A Modern David and Goliath Story: the fight of Maxima Acuna versus a Mining Company and the road to Justice

We are all familiar with the story of David and Goliath.

Thousands of years ago a shepherd was the only one willing to duel a giant, surprisingly the boy came out on top illustrating that victories that are improbable can happen. Imagine yourself with a single rock up against a giant warrior. Well, for David it was a reality. The rock found Goliath right into the center of his head and he crushed into earth. They played a zero-sum game- a winner takes all game- and the one who had the internal strength and braveness changed the dynamics of the game in one only second!

Such examples of bravery exist even today and they remind to us the power of human expression!

So when they say that “but why should I be the only one to change my habits or to change my actions” remember this example which is evidence of the fact that if humans set their mind decisively then nothing can stop them. Irene Orwell once said that if you can change a classroom you can change a community, if you can change many communities you can change a country and then… the world.

The analogy of David and Goliath is pertinent throughout the ages.

Conga is a billion gold and copper deposit company located in Cajamarca province in Peru. Newmont proposed developing Conga in 2010 near its existing Yanacocha project, Latin America’s largest gold mine. The project would threaten 4 mountain lakes in these arid Andean steep locations and consequently received opposition from the local community. Mine construction was suspended in late 2011 after lengthy protests. Those lengthy protests were coordinated by a brave woman: Ms. Maxima Acuña de Chaupe. She became known throughout Latin America for her inspirational courage in standing up against a multinational mining company.

Ms. Acuña de Chaupe gained international support for her struggle to maintain control of her land in the face of legal threats and violence from Newmont’s subsidiary, Minera Yanacocha, and its hired security forces.  Máxima and her family live on an 18 acre plot of land near Laguna Azul, one of four mountain lakes critical to Newmont’s development of the Conga project.

Maxima Acuna’s protest was initiated when in July 2012, four people died in clashes with the police in the Cajamarca region, where the mine is located. An ongoing protest by Maxima Acuna de Chaupe, a local farmer, over land ownership in the mining area garnered her the 2016 Goldman Prize for grassroots environmental activism. A subsistence farmer in Peru stood up for her right to peacefully live off her own property, a plot of land sought by Newmont and Buenaventura Mining to exploit the resources and develop the Conga mine.

Máxima Acuña and her husband bought the plot of land in a remote corner of Peru about twenty three years ago. They built a small house on the property and lived a peaceful life raising their children. The family lived off the potatoes and other crops they grew, and kept sheep and cows for milk and cheese. She would travel to the nearby town to sell vegetables, dairy, and woolen handicrafts to make a living. Acuña never learned to read or write, but she understood “that the land was her lifeblood”.

They lived a peaceful life until one day… Goliath interrupted their peaceful coexistence with nature.

The mining company came to the Acuñas’ door, demanding that she leave her land. When Acuña refused, she was met with brutality. Armed forces came and destroyed her house and possessions, and beat her and one of her daughters unconscious. The ruthless persecution continued. The company sued the family in a provincial court, which found them guilty of illegally squatting on their own land. Acuña was sentenced to a suspended prison term of three years and pressed financial fines and sanctions.

Acuña sought legal help from NGOs in Peru that were representing local community members in cases against mining companies. She began gathering documents such as her land title that proved she held legitimate property rights to the land claimed by the mining company.

The legal appeal and the day that hope shined bright at Acuña and her family.

Her prison sentence was overturned in 2014 and justice face smiled. She won the legal appeal and Conga mine along with Newmont has been unable to move forward with any mining in the area around Cajamarca region.

However, the race continues relentlessly… 

Acuña continues to face threats and harassment from the mining company and its militarized security contractors. The mining company has built a fence around Acuña’s land, restricting her ability to move about freely. They destroyed her potato crops, and prevent her from expanding her land by maintaining a daily-basis watch on her property. The legal fight continues to play out in the Peruvian Supreme Court, with more appeals and lawsuits a near certainty.

Despite the trauma and exhaustion, Acuña maintains a remarkable sense of optimism in her continued fight for justice. The Conga mine has not moved forward. The community has rallied behind Máxima and her victory has brought new life to the struggle to defend Cajamarca’s land plots, water supplies, resources and people from the threat of large-scale gold mining.


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