You can’t drink gold

by Máxima Acuña de Chaupe

Are we running out of water? (Issue III/2022)

  • A mural in honour of Máxima Acuña de Chaupe, the “guardian of the waters”, on the facade of a house in Celendin

  • Die Bevölkerung der Region Huaraz organisiert jedes Jahr eine Zeremonie für das Wasser „pago al agua“ an der Laguna Paron. Foto: Eva Tempelmann

  • Photo: Eva Tempelmann

I live in Sorochuco, a remote region in the Andean highlands, in the North of Peru. Here it looks barren, but the ground is fertile. We get water from the Azul Lagoon, the blue lake that lies close to our house. We drink from it and use it for farming and livestock. In our Quechuan mother tongue, we call is Mama Llaca: mother water. All life comes from her.

In the Andes, water is scarce. In the dry season, hardly any rain falls, and if the glaciers in the mountains keep melting due to climate change, then this source of water will eventually dry up too. 

I was born and raised in this region; I live here. In 1994 I bought a piece of land here with my husband Jaime, and we built a simple clay house on it. We have raised four children here and now we already have grandchildren. We plant potatoes, beans and grain, and have pigs and chickens. I sell the grain on the market, as well as fabric that I sew and dye by hand, using plant sap. 

For centuries people have been looking for gold in these regions. First the Incas, then the Spanish colonialists. Thirty years ago, one of the greatest goldmines in the world, Yanacocha, was created near our house. It is largely owned by the US mining company Newmont. The surface mining stretches over 250 square kilometres. The once green hills have been transformed into a moonscape. Every day, huge excavators dig up immense quantities of rock in the search for gold. The mine was going to be expanded, part of a plan called “Project Conga”. This is where our problems began. In 2011, Newmont employees came to us and wanted to buy the four hectares of land on which we live. They said the lagoon was full of gold. We declined. We knew: if we leave our land, it will turn into a desert. 

“Some lagoons and rivers turn red as blood; the fish no longer swim in them. ”

The problem with the mines is that need vast amounts of water, they dry up wells and contaminate the soil. During processing, poisonous substances such as mercury and cyanide are used. Again and again, contaminated water enters the river and groundwater. Some lagoons and rivers turn red as blood after; the fish no longer swim in them. The poisonous water ends up in the fields, that we water, and thereby in the plants that we eat. Nobody cares. For the government in the capital, Lima, we are far away. 

Newmont did not accept our decision at the time and claimed we were living on the piece of land illegally. They thought I would not defend myself— I am a simple woman; I cannot read or write. But the land belongs to us, we have a deed of ownership. Soon, employers at the mine began showing up, sometimes with policemen in uniform. They threatened us, broke into our house, and killed our animals. One time, they beat me and my daughter so fiercely that I became unconscious. I was terribly scared. A human rights organisation from Cajamarca offered us legal support. This is how we went to court together with the lawyer Mirtha Vásquez. Mirtha was very committed to our cause and also fought for more political justice in the country, most recently as the country’s prime minister. She knew that our resistance would set an example. That the right to water is more important than profit. Despite this, the supreme court ruled in favour of Newmont three years later. We got a suspended sentence and a heavy fine. 

This verdict was unjust. We received a lot of support from the public and solidarity from many countries. Most of the people in Cajamarca were against the Conga Project. We went out on the streets and protested. Agua si, Oro no, we shouted, Yes to water, No to Gold. You cannot drink gold.  The government ruling at the time violently suppressed our protests, there were arrests and injuries, five people were shot. That was in 2012. 

Five years later the court ruled in our favour. The Conga Project has been suspended indefinitely. We don’t have to leave our land. But the conflict is not over. Across the Andes and all over Peru people are threatened or even murdered for resisting mining. The government sides with the companies: mining is the engine driving the country’s development, is what the politicians say. You will profit from mining; you will get jobs and prosper. But Cajamarca remains one of the poorest provinces in Peru. The gold, which is supposed to be so valuable, has only brought us suffering. We do not need it to survive, but we need water.

As told to Eva Tempelmann
Translated by Ysanne Cremer

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