Las Madres de la Pachamama

The Peruvian mountains are still reverberating. On the surface, the noise of the drills and the diggers merge with the firing of tear gas, with the shouts from the crowds, with the whistle of bullets. The valuable minerals that the mountains behold in their insides condemn them to being broken apart. The crosses marked by geologists on maps mark the places where big multinational companies see the mathematical symbol that will multiply their fortunes. The vultures approach, attracted by the ink on the signature of the death sentence, to tear apart the booty of a still-breathing, rocky cadaver. The government retracts the promises they gave to fatten the ballot boxes that scorn the deaths they caused.

Facing the powerful are the mothers, who can change the world if not a woman? the grandmother of a student? the wife of a agriculturist? Who can give lessons on economics to a poor mother? “The mine leaves poverty; we want mining but we want it to be sustainable”. What promises can convince a mother to give her son contaminated water to drink?

Terrorists, violent people, radicals, guerrillas… “You’re a whore, what are you doing here old bag? You should be on your farm with your husband, why are you getting involved?” whispered Félix Toledo Leiva, public prosecutor of Huancabamba, in the ear of Cleofé after she had endured a never-ending night of beatings, threats and sexual harassment.

For decades Peruvian society has been divided by mining. According to the Peruvian Ombudsman there are currently 94 active social conflicts against mining in Peru. Where some see progress, others see the agony of Pachamama, the Incas’ Mother Nature, of the Quechuas, of the Aymaras, the unshakeable concept of nature as mother and protector. “We love our mountains, our valleys, our rivers… That’s the true wealth of man.”

Cleofé Neira, Elizabeth Cunya, Máxima Acuña, CatalinaTorocahua… heroines facing the mining giant. Endless treks to meet an entrenched enemy, threats to abandon the land of their ancestors, hunger strikes outside the church bearing the insults of the pro-miners. According to Carlos del Solar, ex-president of the National Society of Mining, Petroleum and Energy, these women are radicals who go from one province to another financed by international NGOs who are against the country.

In 2005, Cleofé’s husband was in favour of the mine; they paid him 20 Soles (€5.61) a day for working there. Soon activists and clerics from the church arrived, and opened his eyes with examples of other towns where the mine had not only destroyed the mountain, took away their environment and impoverished even further an already very poor society. It stripped them of their greatest asset; mother earth and the tranquillity of their communities where nothing would ever be the same again, alcohol, prostitution, pollution, illness. Cleofé and her husband joined the march to Cerro Negro, the mountain which was already being exploited by the mining company that had set its sights on the hills of Ñangalí, next to the city of Huancabamba in the province of Piura, the hills which they gazed upon every morning on opening her eyes. There the representatives of the state and of the British mining company Monterrico Metals were waiting. The protestors never arrived to their meeting; hundreds of police officers and private security guards cornered the ‘ronderos’ (community defence organisations that arose independently in rural areas of northern Peru in the mid-70s as a response to terrorist groups) who had been walking for long days through the mountains. The helicopter that was taking the state and mining spokespeople to the meeting was diverted with the excuse of confrontations with the protesters.

Cleofé Neira and Elizabeth Cunya were captured along with other male protesters, accused of terrorism and forced entry onto private property. Their treatment was violent and degrading, the guards were merciless with those who they had been able to capture, and after two days of threats and beatings, they were freed. Now there is court action weighing on them. The women have pressed charges against the public prosecutor of Huancabamba who came to record the facts “for the crime of omitting the occurrence of criminal action…”; against the doctor who examined those who had been captured for “the crime of emitting a false medical certificates…”; “against the official of the National Police of Peru who were in charge of the actions that were deployed to suppress the demonstration of locals from the communities of Jaén (Cajamarca) and of Piura, districts of Huancabamba and Ayabaca, specifically the rural communities of Yanta, Segunda and Cajas, that took place between 26th July and 1st August 2005, when the protestors were heading towards the facilities of the Henry Hill camp of the mining company Monterrico Metals…”; against the General, Coronel and Captain of the army who were responsible for security in the area, and the police and private security personnel who participated directly in the actions, for torture, false imprisonment, sexual assault, and for the homicide of Melanio García, killed by a bullet that went through his back.

Others have also died, such as Victoriano Huayna Nina who was killed in 2015 by a bullet from an AKM rifle used by the Peruvian anti-riot police, and Carlos Rondón who was found lying dead on a road with his neck slit, two days after his disappearance. Both died in the confrontations against the open pit copper mines of La Tapada and Tía María, property of Southern Copper Corporation, which has kept the town of Cocachacra, Islay,  in the Arequipa province. Catalina Torocahua Muñoz has been the voice of the hunger strike carried out by women from the area, outside the cathedral in Arequipa, in order to raise awareness in the city of Arequipa about the problems that the mine will bring. After various rejected environmental impact studies, the company managed to get the government’s approval for the extraction of copper. The confrontations that had already stopped the project in 2011, returned once more. The area is ready for battlefield, the protestors attack the police with stones, they advance all together in veritable pitched battles in which they beat to death the police officer Alberto Vásquez Durand, the seventh fatality of the Tía María conflict.

Máxima Acuña has become the most high-profile of the defenders of the earth. Thanks to the intervention of organisations such as Amnesty International and Red Ulam (Latin American Network of Women) her case has reached the international media, thereby exposing her highly compromised security. Facing her is Yanacocha, the biggest gold mine in South America. It is located at 4000 metres above sea level and is only 50km from the city of Cajamarca. Soon after discovering the mine, they started to buy the lands of the rural people, deceiving them in order to gain low prices. Máxima did not sell and ended up being surrounded by the mine, committed to fighting for the mountains and lakes that she considers to be the real treasure. The mining company harasses her and her family, they hardly have freedom of movement and their comings and goings are controlled by armed security guards who also stop any visits from unknown people, with the excuse that in order to reach Máxima’s house you have to cross the mining company’s territory. Máxima enounced by the mine for usurpation, they tried to evict her and demolished an extension of her house, based on an obscure land purchase made in 1996 from the community. Máxima won the criminal case and now the company is pursuing her in a civil suit, aiming to obtain her lands.

Heavy metals in the water above the permitted limits, mercury spillages, cyanide leaks in the subsoil… In 2001 the New York Times published the words of Lorenzo Kulander, ex vice president of Newmont Mining Corporation (one of the companies that owns the mine, along with Minas Buenaventura and the International Finance Corporation. The French company BRMG pulled out after an incomprehensible legal case in which it lost its shares, at which point the French government intervened, declaring that Vladimiro Montesinos received 4 million USD for pressuring the public prosecutor in favour of the Peruvian company Minas Buenaventura). “In December 2000, whilst the executive leadership team was in Peru we found out for the first time that our operations in Peru are not in accordance with the environmental standards of the United States”.

It is difficult for companies to understand that it is not only money that brings wealth, but that for the inhabitants of the Peruvian valleys and mountains, their environment is the real wealth; they feel privileged to live surrounded by nature. They are not completely against mining; mining is okay, but not in any anywhere and at any price. Do the citizens of under developed countries not have the right to have environmental legislation that protects Mother Earth and her inhabitants? The returns are astronomical when you do not have to give back or abide by any rules, when the wages of the workers are miserable, then the mine is a treasure for pirates for whom everything is justified, everything goes. In Ñangalí, Cleofé is worried again; in the local elections of November 2014 the provincial mayor of Huancabamba, Wilson Ramiro Ibáñez, lost, an  anti-mining leader who had achieved four years of peace by stopping the mining project. Over the new mayor hangs the shadow of having financed his campaign with money from the mine. The mine is waking from its lethargy and the tremors that augur an earthquake have started. The Chinese mining company Zijin has now acquired the concession and has started new studies, new movements within the local population looking for labourers, new boots for the local football teams and school materials for the schools. Small investments that achieve big results; “divide the people and you will win”.

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