The Fight Against Mining in Peru
By Sian Cowman
The title of Uruguyan writer Eduardo Galeano’s famous historical narrative, Open Veins of Latin America, evokes the image of a continent stripped bare for the benefit of colonial empires, its veins of rich minerals opened and its lifeblood violently extracted.
Today, extractivism—the process of removing natural resources such as gold, silver, copper, or zinc from their natural environment—is a critical source of income for many Latin American countries, where taxes from such activities are invested in comprehensive healthcare and education programs. However, the controversial practice often comes at a high environmental and socio-economic price—and one that is disproportionately paid by women.
The Costs of Extractivism
In Latin America, most extractive activities occur in rural areas and/or indigenous communities where land and water sources have faced contamination from mining activities. High in the Andes mountains, the sprawling Yanacocha gold mine sits in an impoverished region near the town of Cajamarca, Peru. Owned jointly by the U.S. Newmont Mining Corporation, a Peruvian mining company, and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, it is the largest mine in Latin America and the fourth largest in the world.
For years, local residents have been complaining about contaminated water and the disappearance of fish in nearby rivers, lakes, and streams. At Yanacocha, cyanide-laced water is used to separate the gold from surrounding rock, with the toxic brew then seeping into nearby groundwater. Reinhard Seifert, an environmental engineer who has spent the last two decades investigating the effects of Yanacocha on the area’s ecology, found traces of not only cyanide, but also lead, arsenic, and mercury in the drinking water—poisonous substances linked to rising rates of gastrointestinal cancer among the residents of Cajamarca. Adding to the mistrust between locals and the mining company, a truck from the mine accidentally spilled its cargo of toxic mercury in a nearby village in 2000, leading to violent clashes between angry residents and police.
While the negative effects of mining activities are felt by all members of the surrounding communities, it is women who face the greatest social, economic, and physical impacts. For rural women, who are largely responsible for growing and providing food for their families, the loss of arable land and clean water adds to their daily burden. When men take well-paid jobs with the mines, their status grows relative to that of their wives—whose work at home and in the fields continues to be largely unpaid. As one of the participants of a 2014 gathering in Ecuador against extractivism explained, “When the mining and fossil fuel companies come to our territories, they cause huge problems: they destroy the social fabric and replace it with conflict in families, division in the communities …”
Extractivism has also been linked to an increase in cases of violence against women. In April 2015, Melissa Wong Oveido, a representative of the Latin American Union of Women (ULAM), a regional network of women affected by extractive activities, spoke on this subject in the newspaper El País. According to Oveido, “In Latin America, psychological, physical and environmental violence against indigenous, rural and Afro-descendent women on the part of extractive industries is on the rise. Women are dispossessed of their lands; they are victims of sexual abuse and trafficking.”
The growth of extractive projects and their negative impact on local communities have led to a rise in grass-roots activism. However, resistance is a dangerous business: a greater number of environmental defenders died in 2014 in Latin America than anywhere else in the world. Despite such risks, more and more women are joining the fight against the exploitation of their land, though they often pay a heavy price. In a comprehensive 2015 report on women environmental defenders in the Americas, the authors state that “In all of the cases presented, women suffered attacks linked to their gender: threats of rape, public shaming … various forms of harassment, and insults against their honor.”
One woman’s struggle that has received international attention is that of indigenous farmer Máxima Acuña. In 2011, Máxima refused to sell her land to Yanacocha, which sought to construct a new open-pit mine there worth almost an estimated US$5 billion. The proposed mine—which was widely opposed by residents of the region—would require that nearby lakes be drained or used for mining waste, further threatening groundwater contamination and endangering the lives of local communities. In a 2012 interview with the New Internationalist magazine, Máxima explained, “I may be poor. I may be illiterate, but I know that our mountain lakes are our real treasure … Are we expected to sacrifice our water and our land so that the Yanacocha people can take gold back to their country? Are we supposed to sit quietly and just let them poison our land and water?”
Yanacocha then sued Máxima for what they claimed was her illegal occupation of the land, despite the fact that the property deed bears her name. In October 2012, a judge sided with the mine operator and sentenced Máxima and her family to suspended jail sentences; the decision was overturned in December 2014. However, Yanacocha refuses to recognize the latest ruling, and it is striving to claim Máxima’s land by other means.
Yanacocha also engaged in a campaign of harassment and violent intimidation against Máxima. On several occasions, the mining company, assisted by Peruvian soldiers and police officers, attempted to remove her and her family by force. They destroyed parts of Máxima’s home and her potato crop, confiscated her possessions, and once beat her and her daughter unconscious; they also threatened to kill her and the rest of her family.
While Máxima may not have been targeted solely because of her gender, women remain easier targets for retaliation by powerful actors like the owners of Yanacocha. Women such as Máxima, who suffer from poverty and illiteracy, are less likely than men to pursue their fights through the legal system. In addition, much of the intimidation that Máxima has experienced has centered on the destruction of her home and farmland—the traditional domain of women, and Máxima’s source of income.
Despite facing numerous obstacles, Máxima refuses to be intimidated. Her connection to the land underlies her decision to fight a multinational corporation. As she said in an April 2015 interview to El País: “I won’t be quiet. I know they’ll come after me and they’re going to “disappear” me. But on the land I was born, and on the land I will die.”