A US corporation wants to raze a gold-rich mountain in Peru. Meet the woman who stands in its way.

Máxima Acuña-Atalaya de Chaupe

It’s a saga that has played out for centuries in Latin America. Powerful outsiders — first Spanish conquistadors, later multinational corporations — have come in search of gold-rich hills. They usually get what they want. Even if that requires vanquishing, by any means necessary, the indigenous people who live atop these buried fortunes.

But there have always been the resisters.

Máxima Acuña-Atalaya de Chaupe is among them. Less than five feet tall, she’s a potato-farming grandmother. Her plot of land sits high up in Peru’s Andes Mountains where the oxygen is thin. Despite her lack of schooling — Acuña can neither read nor write — she is eloquent, and above all, iron-willed.

Seldom has one woman and her family so effectively stalled a massive Western mining corporation from conducting business as usual. In this case, the business is one that uses explosives and machines to strip out gold, transforming mountains into massive craters. It then sells these precious minerals on the world market for billions, taking much of the profit out of the country.

Acuña has vociferously rejected this paradigm. She has refused to move from her land just because it sits above oodles of gold.

But her resistance has come at a cost. According to Acuña, she has been sued, harassed, threatened and even beaten. Yet she continues to resist.

I had to meet her.

The closest city to Acuña’s farm is called Cajamarca. It’s known in Peru as the scene of a great battle between gold-hungry Spanish conquistadors and Atahualpa, an Incan ruler whom they deposed.

Acuña agreed to meet here and then travel by car to her farmland, a three-hour drive into the hills. But I had no assurance of reaching our destination.

All of the land surrounding her farm is controlled by Newmont Mining, one of the world’s largest gold-mining corporations. (It is currently ranked 385 on the Fortune 500.) Through its Peruvian subsidiary, Minera Yanacocha, the conglomerate has already turned parts of the Cajamarca countryside into excavation pits — and it hopes to expand and build a new mine.

Open mine pits just outside of Cajamarca City areowned and operated by Minera Yanacocha. (Deepa Fernandes/GlobalPost Investigations)

Acuña’s farm sits in the footprint of this proposed gold mine. She told me that her land is ringed by an imposing black fence and warned that reaching her home would require clearing a checkpoint manned by an armed guard.

Though Acuña warmly shook my hand when we first met, I could sense her anxiousness. During the bumpy and dusty ride from Cajamarca to her home, she barely spoke. Our driver — Elias Chavez, her son-in-law — chattered non-stop. But he also seemed anxious. The feeling was contagious and, as the checkpoint approached, I became nervous too.

Previous visitors to the family farm — attorneys, friends, supporters, even Acuña herself — had sometimes been denied at the checkpoint. Especially those who’d come from abroad. I wondered: Would we get in? Would I be the reason Acuña was not allowed to return home on this chilly Peruvian morning?

Acuña and her family acquired this plot of land in 1994. Back in 2010, Newmont received Peruvian government approval to open a mine here — one that was notable because, if completed, it would become Latin America’s largest open-pit mine.

How they planned to remove those dwelling atop the land, however, was fairly routine — at least in Peru, where the economy is anchored by mining.

The formula usually works like this: When a foreign entity opens a new mine, indigenous people are told to clear out. Some within the community may resist, shouting that the environmental devastation will disrupt their lives. The corporation typically responds with offers of jobs, simply constructed schools and perhaps some basic clinics.

The mining companies, allied with the government, usually win in the end. Remote farming communities will have their natural order disturbed. Locals complain that they are often reduced to drinking from water tanks, filled semi-regularly by the mining company, once their freshwater streams are polluted. They become reliant on the very corporation they oppose.

Acuña and her family have chosen to resist. They have not budged. They hold tight to paperwork showing their right to possess the land. Why, Acuña asks, should they move? Shouldn’t their right to this land prevent a foreign corporation from creating a $5 billion gold-and-copper mining project that would swallow up their farm?

Acuña and her kin adore their land. As we bumped along the road, Chavez, the son-in-law, pointed out mudbrick homes, streams rich in a local fish called “trucha” and every curious llama that we passed.

A meal of fish and potatoes. (Deepa Fernandes/GlobalPost Investigations)

Then, as we neared the security checkpoint, Chavez went silent. We crossed a bridge and arrived at a locked gate. A stocky man came up to the car window to ask our names and where we were going. Each of us told him our names and the man returned to his post. Elias cranked up the music. We nervously waited.

A few minutes later the guard was unlocking the gate. We were through.

My relief couldn’t compare to that of Chavez’s and Acuña’s. They suddenly began chatting, spirited and jovial. The mood in the car completely changed.

Now Acuña was playing tour guide, pointing out the window and explaining the sights.“This is all now private property owned by the company,” she told me. “They bought it from the community. It used to be common land through which any of us could pass.”

As we neared her home, Acuña appeared to shed a layer of stress. She joked with me, laughed at a gaggle of llamas blocking the road and teased her son-in-law about his driving. The tension seemed to have breezed right out the car window.

Acuña was on her way home.

Acuña’s struggle is, in many ways, a 21st-century iteration of an old and painful saga.

In the 16th century, the conquistador Hernán Cortés proclaimed that the Spanish had a “sickness of the heart that only gold can cure.” What followed was a tragedy that would sweep from the Caribbean islands down to the South American hilltops and engulf what we now call Latin America — century after century of Europeans relieving indigenous people of the gold beneath their feet, often using brutal means.

In Cajamarca — where I first met Acuña and close to mountains where Newmont’s subsidiary Yanacocha already runs a massive open-pit gold mine — people have an especially strong recollection of this history. More than 500 years ago, Spanish colonizers came to Cajamarca specifically to find gold.

There, they captured the Incan ruler, Atahualpa. Release me, he told them, and I will provide for you one room filled with gold. According to most historians, Atahualpa completed his end of the deal — and the Spanish killed him anyway.

Even today, Peru’s legal framework contains echoes of the colonial system installed by the Spanish Empire. “Many of the underlying structures of how we understand our own law do go back to colonial times,” said Alonso Gurmendi, a law professor at Universidad del Pacifico in Lima. Under the legal system instituted by the Spanish, the state owns rights to minerals under the earth no matter who owns the land above.

This matters a lot in a country where minerals shipped abroad account for half the value of all exports. To this day, Peru has what Gurmendi calls “a very extractive system.”

When it becomes clear that precious minerals lie underground, the Peruvian government “will do a legal tender and select which company is going to extract that good,” he said. “The company gets a legal property right over something that is underneath your property.”

This scenario has played out time and again in Peru. Often the mineral-rich earth is located deep in the Amazon or in rural, indigenous communities. These communities, Gurmendi said, are “disempowered” to negotiate with either the Peruvian state or a huge conglomerate such as Newmont, valued at $21 billion — an amount almost assuredly worth more than the entire economy of some Peruvian provinces.

“They don’t have legal representation,” Gurmendi said, “and it’s very difficult for them to be on an equal footing [with the mining company.]”

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.

Peruvian farmer Maxima Acuna, from the northern Peruvian highlands of Cajamarca, stands in front of the Palace of Justice after her trial against the Yanacocha copper and gold mine, in Lima, Peru, May 3, 2017. (Mariana Bazo/Reuters)

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.”

Inrecent years, as the David-versus-Goliath-style feud between Acuña and Newmont has boiled over, this grandma has become the stoic face of Peru’s indigenous resistance to mega mines.

But Acuña is not the sum total of this activist pushback in the Andes. In the gold-laden hills of Cajamarca, local discontent has long simmered. The terrain has been wildly altered by the Yanacocha firm, which operates what it calls “South America’s largest gold mine” in the province. The firm has extracted gold here for two decades.

Milton Sanchez, a soft spoken man with a warm smile and a searing critique of foreign mining operations, belongs to the local environmental resistance. “The company never adequately informed the people about what exactly their project would entail,” he said of Yanacocha’s proposed mine expansion.

The company did its due diligence with Peruvian authorities, Sanchez said, but didn’t adequately consult with the community. “My group got its environmental impact report that they presented to the government. We reviewed it and it became clear what the project would do. So we began telling people about it and asked people if they wanted this.”

Many did not. Massive protests began in Cajamarca and surrounding villages. Fears of water contamination, he said, were a major driving force behind the opposition.

Locals with complaints about the existing mine are not hard to find. When I arrived in a town near the gold-extraction site, I found men by the roadside who were eager to talk. One of them, Teofil Castrejon, pointed to a mountain right next to a large crater in the earth — an open pit mine.

“I have small huts right by the lip of the mine,” he said. The air there is thick with dust, he told me, and there are streams filled with “water that is brown and dirty.” The company, he said, had built tanks filled with drinkable water — but he complained that they aren’t always filled on time. Many of the old streams, Castrejon said, are either dried up or discolored and sludgy.

I asked Castrejon if he’d gained anything from the mine — employment perhaps? “Yes, I have worked there,” he said, but the jobs have been on and off. Nothing permanent, he said.

I was eager to get a closer look at the mine and peer into those open pits myself. So I enlisted the help of another farmer: Pedro Cueva and his 19-year-old son, Abram. The Cueva family own a parcel of land that borders the mine. From various high points on their land, you can look into the pits.

The climb required a steep hike and, for a spell, riding on one of the family’s horses — a white creature named Blanco. As we climbed, the air became thinner. Abram told me that explosions from the mine are frequent and often crack simple dwellings on the hillside.

We pass a gushing stream and, as I was warned, it was a startling color.

A stream on Pedro Cueva’s land. He said the water is sometimes pure, sometimes contaminated. (Deepa Fernandes/GlobalPost Investigations)

“This water is yellowish, brown, almost like coffee,” Cueva said, “but it’s not coffee. It’s contaminated.” The farmer tells me that scientists have occasionally come here to sample streams to study in their labs. (Indeed, the results of one study in the region do indicate high levels of metals and other contaminants.)

“This water is what the people and the animals and the grass and the crops need,” he said, “but we can’t use this cloudy water,” Cueva said. He blames the mine. (For its part, Yanacocha insists that it has “invested $1 billion into environmental and social responsibility projects.”)

“Two months ago, a couple of my cows died right here,” he told me. “See? They drink the water and then a few minutes later, you see them change. They get sad and — just an hour or two later — they fall to the ground and die.”

Same goes for the truchas, Cueva said. They’ve all disappeared. Cueva said the family used to eat truchas regularly. It was a staple in their diet. Now they can only buy the fish in town — which they don’t do because it’s too expensive. I’m reminded of Acuña’s farm, watching her lay on her belly, swatting at pure waters where truchas swarm underneath the surface. This is exactly what she fears losing.

Further up the mountain, once we’re really high up, I see it — a series of mine pits, carved out of lush mountains.

Pedro Cueva’s land abuts this open pit mine owned by Minera Yanacocha. (Courtesy of Milton Sanchez.)

Some are so perfectly excavated that they resemble ancient ruins. Behind me, there is still stunning greenery but, down below, there are deep trenches of gold and bronze. The vision is both eerie and mesmerizing.

This is a preview of what is proposed for Acuña’s home. To her, these gold mines are not a trove of riches. She instead imagines that her farmland would be morphed into an ecological hell.

Many Peruvians, especially urbanites, are sympathetic to the mining operations. Moreover, they’re dismissive of the campesinos whose farms get devoured by massive projects that can literally destroy mountains.

Upper-class Peruvians are often quick to note that, when mines come, they bring schools, health clinics and jobs. This was a sentiment I often heard both in Lima and even Cajamarca City. Campesinos are given things, one well-dressed woman in Cajamarca City told me, and they continue to protest saying, “I want onions and potatoes and yucca.” Why, she wonders, would someone fight to stay put and keep planting potatoes?

Peru’s elites aren’t the only ones who don’t understand the campesino resistance. In Lima, I met Ronny Camargo Diaz, a man living in a working-class neighborhood. Extracting gold is good for Peru’s economy, he said. He used to work security for a different mine in another part of Peru and saw up close how locals resisted his employer.

“The community made unreasonable demands of the mining company,” he said, “and expected it to provide them with everything — when in fact the company did help them.”

Peru’s growth depends on mega mines, he said. And people like Acuña should step aside for the good of their nation.

Minera Yanachoca runs this open pit mine near Cajamarca City. (Deepa Fernandes/GlobalPost Investigations)

This perspective, widely held in Peru, suggests an inability to understand the indigenous view of development, according to Roger Merino, a Lima-based political science professor. He’s an expert in a theory of development called “Buen Vivir,” which roughly translates to a plentiful or harmonious life.

Much of the public, he said, just can’t comprehend why people like Acuña don’t take the money on offer and move away to a better life. But according to Merino, many indigenous people just have a “different view of development.”

This alternate philosophy — encapsulated by Buen Vivir — prioritizes living simply off nature’s bounty versus extracting minerals and harming the natural landscape.

“The relentless privatization and commodification of nature and the lack of alternate paradigms,” he said, “inspired a return to indigenous visions and practices which is encompassed by the idea of Buen Vivir.”

Acuña hasn’t studied this theory of development. But she lives it. Here’s how she responded when I asked her why she doesn’t just move:

“This is my land. I know this land. Why don’t I want to leave it? It’s because we worked this land hard. We made it productive.”

“They tell me they’ll give me another plot of land elsewhere,” she told me. “But then I’ll have to invest $50,000 or $60,000 to fix it up and make it productive. Here, on my land, the work is already done. We just have to plant the seeds — and it gives us everything we could want.”

Merino studies this mindset, lending an academic perspective to these questions. Among them: Is the wholesale destruction of mountains and lagoons ever warranted? Is it justified by the billions earned by foreign corporations that do, in fact, prop up the economy of Peru?

I put this question to Acuña. Her answer was unequivocal:

“There are people who don’t value nature. They don’t value what God gave us. There are people who only want economic power and money and they don’t care about life. They don’t think about their kids or grandkids.”

“They want to leave history and nature behind,” she said, “and move on to some other way of living. But I don’t think we should destroy the land God gave us.”

Since Acuña started fighting back, and found friends among the growing local resistance in Cajamarca, the fight has been marked by highs and lows. At times, the grandmother has felt dispirited. She admits she’s often felt afraid that strange men will slip onto her farm and harm her family.

As she and her family have defended their mud brick home and potato patches, more locals have organized an opposition to the mine expansion. Marches and direct actions have spread across the region. “There have been constant mobilizations,” said Sanchez, the activist. “Thousands protested in the streets in all our major towns around here.”

In February 2016, Acuña received news she’d been hoping for. Newmont announced that it was putting the project on hold. In an email, Newmont spokesperson Omar Jabara told me that the company is not currently “ready for development/production.”

To local activists, this was a victory, Sanchez said. “The project has been effectively suspended.” He believes the “company made the decision because of strong opposition from the community.”

According to Jabara, this claim is essentially true: “Newmont will not proceed with the full development of (the proposed mine) without social acceptance, solid project economics and potentially another partner to help defray costs and risk.”

Soon after Newmont’s decision, Acuña began to receive major international backing. In the spring of 2016, she was awarded a Goldman Environmental Prize — seen by many as an ecologically focused Nobel.

The judges were moved by Acuña’s strength and resilience in the face of a formidable opponent, said Ryan Mack, a Goldman program officer. He described Acuña’s resistance as “the story of one woman … at the top of a mountain in Peru, standing up to the one of largest mining companies in the world to protect her land, to protect water and resources in rural Peru.”

That would seem to be the end of this story. Acuña the potato farmer appears to have held off this gold-mining Goliath worth $21 billion — an amount roughly equivalent to the entire economy of Honduras.

But according to Acuña, the fight isn’t over.

Despite the project being suspended, Acuña says unfamiliar men still come to her property. “They come and bother us once a week. … They enter our property and take photos of us. They call us names. They threaten us.”

These claims form the core of Acuña’s lawsuit with EarthRights, filed in a U.S. court because, after all, Newmont is a U.S. company. The suit demands that Newmont order its Peruvian subsidiary to stop harassing the family. But it was recently dismissed at Newmont’s request.

American judges ruled that the case belongs in a Peruvian court. Mayrum Jordan, an EarthRights attorney representing Acuña, said they are appealing.

“Their struggle actually represents a common struggle throughout Peru, and even Latin America,” Jordan said, “in which multinational companies enter and consistently harass indigenous and campesino families.”

Acuña told me that she still doesn’t feel completely safe on her farm. Nor is she confident that she can fend off a massive Western corporation forever — particularly when the Peruvian public and the government in Lima tend to side with international mining giants.

Before I left Peru, I asked Acuña what she makes of the men and women, living far away, who adorn themselves in gold pulled from the Andes highlands.

She asked me to relay this message to the world:

“When they take the gold from our lands, it costs us a lot — a lot of suffering. I don’t think they will see their gold as precious when they know that, for us, it’s our tears. It’s our blood. It’s hunger and suffering. All to get the gold.”
“That is what I want people to know,” Acuña said, “so that they think about what is happening to us when they buy their gold. Because we would not do this kind of harm to them.”
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