Environmental Justice Hero: Máxima Acuña

Máxima Acuña in front of her home. Goldman Environmental Prize.

Environmental Justice Hero: Máxima Acuña

Máxima Acuña fights for her rights despite corporate abuse and intimidation to live on her own land.

Máxima Acuña expresses the story of her life through song. She sings about her love of the earth and how she is protected by the mountains both day and night. She also sings about her abuse and how her house was burned to the ground in a battle for her land. Colorado-based Newmont and Buenaventura Mining corporation is in charge of one of the largest open-pit gold and copper mines in the world, and once they had tapped out on nearby mines, they wanted to expand. They had their sights on Acuña’s land, which stands in the way to draining the four lakes they need in order to excavate them for all their gold and copper. 

The northern Peruvian highlands of Cajamarca are filled with water. Water that provides sustenance for the communities downstreams. In 1994, Máxima and her husband bought land where this water resides and built a small home to live together, not realizing that their land blocked a pathway for Newmont’s plans to develop the Conga gold and copper mines. These mines pollute the water sources with poisons, which in turn, affects drinking water and irrigation, reducing the lake to a waste storage pit that threatens biologically diverse wetlands.

Máxima Acuña. Goldman Environmental Prize. 

At first, Newmont came and asked Máxima to sell her land. This was absurd to her, so she refused them. They decided to use more force and went to extremes, using their influence with the government to try and evict her and her family, despite her having the title to the land in hand. Army forces and the Newmont security team even attacked her and her family, beating Máxima and her daughter into unconsciousness. Not only that, but they made up ludicrous charges claiming the Acuña’s of being squatters on their own land. Not stopping there, they were taken to court, fined thousands of dollars and threatened with a prison sentence. It was at this time that Máxima knew she had to mobilize and get the support of the community. Local citizens reacted by forming a guardianship where they camped on Acuña's land in order to be a shield of human protection. 

Acuña appealed the ruling for years with help from her lawyer and environmental NGOs that work with cases against mining companies. Máxima’s journey for justice ended up taking her from the Peruvian Supreme Court to the World Bank in Washington, D.C. However, in December 2014, the courts finally ruled Acuña’s case a victory and halted her eviction and her prison sentence was revoked. 

The mining company has built a fence around Acuña's land, restricting her ability to move about freely. Goldman Environmental Prize.

Acuña thought her conflict was over, but had a rude awakening when she realized the threats and harassment from the mining company and its security contractors would not stop. Not only do they surround her land day in and day out, but they built a wire fence around Acuña’s land. In addition, they are destroying her crops and her ability to plant more, which she relies on for sustenance.

Máxima’s courage and fight for justice is inspirational as she continues to stand for her rights against environmental crimes and human rights violations. In 2019 an eponymous-named documentary about her won multiple awards. In 2016 she was the winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize honoring grassroots environmental heroes where she dedicated her award to ‘those who have died’ fighting for environmental rights.  

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