Once we reach Acuña’s farm, she springs out of the car, practically skipping through high, wispy grass. She bounds over to her mud-brick home. That’s where her daughter-in-law and newest grandbaby are huddled.Acuña holds her three-month old granddaughter outside her mudbrick home. (Deepa Fernandes/GlobalPost Investigations
It’s much colder up here and very quiet. After some quick cuddles with her three-month-old granddaughter, Acuña gets to work. Just a short walk from her home are patches of dark earth. She stoops down to harvest potatoes for the night’s meal. I’m wowed by the vivid colors of some of these potatoes — oranges and yellows you’re unlikely to find in any Western supermarket.
“We only grow potatoes from native seeds, like they did in the past,” she tells me. “They just taste better.”
Once the potatoes are plucked from the earth, Acuña walks over to a small stream filled with wriggling truchas, a staple of the local diet. “They are the most delicious fish!” Acuña said. The stream is fed by springs up in the mountains — the same mountains Newmont seeks to excavate. “This water … [is] pure and clean,” she said. “And the animals can drink it and they are strong and healthy. But if the water is dirty or contaminated, the animals, well, they don’t grow. They die.”
“Here, we live off our land,” Acuña tells me. “We plant. We harvest, just so we can eat.”
The Chaupe family — namely Acuña and her husband, Jaime Chaupe Lozano — have enjoyed tranquility for most of their time here. They first took possession of the land nearly 25 years ago in what seemed, at the time, to be a unremarkable property transfer in a remote place.
The legality of this event was affirmed by a 2016 fact-finding mission, commissioned by Newmont, that states that the couple “were registered as the possessors after their purchase of the property from a family member in 1994.” Back then, there were other families living around here too, Acuña said, and they lived communally: sharing food, water and farming chores.Potatoes from Acuña’s farm. (Deepa Fernandes/GlobalPost Investigations)
But that lifestyle was shattered in 2011. That’s when the mining company — insisting that it held a title to the land and that the Chaupes were illegal squatters — began agitating to have them evicted. The neighbors began to leave and, one day, a black fence encircled the Chaupe farm.
Yanacocha, the Peruvian arm of the Newmont Corporation, was adamant that the family had to go too. Peruvian officials, hungry for tax revenue, were eager to see this multi-billion dollar mine open. But Acuña wouldn’t leave — and her little farm was in the path of a legal hurricane.
Acuña said the mining company has harassed her family repeatedly since 2011. Her allegations form the basis of a lawsuit, filed on her behalf by the US-based environmental advocates EarthRights International. Among the suit’s claims: threats, destruction of family property, “agents” of Newmont attacking pets and livestock.
Newmont’s rebuttal is that its subsidiary has acted within Peruvian law, which allows for “extrajudicial defense of possession.”
The ugliest of the accusations centers on a confrontation that took place in August 2011. That’s when “agents” of the company — according to the suit — showed up with a detachment of police to evict the family.
A grainy video of this showdown was captured on a mobile phone camera by Isadora, Acuña’s daughter. It shows a row of cops in riot gear standing watch. You can hear Isadora shouting, imploring the police to help family members who’ve been critically injured in a beating that has taken place off camera.
Acuña said she was badly beaten that day. “I was on my knees, crying. I told them, ‘Don’t do this! This is my land! I didn’t sell it to anyone … Where are you going to kick me out to? I’m here with my children. It’s my property, I have my papers.’”
“But it didn’t matter. They didn’t listen to me.”
The precise details of this conflict are in dispute. Newmont insists that the family interprets any legal “police inspection” as harassment and that it respects “human rights.” And yet the aforementioned fact-finding mission — again, paid for by Newmont — found that an investigation into the incident by the company and “competent authorities” was “limited,” which is a “constraint on establishing the facts of the case.”
Many miles away from the farm, in Peruvian courtrooms, Yanacocha has pursued a legal battle to evict the Chaupes. This has also produced unclear results. Twice, courts ruled in the mining company’s favor. Then, in 2014, a local superior court said the family could stay. That decision in favor of the Chaupes was upheld last year by Peru’s Supreme Court — which also dismissed criminal charges alleging the family are illegal squatters.
This dizzying blur of allegations, footage, lawsuits and counter-claims begs the question: Who really has the right to the land? That issue is still pending in yet another civil lawsuit filed by Newmont’s Yanacocha firm.
Yanacocha did not respond to multiple interview requests. So I was unable to ask them about some of Acuña’s more jarring claims. Following the confrontation in 2011, “they came after our animals. … My rabbits disappeared. They killed my sheep. And from there, they slandered us in public,” she said.
Again, by “they” she means “agents” of the corporation — which is how they are described in her lawsuit. I was unable to corroborate these claims, particularly those about dead animals.
But the conclusion of that Newmont-funded fact-finding mission is telling:
“By handling this case as a land dispute, Minera Yanacocha did not actively and systematically consider how the human rights of the Chaupe family were being affected or how the company’s actions would be perceived from a human rights perspective.”