Originally published in The Guardian. As owner of some of the largest and most lucrative gold mines in the world, Newmont Mining Corporation is used to getting its own way. Not in Peru though. In a David-and-Goliath battle, community activists have, so far, succeeded in seeing off the creation of a $5bn (£3.8bn) open-caste mine next to a pristine lake.
At the centre of that battle is Máxima Acuña de Chaupe, a 47 year-old subsistence farmer who owns an 60-acre plot of land precisely where Newmont’s local joint-venture, Yanacocha, wants to dig. Acuña’s refusal to sell up, despite huge pressure and persistent threats, has effectively stalled the proposed Conga mine. A spokesperson for Newmont has said that it does not anticipate developing the mine in the foreseeable future.
As Newmont’s shareholders gather at the corporation’s Denver, US, headquarters, mother-of-four Acuña has been in San Francisco to receive the prestigious Goldman Environment prize. Of the prize’s six winners this year, she is among three involved in resisting land grabs by private companies – a stark indication of the rise in land-related conflicts around the world.
Acuña’s resistance is testimony to her own resilience. Her refusal to sell up has resulted in claims of physical assault, surveillance and being taken to court multiple times. Despite judicial support for her land claim, Newmont’s joint venture has “peacefully” destroyed all her crops twice in the last few months.
But, with all due respect to Acuña’s dogged determination, responsibility for stopping a multibillion-dollar mine does not fall to her efforts alone. Credit must also be given to the network of national and international campaign groups that have mobilised in support of her cause over recent years.
“Solidarity is essential. It’s the only way of bringing a counterweight to the power of economic might and the power of corruption,” says Mirtha Vasquez, a lawyer with Peru-based charity Grufides, which offers legal assistance to landholders threatened by extractive projects.
Such solidarity expresses itself in a variety of ways. A human rights observer working for the Belgian charity Catapa recently spent a month at Acuña’s family home working as a human rights observer. The charity also ran a successful cowfunding campaignlate last year to raise money to buy Acuña’s some cows to supplement her income.
Another charity coming to the aid of small landowners such as Acuña is Front Line Defenders. This Dublin-based campaign group offers grants of up to €7,500 (£5,907) to cover the cost of satellite phones, CCTV, temporary rehousing and other measures required for landowner’s personal security. It also offers training to build up the campaigning and communications’ capacities of local non-profits.
“One of the tactics that they [corporations] use is to divide and conquer by pitting communities against one another. And because a lot of these communities aren’t plugged in technologically, it’s very easy for misinformation and disinformation to spread,” says Adam Shapiro, head of campaigns at Front Line Defenders.
Direct advocacy is another way international non-profit groups can have influence. This time last year, Acuña’s lawyer Vasquez attended Newmont’s annual shareholder meeting at the invitation of the charities Earthworks and EarthRights International. Similarly, Frontline Defenders has brought Acuña’s case to the attention of institutions such as the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights.
Raising international awareness and public support is arguably where the impact of global solidarity networks really kicks in. In the age of the internet and social media, the ability for marginalised voices to be quickly amplified is vast. In February last year, for example, Acuña’s story was tweeted, shared on Facebook and emailed as part of a World Day of Action dedicated to her.
Social media has revolutionised the reach of campaign groups, says Hannibal Rhodes from The Gaia Foundation who is European co-ordinator for Yes to Life, No to Mining, a global coalition of 55 charities and non-profit networks. “A good newspaper article could be shared maybe 10,000 times, say, but if you get a video out there [online] that touches a cord and is used at the right time you can get millions of views,” he says.
Global corporations are litigious beasts, however, and can be quick to sue land rights activists for defamation. Getting your facts right is therefore essential. Leng Ouch, another winner of this year’s Goldman Environment prize, has dedicated most of his adult life to precisely that end: digging up hard data on corporate collusion that is leading to the destruction of Cambodia’s rainforest.
Information revealed through the investigative efforts of Ouch and his colleagues at the Cambodia Human Rights Task Force contributed to a national moratorium on new land concessions in forest areas. It also helped mobilise international campaign groups such as Global Witness to launch investigations of their own.
The law can be used in support of land rights activists as well as against them. Acuña’s ability to prove the legality of her land claim in court is what’s fundamentally prevented her eviction. All too often marginalised groups lack secure land rights, however, leaving them vulnerable to counterclaims by companies.