«You’re an ant. The mining company is an elephant,» police in Peru told farmer Máxima Acuña in 2011 when a corporation tried to physically intimidate her into giving up the land she owns. The metaphor is not a new one — nor is the manifestation of economic greed so corrupt and pervasive that the human right to dignity and survival is rendered near-powerless. The implication of the officer’s words was clear: acquiesce, as there is no point fighting, in such an unequal clash. Wholly rarer, however, was Acuña’s response. She stands less than five feet tall but has resisted the strong-arm tactics of the U.S. mining corporation Newmont and its relentless efforts to force her from her property ever since, with stoic courage that holds truth as an absolute, no matter what brutality is invested in contradicting it. American director Claudia Sparrow’s documentary Maxima embraces a glossy and conventional social-issue format. But it’s a David and Goliath tale that fully engages, through the formidable integrity of its namesake, and the stomach-churning topicality of the gold industry’s offenses against the environment, which are echoed by the practices of unethical multi-nationals worldwide, as the only planet we have is polluted to the point of imminent collapse.
Yanacocha, one of the world’s largest gold mines, is in Peru’s poorest region, Cajamarca. It is running out of its precious metal, and its majority American owners Newmont devised the 4.8 billion-dollar Conga Expansion Project as a way to tap new resources. They are not interested in the land or water there — they just want the gold. But indigenous communities depend on clean drinking water from Lake Perol and subsistence crops grown in the soil, their very livelihoods under threat by the massive contamination of toxic waste that mining would result in (gold is cheap to produce in Peru, as environmental rules are not stringently applied). Máxima’s plot lies on the pathway to the lake, within a large tract Yanacocha claim to have purchased (she says, without her consent). The ongoing land dispute has seen Máxima and her family physically attacked in an attempt at eviction, their tiny earth-and-grass shack demolished, their crops routinely destroyed, their stock stolen, and their sheepdog killed. Yanacocha denies responsibility, though we see mobile-phone footage of violations. The local police are ostensibly on hand to intervene, but officers are employed as security by Yanacocha on their days off, so they have a vested interest in siding with the miners.
officers are employed as security by Yanacocha on their days off, so they have a vested interest in siding with the miners.
Solidarity does come from mine opponents in the wider indigenous community. Social unrest and protests flared up in 2012, and five protesters were killed by police, prompting a suspension of the Conga project. Máxima is held up as an inspiration by others similarly threatened by the development, encouraging them to maintain resolve in resisting. Locals have not forgotten an accident in 2000, when a contractor to Yanacocha spilled a large amount of pure mercury along a stretch of road, adversely affecting the health of residents (who were not warned of the risk), and causing ongoing neurological ailments. Aside from the looming danger of contamination posed by the expansion, drinking water in the region’s capital, Cajamarca, is already rationed, with the mine allotted four times as much as the city is allowed to use — despite inhabitants saying that all they need is water, not gold. Disregard for the monetary value assigned to gold is a stance the mining bigwigs are unable to properly fathom; that a farmer living a simple, subsistence life on the land might be contented with her lot and not want to «no longer be poor» in their PR-speak, and might not be able to be bought. They refuse to countenance that the rights of one human being (a female farmer, at that) could be enough to impede vast corporate profits. The limitless corruption of greed, then, comes up against humble but absolute commitment to the land and harmonious sustainability.
The rhetoric that the mine is of financial benefit to locals has been contradicted by the fact the region has actually got poorer since Yamacocha’s founding. Despite the World Bank, with its professed aim of lifting people out of poverty, has until very recently held a stake in the mine, those who should have benefited most from any economic boost have become its biggest victims. And grassroots resistance has not been enough to fully expel corporate power, as Newmont has used all the institutionalised tricks at its disposal in a war of attrition. Lawyer Mirtha Vásquez, despite death threats and other aggressive intimidation tactics directed at her, has represented Máxima through an endless cycle of court cases and appeals, as Newmont refuse to honour rulings affirming her land ownership, keeping up their harassment campaign and sabotage of her crops, and controlling the roads of the region as if it were their own country. The fight has now been taken into the U.S. legal system, in an effort to circumvent the corruption in the Peruvian courts, as Máxima seeks to hold those right at the very top of the neo-colonial command-chain to account. Because if the film has shown us anything, it’s that global power-players set agendas — but individuals with truth on their side, can upend them.