By: JACK M.
You don’t have to look too hard or wait too long to hear of yet another mega-sized mining company ripping up some pristine piece of the planet, polluting natural resources, defacing rain forests, compromising biodiversity, threatening land owners or displacing entire communities. Even the world’s oceans are in danger of destruction from the relatively new process of deep-sea mining. Whether it’s coal in China, diamonds in South Africa, gold in Angola, uranium in Canada, bauxite in Australia or copper in the United States, the mining industry has been responsible for more environmental atrocities and human tragedies than one article could ever chronicle.
And to suggest that each of us is not complicit in some small way would be little more than hypocrisy. We drive our cars and ride our bicycles, we use electricity and we wear jewellery. Our homes are a melange of metals and minerals that we rarely lend a thought to. The food we eat relies largely on the mining of potash, which is used in the manufacture of fertilizers. And if you’re reading this article on your smart phone or laptop, you might be surprised to learn of elements like tantalum, gallium and lithium—all products of the mining industry—without which modern electronics and communication would not be possible. It’s probably safe to suggest that life as most of us know it is a reflection of our ability and our willingness to exploit Mother Earth.
But this is not about vilifying an entire industry; it’s not about painting all the gold miners, coal miners and diamond miners with the same brush. Like any powerful industry or institution—banking, politics, healthcare and energy, to name but a few—it is largely driven by a motivation for profit, and profit in turn is driven by those all-too-common of human wants: power and greed. When a powerful and greedy mining company wants something, it frequently just takes it, and when anything—or anyone—gets in the way, it throws its weight and money around until it does get its way. If a fight breaks out, it’s usually a little David facing a mining Goliath. But not always. Sometimes Goliath gets put in his place, and this was the case when the US-based Newmont Mining Corporation tried to strong-arm a pint-size Peruvian farmer by the name of Maxima Acuña de Chaupe.
Maxima’s story began in 1994 when she and her husband bought 60 acres of land in Peru’s northern Cajamarca Region, one of the country’s poorest areas. Standing just under five feet tall, Maxima raised four children, grew crops and kept a few goats and cows. And to supplement what had always been a subsistence income, she made woollen handicrafts that she sold in a nearby town. Life for Maxima and her family was simple, but it was peaceful and uncomplicated. Then Newmont Mining Corporation stepped into the picture. The corporate behemoth had been extracting gold in northern Peru for over 20 years when, in 2011, it decided to expand its operations to develop what it called the Conga Mine. These expansion plans included taking Maxima’s farmland from her family, claiming that it had purchased the land back in 1997. The then 42-year-old Maxima resisted, showing documented proof that her land was legally hers and she had no obligation to Newmont or anyone else.
The pin-stripe suits in Newmont’s corner offices then threw the corporate equivalent of a temper tantrum, and in a series of moves worthy of a cowardly schoolyard bully, they turned life for the Cajamarcan peasant farmer into a living nightmare. With the help of its own private security thugs and Peru’s own local corrupt police, Maxima’s home and meagre possessions were destroyed, and she and one of her daughters were beaten unconscious. That was 2011, and since then, Maxima and her family have been harassed, intimidated, had their crops destroyed, and have been kept under constant surveillance. Newmont erected a fence around the farm, restricting Maxima’s movements in and out of her own land. Their rebuilt home was again destroyed, and according to the Dublin-based human rights organization, Front Line Defenders, the family has even received death threats. You can read a more detailed account of what Maxima has had to endure on Front Line Defenders’ site.
Maxima and her family remained steadfast and resolute through the years of intimidation, and sometimes fortune favours those who stick to their beliefs and their principles. The tiny subsistence farmer from Peru has garnered attention from the who’s who of human and civil rights organizations throughout Latin America and around the world. In addition to Front Line Defenders, Amnesty International and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights offered their support and assistance in bringing the story to the public forum. After a Peruvian legal aid NGO stepped up to help counter the lawsuits that Newmont had been mounting against Maxima, the case was elevated to one of the highest courts in Peru. And a little over a year ago, the courts ruled in favour of Maxima Acuña.
The mining giant was forced to abandon its plans to uproot the de Chaupe family, and in a later interview, a spokesperson for Newmont announced—presumably somewhat sheepishly—that the company did “not anticipate development of Conga for the foreseeable future.” For her efforts in resisting the power brokers of the mining industry and for standing her ground, and despite continued harassment to this day by Newmont, Maxima Acuña was recently awarded the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize.
Peru’s courts have ruled in favour of the diminutive subsistence farmer, and Maxima Acuña de Chaupe and her family continue to farm their land. Newmont Mining Corporation has abandoned its plans to develop further mining in the area.