold in Máxima's homeland since 1993. You are the American mining company Newmont Mining, the largest gold producer in the world. But the Peruvian Buenaventura and the World Bank also own part of the mine. The problem for the mine operators: Máxima's land lies exactly in the area that the company has earmarked for the expansion of the mine, for the so-called Conga project.

"They say the mountain lakes are filled with gold"says Máxima as she draws water from one of the crystal clear lakes. It is called Lago Azul, the blue lake. When all the gold has been squeezed out of it, poison waste will be stored there. The mountain lakes provide drinking water for the surrounding communities. The water in the nearby town of Cajamarca already has to be rationed. The region that should actually benefit from mining is now the poorest region in Peru.

Poison in the mountain lake, heavy metals in the blood

And one of the sickest: The mortality rate among mine workers is high, many residents of the region have heavy metals in their blood and health problems. There are hardly any environmental regulations that have to be observed. Metals that are released as a by-product during gold mining end up in wastewater. It is the price that nowhere in the world can gold be mined as cheaply as here.

And because it's so cheap, Máxima should give way. "When the mining company first came over they said they would put me in jail. Otherwise, I would leave my country dead."

The lakes are an important reservoir of drinking water for the region. If the gold mine comes, they could be contaminated. Photo: HrFFB / Maxima

Máxima is neither dead nor in prison, but has been subjected to intimidation for years. In the documentation by the Peruvian director Claudia Sparrow, shaky video recordings show how employees of the mining company keep turning up on Máxima's property with excavators and the police in their luggage. Armed men destroy the huts of the farming family, knock their daughter unconscious, steal sheep, kill the shepherd dog, destroy the vital harvest.

Again and again the police record the attacks, the Minister of Justice even visits the farmer's wife in her modest home. It doesn't change much. In the documentation, non-governmental organizations complain about the corrupt cooperation between the global corporation and the government.

212 murdered environmental activists

Peru is one of the most dangerous countries in Latin America for human rights and environmental activists. Here they are exposed to pressure from the government and multinationals. And not only there: Last year, according to the non-governmental organization Global Witness, 212 environmentalists were murdered worldwide, two thirds of them in Latin America. One of the most prominent cases: the Mexican butterfly protector Homero Gómez González, who was found dead in a well at the end of January.

In addition, there are threats and attempts at intimidation such as with Máxima. "It's not just a quarrel about land, it's a quarrel about power," says lawyer Mirta Vásquez, who has supported Máxima in her struggle for years and who has long since been a target herself. Other human rights activists, environmentalists and experts also have their say in the film. "Yanacocha makes it clear who is in charge of the country. They do not want to allow a peasant woman to bring them down"says Vásquez.

Máxima Acuña and her husband Jaime Chaupe keep sheep on their land. From the wool strictly Máxima dresses, which she sells in the market. Image: HRFFB / maxima

The documentary accompanies Máxima from courtroom to courtroom, where she has to answer for trespassing against Newmont - because she still lives in the area that the mine calls her property. The reserved, petite woman with the big hat, who never pushes it into the foreground, suddenly becomes an icon in the hubbub of the processes. They show graffiti with their fists raised. "Todos somos Máxima" chant the people on the street in front of the courthouse, "we are all Máxima", "water yes, gold no". The fight against the US corporation is no longer just Máxima's fight. Rather, it shows how the fate of a single family can trigger a whole movement.

Protest is having an effect - temporarily

Because the conflicts over Máxima's land are not the first to ensure that the people in the region around Cajamarca no longer trust the mining company. In addition to the corruption scandal and the contaminated water, there is a truck accident in 2000 in which mercury leaks. At the time, the mine asserted that the heavy metal was not dangerous and bought it back after children had picked it up.

Small digression: Mercury is poisonous. It already evaporates at room temperature. Inhaled the vapors get into the lungs, the mercury atoms then get into the blood and can lead to sleep disorders or paralysis, among other things.

In the meantime, almost all residents of the affected area of ​​Choropampa suffer from neurological problems.

In 2013, together with Máxima, thousands of farmers protest against the Conga project, clashes with security forces and several dead. After months of protests, a state of emergency is declared in the region. Newmont stops the project for the time being, Maxima is acquitted in court and awarded environmental prizes. The delicate woman with the colorful cardigans seems to have won against the global mining giant - at least for the time being.

In the meantime, Yanacocha has filed a civil lawsuit against the family. The process of who really owns the land could take ten years. And the harassment continues. Lawyer Vásquez had to leave the city after death threats. Máxima's harvest is still being destroyed. In order to survive, the family has to buy food in the city. "I feel like I'm in jail, I don't feel safe," she says.

But she keeps fighting. Last March she won in a US court, reviving her own lawsuit against Newmont in the US. As for many environmental activists around the world who have been fighting mine projects, deforestation and poaching for years, it is also clear to Máxima: Giving up is not an option.


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