Maxima Acuña is not your typical activist. She stands around 4½ feet tall, and has never set foot inside of a school. She can neither read nor write, and has never been affiliated with any outside organization. However, the 47-year-old subsistence farmer and grandmother has been successfully resisting the largest multinational mining project in Peru for the past five years, standing up for indigenous communities across the region.
“Our struggle began in 2011, when the Yanacocha mine began attacking us,” Acuña told The Daily Beast, describing how the mine project, run by the Colorado-based Newmont Mining Corporation and a Peruvian subsidiary, disrupted her serene farm life. Before Big Mining came to her Catamarca region of Peru, she’d spent her life raising animals, living off the land and making arts and crafts projects for extra income.
“They wanted to take our property by force so that they could bring in their machinery to extract the gold, and take it back to their countries,” she continued.
Almost 50 percent of the Catamarca region has been earmarked for mining projects. In 2011, the Peruvian government signed over 7,400 acres of Catamarca land to the Newmont Mining Corporation, which intended to build a $5 billion gold and copper mining project. However, the project—which planned to drain four of the region’s iconic lakes, to use them as mineral depositories—was quickly met with opposition from the local community over concerns about water pollution. This led to violent clashes that caused the government to declare a state of emergency, temporarily halting the project.
This was where Maxima Acuña came in. Acuña’s family farm, which she has lived off of with her husband and children for more than 20 years, happens to be on a stretch of land that provides vital access to one of the lakes that Newmont desperately needs access to for the project to move forward. However, after she refused to sell her land, Newmont’s Peruvian subsidiary, Yanacocha, sued her and her family on the accusation that they were illegally occupying their own land.
When Acuña challenged the lawsuit in court—and won—she says private security contractors (disguised as local police) began to openly threaten her, occupying her land, then raiding her house and beating her and her family in a series of eviction attempts. The last raid included a beating that left her and her daughter unconscious, and landed her son in the hospital. (The Yanacocha claims the family’s home was built on land it owns and that it was merely clearing out an “unauthorized occupation.”)
“We have been facing these attacks for years,” Acuña told The Daily Beast. “And the damages are physical and material, as well as psychological.”
As Acuña prepares to travel back to Peru after accepting her award in the United States, she gets ready to continue her battle to defend her land.
“I will never kneel before Yanacocha,” she said at a recent event honoring the recipients of the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize. “I will never give up.”