Similar attacks on environmental defenders are mounting throughout Central and South America.
Sarah Lazare / AlterNet | September 26, 2016
The Denver-based Newmont Mining Corporation was hit with negative press last week following reports that its Peruvian subsidiary sent security forces to attack the prominent indigenous environmental defender Máxima Acuña de Chaupe at her remote farm in the northern Andean highlands. Now, the mining giant’s latest public relations campaign to defend its use of force against the Chaupe family, including the destruction of their crops, is provoking fresh outcry from human rights and environmental organizations.
Máxima attracted international acclaim—and a Goldman Environmental Prize — for her years-long resistance against the Yanacocha mining company, which is 51.35 percent owned by Newmont and has waged a relentless campaign to transform her plot into the open-pit Conga gold and copper mine. In retaliation for her refusal to sell her land to Yanacocha in 2011, Máxima says she has endured a steady stream of intimidation, harassment and surveillance, alongside an ongoing legal campaign to drive her family from their home of more than 20 years. The mine is widely opposed by peasants and workers in the region, who have staged mass protests and general strikes to resist the project.
The dispute came to a head on the morning of September 18, when Chaupe family members report they were again attacked, this time by roughly 20 private security forces hired by Yanacocha. According to a statement emailed to AlterNet by EarthRights International, the Chaupe family reports the following:
Yesterday morning, at 9:30 am, personnel and security forces working on behalf of Minera Yanacocha, forcibly entered the Tragadero Grande property where the Chaupe family reside and used farm tools to aggressively alter the crops that the Chaupe family had planted on the land. The security forces then formed columns to block Máxima Acuña and her husband Jaime Chaupe from approaching the men who were uprooting their crops. When Máxima and her husband attempted to approach the men to interrupt the invasion and the destruction of their crops, the security forces attacked Máxima and Jaime with their shields and the butts of their firearms. When Jaime went into the house to retrieve his camera to document the abuses, the security forces severely injured Máxima by blows to her head and body.
In the wake of the attack, Máxima and Jaime did not have access to a working cell phone and were unable to call the police to report the attack. Some hours later, a police delegation arrived from Huasmín around midday as a part of a regularly scheduled visit. The Huasmín police delegation lent the Chaupes a cell phone, which Chaupes alerted their family members. Máxima was then taken in a car to Cajamarca where she was treated in the hospital.
Ysidora Chaupe, Máxima’s oldest daughter, confirmed these injuries to Amnesty International.
Human rights and environmental organizations immediately condemned the alleged attack. “Minera Yanacocha must immediately stop their harassment of Máxima and her family, denounce attacks like this one, and call on its employees, agents and all others to ensure her safety,” said Jennifer Krill, executive director for Earthworks, in a press statement.
In response to the resultant outcry, Newmont appears to be doing damage control. On September 20, the company released a statement claiming that, “Yanacocha conducted a lawful possessory defense to remove the crops from the parcel owned by Yanacocha as required by law to protect their land rights, and replanted the area with native grass.”
Newmont spokesperson Omar Jabara told AlterNet, “This was incursion into Newmont property. Her family is moving into areas not under dispute to take advantage of Peru’s squatter laws.”
But Marco Simons, general counsel at EarthRights International, told AlterNet that Newmont officials “decided to take the law into their own hands.”
“This is a family that sincerely believes that this is its property and is fighting this out in court,” said Simons. “So far, no court has disagreed with them. So, what would you do if you were on your property, and suddenly over a dozen people dressed like stormtroopers poured through a hole in the fence and start surrounding you? Newmont says that landowners are legally justified in using force to defend their property. That’s the position that they put Máxima and her family in, but it’s not a fair fight.”
In an attempt to clear the company’s name, Newmont’s communications department released a video which it claims proves that “at no time did any member of the security team or Yanacocha retaliate or attempt to strike the Chaupes.” The footage can be viewed below.
Yet the video seems questionable at best. The footage shows roughly 20 armed forces donning riot gear and shields, breaking through a fence and descending on the isolated home and farm of the Chaupe family. Contrary to Newmont’s claims that they were unarmed, the men can be seen carrying batons. Jabara confirmed this, calling the weapons “purely defensive.”
Remarking on the video, Simons observed: “The security personnel had to pass through a Newmont fence to get to the area where the confrontation took place. Newmont built that fence to keep Maxima and her family off of their property. The company’s claim that this area is somehow indisputably Newmont property is belied by the notion that this is inside the fence that they built.”
In the confrontations shown in the footage, Jaime and Máxima are vastly outnumbered and seemingly powerless to stop the individuals shown destroying their crops. But perhaps most troubling are the stretches of time in which Máxima cannot be seen onscreen.
“What we see on camera is a large number of men in riot gear surrounding the home of the Chaupe family and pulling out crops,” Payal Sampat, mining program director at Earthworks, told AlterNet. “We see and hear the Chaupe family’s terror, and then there is a lengthy period of time in which you cannot see Máxima on the screen but can hear her cries of despair. That is extremely alarming, and if anything, the video demonstrates the heavy-handed approach of Yanacocha towards this campesino family.”
Sampat called it a “David-and-Goliath” scenario, noting that the company “has its security guards stationed outside of their home and land 24/7. They are subject to constant surveillance and intimidation.”
Asked how the video provides definitive proof, as the company claims, that Máxima was not injured, Jabara replied:
“You can’t assume that the fact that they went off-screen proves that they were struck.”
He instructed AlterNet that “multiple stories” in the Peruvian press exonerate the company and also claimed that “police released a statement that she [Máxima] did not sustain any serious injuries, despite claims from NGOs.”
Yet, according to Simons, police are under contract with Yanacocha, raising questions about their impartiality. He added:
“Yanacocha and Newmont’s influence throughout this region is so pervasive that any number of officials and administrators might be reluctant to cross Newmont.”
This is not the first time Máxima says her family was attacked. She reported in January 2014 that she received an anonymous death threat over the phone, as well as a home visit from police ordering her to stop farming her land. Since then, she says there were at least three incidents in which police and/or private security forces have either destroyed her crops, damaged the infrastructure of her home or physically intimidated her and her family.
Máxima’s allegations are particularly disturbing in light of mounting attacks on environmental defenders throughout Central and South America. According to a report released in April 2015 by the advocacy organization Global Witness, the killing of activists is on the rise, with 116 environmental defenders murdered in 2014 alone. “A shocking 40 percent of victims were indigenous, with most people dying amid disputes over hydropower, mining and agri-business,” the study states. “Nearly three-quarters of the deaths we found information on were in Central and South America.”
In March, Honduran environmental defender Berta Cáceres was assassinated while opposing massive hydropower projects in the Gualcarque river basin, provoking international outcry. Máxima’s global supporters are determined to prevent her from suffering a similar fate. In April, 21 prominent environmental and human rights organizations, including Amazon Watch and Global Witness, wrote an open letter to Gary Goldberg, the president and CEO of Newmont Mining Corporation, to ask “that your company end its ongoing harassment of the Chaupe family.”
That letter came just two months after Newmont claimed to the Securities and Exchange Commission that it no longer plans to build the mine, stating on page 22 of its filing: “Under the current social and political environment, the Company does not anticipate being able to develop [the] Conga [mine] for the foreseeable future. Given recent expiration of operating and construction permits and the related uncertainty around the renewal of those permits, as well as the deferral of the project, the Company has removed Conga from its Reserves statement.”
In light of the company’s claims that it is deferring the mining project, it is unclear why it continues to deploy security forces to the Chaupe family farm. According to Simons, “Either they are lying in their SEC filing, or they care so much about not letting this family win that they will continue fighting them and intimidating them even if they don’t have any business interest in doing so, to send message to anyone else who might stand up against their actions.”