Aside from stainless-steel pans and a platinum tooth, Máxima Acuña Atalaya doesn’t own any valuable metal objects. No rings or bracelets or necklaces. No costume jewellery or precious stones. She struggles to understand the fascination people feel for gold.
One icy morning in 2015, Máxima Acuña is breaking rocks on a hillside with sharp, well-aimed blows, preparing to lay the foundation for a house. Despite being less than five feet tall, she can carry stones almost twice her own weight on her back and butcher a hundred-kilo ram in minutes. When she visits the capital of Cajamarca, the region in Peru’s northern mountains where she’s from, she feels scared the cars will run her over, and yet she’s prepared to confront a moving backhoe loader to defend the land where she lives, and where there’s plenty of water for her crops. She can’t read or write, but she has stopped a mining company from throwing her out of her house. For peasants, human rights activists and environmentalists, Máxima is a symbol of courage and resistance. For those who think a country’s progress depends on exploiting its natural resources, she’s a stubborn and selfish peasant. Or worse: an ambitious woman trying to fill her pockets from a multimillion-dollar corporation.
‘People say there’s lots of gold under my land and the lake,’ she says in her high voice, her jet-black hair pulled back in a plait and the pick in her calloused hands. ‘That’s why they want me out.’
This is Laguna Azul – the blue lake – but it looks grey. Here in the Cajamarca mountains, more than 4,000 metres above sea level, on the roof of the world, a thick fog hangs over everything, dissolving all the outlines. There’s no birdsong to be heard, or tall trees or blue sky or flowers anywhere around, because they all die so quickly, frozen by the wind. There are no blossoms except the roses and dahlias Máxima Acuña has embroidered around the fuchsia neckline of her blouse. It’s January. Her mud-and-stone hut with a tin roof is about to collapse from the rains. The cold gnaws at her flesh and bones in the night. She needs to build a new house, she says, but who knows if she’ll manage.
A few metres away, beyond the cloud that envelops us, opposite her plot of land called Tragadero Grande, is the Laguna Azul, where a few years ago Máxima would fish for trout with her husband and four children. The Yanacocha mining company plans to drain that lake and deposit some 480 million tonnes of rock, mud and toxic waste in its place, 480 million tonnes of waste rock taken from a giant hole made by machines and dynamite.
Yanacocha, in Quechua, means ‘black lake’. It was also the name of a lake that disappeared in the early 1990s to make way for a surface gold mine, considered in its heyday to be the biggest and most profitable in the world. Under the lakes of Celendín, the province in Cajamarca where Máxima and her family live, there is more gold. To extract it, the Yanacocha mining company drew up a project called Conga, which economists and politicians said would carry Peru into the First World: it would attract more investment, and therefore more jobs and modern schools and better hospitals and high-end restaurants and new hotel chains and, as President Humala announced in 2012, even a metro line in the capital. Although, to achieve all this, some sacrifices would have to be made. The Conga project would turn a lake a kilometre from Máxima’s house into a surface mine. It would then deposit the mining waste in another two lakes nearby. One of those is the Laguna Azul.
If that happens, the peasant woman says, she could lose everything she owns: the almost twenty-five hectares of land full of ichu and other grasses fed by water from the springs; the pines and dwarf quenual trees that provide firewood; the potatoes, ollucos (a kind of root vegetable) and beans from her smallholding; and the water drunk by her family, her five sheep and four cows. Their former neighbours have sold their land to the company, and the Chaupe-Acuñas are the only family still living next to the mining project’s future extraction zone: in the very heart of Conga. They swear they’ll never leave.
‘Some people in the community are angry with me, they say it’s my fault they don’t have work, that the mine’s not up and running because I’m here. What am I supposed to do? Let them take my land and water away?’
Máxima stops splitting rocks and wipes her sweaty hands on her black woollen skirt.
Her fight with Yanacocha, she says, began with the building of a road.
Máxima woke up one morning burning with fever, and with stabbing pains in her stomach. She had an acute infection in her ovaries, and could barely get up from her mattress and walk. Her children hired a horse to take her down the hill to the hut they inherited from their grandmother in Amarcucho, a hamlet eight hours away, where she could recover. An uncle would stay and tend the smallholding. Three months later, in December 2010, when she felt better, Máxima and her family returned home, but they noticed something different about the landscape: the old dirt path that crossed part of their land had been turned into a wide, flat road. Their uncle told them some Yanacocha workers had come with bulldozers.
Máxima went to complain at the company offices, on the outskirts of Cajamarca. She persevered day after day until an engineer agreed to see her. From her woven bag, she produced a tattered piece of yellowing paper and showed it to him. It was her certificate of ownership.
‘That land belongs to the mine,’ she remembers him saying, as he eyed the document suspiciously. ‘The Sorochuco community sold it fifteen years ago. Are you telling me you didn’t know?’
Surprised and annoyed, the peasant woman had nothing but questions. How was that possible, if she’d bought the parcel of land from her husband’s uncle in 1994? How was it possible, if she’d spent years looking after other people’s cattle and milking cows to save up the money? She had paid two bulls for that land, worth almost $100 apiece. How could Yanacocha be the owner of Tragadero Grande if she had a piece of paper saying otherwise?
That afternoon, the company engineer sent her away from his office with no answers.
Half a year later, in May 2011, days before her fortyfirst birthday, Máxima Acuña set off at dawn to a friend’s house to weave her a sheep’s-wool shawl. On her return, she found her guinea-pig pens overturned. The potato and olluco plot destroyed. The stones her husband Jaime Chaupe was collecting to build the new house scattered. Her hut reduced to a pile of ashes. The next day, Máxima and Jaime walked for hours down the hill to the Sorochuco police station to report Yanacocha.
‘I’ve just spoken to the engineers and they say that land’s been sold,’ the police chief told them, after making them wait outside his office for five hours in the blazing sunshine.
‘Maybe other people sold what’s theirs, but not my land,’ Máxima insisted, certificate in hand.
‘Well, let’s hope you didn’t sell it, because if you did, you really are screwed.’
Máxima and Jaime refused to leave the police station until an officer wrote up their complaint. They were supposed to take that piece of paper to the Celendín public prosecutor’s office, which they did, but it made no difference. A prosecutor from the province closed the complaint days later: there wasn’t enough evidence to prove the mining company had attacked them.
Back in Tragadero Grande, the Chaupe-Acuñas had no choice but to build a temporary hut out of ichu grass and try to get on with their lives. Then August came. Máxima and her family recount what happened to them at the beginning of that month as a series of violations which they’re afraid will be repeated.
It happened over five days.
On 8 August, a policeman showed up at the hut and kicked over the pans where they were stewing potatoes and boiling milk for breakfast. He told them they had to leave the land. They stayed put.
On 9 August, some police officers and Yanacocha security guards seized their possessions, pulled down the hut and set fire to it.
On 10 August, the family slept out in the open. They covered themselves with piles of ichu grass as protection against the cold.
On 11 August, a troop of police officers with helmets, riot shields, clubs and rifles came to throw them out. They brought a backhoe loader with them. Jhilda, Máxima’s youngest daughter, fifteen years old, knelt in front of the vehicle to stop it entering the land. While some police officers beat her mother and siblings with clubs to get them out of the road, a sub-officer smacked Jhilda in the back of the neck with the butt of his gun, knocking her out. Ysidora, the older daughter, filmed the rest of the scene on her phone. The video lasts a couple of minutes and you can see it on YouTube: her mother is screaming; her sister is unconscious on the ground. The Yanacocha engineers watch from a distance, next to their white trucks. The troop of police officers, lined up in rows, is about to leave.
August the 12th was the coldest day of that year in Cajamarca. The Chaupe-Acuñas spent the night in the pampas, in minus seven degrees.
The mining company has denied these accusations time and again, to judges and journalists. They demand proof. Máxima Acuña has medical certificates and photos that show the bruises they left on her arms and knees. That day the police wrote a report which accused the family of attacking eight sub-officers with sticks, stones and machetes, though it also recognises that these officers had no power to remove them without authorisation from a public prosecutor.
‘Have you heard that the lakes are for sale?’ asks Máxima, before hoisting a heavy rock onto her back. ‘Or that the rivers are for sale and we’re not allowed to use the spring?’
Since the press coverage, Máxima Acuña’s struggle has won her supporters in Peru and abroad, but also sceptics and enemies. To Yanacocha, she is a usurper of land. To activists and thousands of peasants in Cajamarca she is the Lady of the Blue Lake, as they began to call her when word about her resistance spread. The old metaphor of David and Goliath was inevitable: it was the word of an Andean campesina against the most powerful gold-mining corporation in Latin America. Although what was at stake, really, affected everyone: the case of Máxima Acuña is the story of clashing visions of what we call progress.
Astrophysicists say that all the gold in the bowels of the earth, which we now feverishly exploit, came here from space 3.9 billion years ago – when the planet was a giant ball of magma – after a meteorite shower. Gold, the theory goes, would have fallen from the sky. And there’s one thing we know for sure: no other mineral has seduced and disturbed people’s imagination like that glinting metal whose chemical symbol is Au – from the Latin ‘aurum’, aurora, radiant dawn.
Any book of world history will show us that the hunger to possess it has led to invasions and wars, strengthened empires and religions, laid waste to mountains and forests, shaped the destinies of kings and emperors, inspired beautiful works of art and provoked horrific crimes. The God of Israel punished the Hebrews for worshipping a golden calf, and then ordered that the tabernacle where they worshipped him be made of the same material. The pharaohs believed that gold ensured their magnificence in the afterlife and demanded to be buried wrapped in the ‘flesh of the gods’. Crassus thought he could buy Rome’s military glory and died when he was forced to swallow molten gold. Christopher Columbus thought the gold from the Indies could finance a crusade to liberate Jerusalem from the infidels and thus earn him a place in Paradise. Once a year, the Inca ruler Pachacuti covered his body in gold dust, the ‘sweat of the sun’, and then conquistador Francisco Pizarro died while dining in his Lima palace, run through by enemy swords, surrounded by the golden treasures he’d stolen. Newton devoted years to alchemy and studied how to turn ordinary metals into gold. The Genoese and Florentines made it into coins to express their economic power. Arab chiefs used gold to humiliate their rivals, coupling commercial acumen with military prowess. People from Britain and the United States built complex gold-based financial systems to shield themselves from devaluation and the protests of the poor. Bounty hunters threw John Sutter off his farm when his watermill sparked the California gold rush. Many an explorer perished in the Amazon rainforest hunting for a golden city called El Dorado. From King Midas, cursed by his greed, to Aga Khan III, who every year donated his weight in gold to his people; from the insalubrious mines of South Africa to the sterilised vaults of Fort Knox; from the street markets of Bengal to the financial markets of the City of London; from the exquisite goldwork of the Chimu people to the treasures of long-forgotten galleons in ocean trenches – that golden metal brought here by galactic rocks millennia ago has always reflected ‘the universal quest for eternal life – the ultimate certainty and escape from risk’, according to Peter L. Bernstein, a financial historian.
Gold is not vital to any living thing. It serves primarily to feed our vanity and illusions of security: more than fifty per cent of the gold extracted in the world ends up as jewellery that adorns millions of necks, ears, hands and teeth. Forty per cent is used as financial backup, in the form of bars and coins held in central banks. Nine per cent is used in the telecommunications industry (inside mobile phones, computers, televisions, GPS devices) and health sciences (the tests to diagnose malaria and HIV, as well as treatments for arteriosclerosis and cancer, use nanoparticles of gold). Beyond that, gold has fewer practical uses than other metals and alloys. With steel we can construct buildings, ships, cars, all kinds of machines. With gold, a soft mineral, it’s not possible to forge tools or resistant weapons. Yet it’s gold that we call a precious metal. Its main qualities – it never rusts, it never loses its shine – make it one of the most coveted metals of all. Long after steel has corroded and rusted, gold – being chemically inert – will remain unchanged. Gold survives the passage of time, the ravages of nature, human machinations. The problem is that there’s less and less gold left to exploit.
Some people imagine that gold is extracted by the tonne and transported in hundreds of lorries in the form of ingots to high-security vaults, when in fact it’s a rare metal. If we collected all the gold obtained throughout history – 187,000 tonnes, the World Gold Council estimates – and melted it down, it would barely fill four Olympic swimming pools. The richest reserves on the planet are running out and it’s increasingly difficult to find new supplies. More than half of the gold that exists above ground has been mined in the past five decades. And the ore that has yet to be extracted is usually buried in tiny quantities beneath inhospitable mountains and lakes.
To end up with an ounce of gold – enough to make a wedding ring – you need to extract fifty tonnes of earth, or the contents of forty removal lorries. The landscape afterwards reveals a stark contrast: while the mining companies leave scars in the earth so vast they can be seen from space, the particles extracted are so minuscule that as many as 200 could fit on the head of a pin.
One of the last remaining gold reserves happens to lie under the hills and lakes of Cajamarca, where the Yanacocha mining company has been operating since the end of the twentieth century. The same Andean region where hundreds of peasants have lived for generations. Máxima Acuña is one of them. A woman who lives on top of a goldmine, but has never seen or touched a single nugget of that yellow metal which is of no use to her.
Image © Luciano Belviso