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A Symbol for What’s Right: Máxima Acuña Speaks on Award and Continued Struggle

Maxima Acuña de Chaupe recently spoke with ICTMN about the honor and the continued struggle to protect the land.

More than half a decade after she refused to sell her farm to a mining company, Maxima Acuña de Chaupe, whose family grows potatoes and tends dairy cows on a small farm high in the Andes Mountains of northern Peru, received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. But less than a week later, just after she returned to Lima from the awards ceremony in San Francisco, unknown assailants shot at her house while her husband was inside. The incident occurred just days after Minera Yanacocha, a mining company formed by Denver-based Newmont Mining Corporation and Peru's Buenaventura, suspended plans to develop Conga, a $5 billion open-pit gold mine in Peru's northern Cajamarca region. Company executives say that when they bought the lake-studded mountaintop wetland area from the community of Sorochuco, it included Acuña de Chaupe 's property, but she says she never sold the land. Mother of four children, the 46-year-old grandmother is determined not to leave the farm where she and husband Jaime Chaupe, 48, have lived since 1994.

RELATED: Indigenous Environmental Hero Maxima Acuña De Chaupe Wins Goldman Prize

Acuña de Chaupe recently spoke with ICTMN about the honor and the continued struggle to protect the land.

What does winning the Goldman Prize mean for you?

It means that people will know the real situation. I won the award because we care for the earth, the water, nature, human life, animals.

When did the conflict with the mining company begin?

In 2011, the company tried to come onto my land. I asked why they were trying to enter without asking permission. That's when they informed me that the land wasn't mine, but belonged to Yanacocha. I said I'd never sold anything, I'd never talked to anyone, so how could they say the land didn't belong to me? The company simply responded that the land belonged to them.

What was your life like before the company started building the mine?

I worked the land. I grew potatoes, oca and olluco [Andean tubers], fava beans, and pasture crops, like clover and oats, for my dairy cows. Where you can't plant pasture, you use that land for sheep, small animals and pack animals.

How has the landscape around you changed with the mine?

When the company moves earth with its bulldozers, when it digs ditches with heavy equipment, the spring water changes to a reddish color, as though it's thick. It turns black or green and has a taste that makes it impossible to drink. If those water sources dry up, we won't have life. Where will we get water? What will we drink? And if we don't have land, where will we sow crops? What will we eat? What would happen if we moved to the city? We are farmers. In the city, you can't produce food, because there's no land--there are just houses and cement. This is one of the last high-mountain areas, and these are wetland aquifers. When they are destroyed, what kind of life will people in this region have?

What kind of harassment have you experienced?

The violence started at the end of 2010. First they burned down buildings, they took things from my house, including food. I filed a legal complaint, but three months later, at the beginning of 2011, the complaint was thrown out and the attacks started again. They burned my buildings. They took our clothes, the pots and pans, our food. They took everything. That was August 9.

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A few days later, the police came with company employees and security guards. They came with bulldozers and forced their way onto our property. We were the only ones still here, just us and our animals. They wanted to force us out so they could tell people I didn't live there, that I didn't have possession of the land—they did. But I decided to resist, with a clear conscience and with the [property] documents in my hand.

Your husband said someone shot at the house on April 24. Have you received other direct threats?

A month or two ago, someone also shot at the house, and they tried to kill our dog. They cut its throat—we had to take it to get eight stitches. They dug up the potatoes we'd planted for food. And when my son went out to ask why they were doing that, they said, "Shut up—yesterday it was your dog, today it's your potatoes, and what we did to your dog we'll do to you and to your mother."

Do you feel protected by the Goldman Prize?

A little. Not so much in my country, but there are people in other countries who know how to value and care for nature. They know what it means to suffer, and what this means to me.

Why do you keep fighting instead of selling and going somewhere more peaceful?

Because of my honor and my land. I am from [this region]. I know the land, I know how to farm it, I value it, I conserve it.

What was your reaction when Yanacocha said it was suspending the project?

If they were giving it up, there wouldn't be workers there, they wouldn't be interfering with our daily life. I defend the land and water and I care for the environment for everyone—not just for a few people, and not just for myself.

What would you say to other people who are in similar situations?

I don't know how to read or write, but my message would be that people have to respect things that belong to others. When we've worked and suffered [to get something], we can't let someone else take it away from us. We know our rights now. We know what it is to defend life, the plants and animals. We know that we can defend our rights. I'd like to be a symbol to other people around the world, because we have to fight. We have to defend our land and our rights.

When you accepted the Goldman Prize, instead of a speech, you sang a mournful-sounding song about the things that had happened to you. Why?

It came from my heart. I had to communicate my experience to people with tears and with song.