The Conga conflict erupted in July 2011, when the Yanacocha Mining Company officially announced its proposal to construct an open-pit copper-gold mine. The mine would be located at the head of the water basin for the provinces of Celendín, Cajamarca, and Hualgayoc and would require draining four lagoons (Perol, Azul, Mala, and Chica) to make way for the infrastructure of the mine. The company planned to construct four reservoirs to compensate for the loss of the lagoons. According to Yanacocha representatives, these reservoirs would store twice the amount of water that the lagoons regularly collect and would be distributed to communities so they could harvest one additional crop per year (de Althaus 2012). Water and lagoons have played a prominent role in campaigns against mineral extraction, and actions in their defence have sought to decelerate the aggressive expansion of extractivism in
Latin America. The importance of Conga’s lagoons stems from the relations that they embody, as well as campesinos’ concerns with having access to the water that nourishes their land, crops
, and families (Paredes Peñafiel 2016). These nourishing relations are sustained by campesinos’ ‘designs on the land’ (Paredes Peñafiel and Li 2017), which encompass water resources such as streams and artisanal channels used for irrigation. The centrality of water in people’s lives made the lagoons politically significant in struggles against the mine.
As the conflict attracted attention beyond the region, the lagoons also established connections between campesinos living near the project site and environmentalists, solidarity activists, international journalists, and other actors. The lagoons emphasised the dependence of local people on water resources while mobilising global concerns around biodiversity and the protection of a unique ecosystem. Within the diverse alliances that were formed to oppose the Conga project, people did not necessarily share a common stance on mining or environmental protection. As the Conga conflict gained notoriety beyond Cajamarca, various narratives incorporated the concepts of ‘indigeneity’ and ‘nature’ to express criticism towards Minera Yanacocha’s operations. Drawing on the iconic images of three women (Nélida, Máxima, and María) associated with mining
conflict in Cajamarca, we explore how these local actors and their national and international allies recast these discourses and practices in their struggles.
La Hija de la Laguna
Activism related to mining activity has taken an international dimension in recent years, aided by extensive solidarity networks, social media, and global environmental and indigenous rights movements. Documentary filmmaking has also been an effective way of drawing international attention to mining conflicts. Nélida was 31 years old when she was featured as the protagonist of La Hija de la Laguna (The Daughter of the Lake), a 2015 documentary about the Yanacocha mine produced by Guarango, a Peruvian association of documentary filmmakers. Guarango had previously produced three films dealing with mining issues.Footnote 3
The film synopsis for La Hija de La Laguna reads: ‘At the height of the Peruvian gold rush, Nélida, a Peruvian woman able to communicate with water spirits, uses her powers to prevent a mining corporation
from destroying the body of water she considers her mother’ (daughterofthelake.pe). In promotional materials, Nélida is described as a peasant farmer and environmental leader with a love for the Cajamarca countryside. She also studies law in the city of Cajamarca in order to protect her community from corporate interests. The film emphasises her relationship with water and Mother Earth,Footnote 4 imbuing it with a ‘spiritual’ quality (as it is popularly understood in Western conceptualisations of religion and spirituality): ‘Like other indigenous citizens in the Andes, her relationship with nature is sacred and respectful’ (La Hija de la Laguna 2015).
In the film, Nélida serves as both narrator and subject, a guide to the majestic landscapes threatened by mining expansion, and a fighter resolute in her stance against a powerful mining company. The documentary trailer begins with Nelida addressing Madre Agua (Mother Water): ‘When they destroy the lagoons, where will their owners live, the spirits (duendes) of the lakes? Do they not understand that you are a living being?’ Nélida’s charisma comes in part from her ability to speak passionately and directly regardless of the audience or setting. She moves with ease from her native Porcón, a hamlet near the mine, to her life as a law student in the city, and more recently, to meetings with various national and international supporters.
In the year following the release of the documentary, Nélida travelled the world to promote the film and speak out against mining injustice. Her interviews—whether addressing farmers in Colombia or European journalists—evoked the sentience of nature and the need to respect and reconnect with the
. In an interview for a Spanish newspaper during a promotion tour of the documentary, she explains:
The mountains are sacred for us Quechua. My grandfather … taught me many things about the Andean cosmovision. What for you here might be just a mountain, for us has much meaning. An apu is sacred because it protects us. It protects us from the cold, it has natural medicines, it has wild animals. In order to enter a mountain, one has to ask for permission …. You have to take a fruit, or throw a little stone and ask for permission.
While Nélida refers to the apu as a mountain protector, this terminology is more commonly used in the Southern Andes and only gained currency following the Quilish protests in the early 2000s, another controversial expansion project of the Yanacocha Mining Company. The emergence of Quilish as an apu resulted from local practices and forms of relating to the environment, together with the intervention of NGOs
, the media, activists, and environmentalists (Li 2015). As this and other examples have shown, grassroots activism defies the separation of nature and culture by emphasising people’s connections to an agentive landscape (de la Cadena 2015; Kohn 2016). Nélida is part of this landscape and she is connected to it, but this is a landscape that is always in the making, acquiring new uses and meanings as it is transformed through extractive and other activities. She is also connected to her grandfather, who was an influential figure in her life and, like Nélida, was linked to NGOs
and political networks. In the 2016 elections, Nélida ran as a candidate for Congress for the Frente Amplio, a coalition of parties that emerged in part from people’s dissatisfaction with current policies of extractivism. Prior to that, she was involved with the local NGO
Grufides, the organisation dealing most directly with mining issues in Cajamarca. Guarango’s press materials identify Marco Arana, former priest and founding member of Grufides, as her mentor. Mr Arana won a seat in Congress and has become a divisive figure, but before his political career, he was most well known for his role in protests against Yanacocha. His involvement in disputes with the mining company began because of his close relationship with people in Porcón, where he was a Parish Priest in the early 1990s (when Minera Yanacocha first arrived in Cajamarca).
As a Catholic priest living alongside campesinos in the highlands, Marco Arana sought to understand and celebrate other ways of being and living in the world, including people’s relationship with a powerful landscape. This relationship exceeded the state’s definition of resources, but it also exceeded Mr Arana’s own translations into the language of environmentalism and the sacred (Li 2015). Nélida’s ways of expressing human-nonhuman relations should not be seen as simply a reflection of an indigenous cosmology and part of a traditional or peasant worldview. Rather, it exemplifies the coproduction of knowledge—influenced partly by local practices, indigenous practices from other parts of the country (such as the Southern Andes), and widespread discourses on indigeneity—in response to the threat of extractive activity. Rituals to honour the lagoons or the
are not only part of ancestral practices; they are changing forms of engagement with a landscape that is itself in the process of transformation. They are also a form of critique and resistance to an extractivist model of development built on the destruction of livelihoods.
Yet the way that mining issues are portrayed in the media and recent documentaries sometimes rely on simplified representations of nature and people’s relationship with it. Our conversations with the director of La Hija de la Laguna, Ernersto (Tito) Cabellos, provided some insights into how decisions are made when filming a documentary and how these decisions in turn shape public opinion. In his telling, there were a few things that made Nélida stand out. Among them was her previous experience with a documentary, Yakumama (Mother Water) (Yakumama 2009). Her experience with filmmaking was an advantage, but there was another key reason: what he called the ‘spiritual’ aspect of her relationship with the environment. As his team began filming, they also realised that the lagoons became a powerful theme. He recalled: ‘What impacted me—in addition to the activist component, the political mobilisation—was the spiritual dimension. It wasn’t something that we had considered in our previous documentaries.’ Tito was implying that Nélida’s struggle was not simply an argument about the environment or human rights; it was about the Madre Tierra, which has become a prominent concept in the environmentalist vernacular in Peru and internationally (shorthand for a more complex and not always harmonious set of human-nonhuman relationships). His documentary was to focus on a young protagonist who could help us see the world otherwise. Tito’s role was to relay what he interpreted as Nélida’s message through images that he wove into a narrative
. However, something that is not made visible in his translation of Nélida’s world (or in her own statements to the media) is that duendes, spirits that inhabit the puquios (water springs), are not considered benevolent beings and are generally feared by campesinos in Cajamarca because they are said to take away the vitality of people who venture near them.
Tito said that, on screen, Nélida displayed strength but also a kind of ‘fragility’—this comes from her realisation (and the viewers’) that ‘the conflict is much bigger than her’ (Personal Communication). While the documentary plays up the usual trope of a powerful multinational against vulnerable (but courageous) individuals, Tito tried to introduce some complexity into the narrative
with two other stories told in the film which also focus on female protagonists. In addition to the Yanacocha mine, he included the story of women working in a Bolivian mining cooperative. He was interested in the idea of portraying these indigenous, poor women who are also contaminating the earth but who have to do so in order to support their families. ‘Are they good or bad?’ he asked rhetorically. ‘They have to help their families succeed.’ Tito alluded to the ambiguity and contradictions in their lives, which he also shows in the third story of a jeweller from Holland that is interwoven into the film. The jeweller is torn between her art and her need to make a living from an industry that contaminates (but she is only just realising this as she visits the places where the materials she works with are mined).
If there is something tying these stories together, it is the connection between the past, present, and future of mining. The Bolivia story is about old-style mining that has existed and polluted the earth for centuries, while the Yanacocha sequences show the current (and expanding) operation of a so-called modern mine. But according to Tito, the scenes from Bolivia also represent ‘the future that Nélida fears’ meaning that the pollution and environmental destruction associated with older mines would be the legacy of mineral extraction in Cajamarca. The possibility of a ‘clean’ gold that could be used in the jewellery industry is a view to a less polluting industry, an alternative for the future. The director’s efforts to show the nuance and complexity of people’s lives are offset by the tendency to depict a more heroic narrative
, as is often the case in documentaries about environmental conflicts. This heroic narrative
downplays the divisions within communities, including people who support the project and those who have a more ambivalent position, one that may oscillate depending on their needs and the benefits that they can acquire from the company.
The documentary’s story about the Peruvian Andes (focusing on the Yanacocha and Conga mines) shows the resolute opposition to mining embodied by Nélida and the film’s other key protagonist, Máxima. At the time of filming, Máxima was a Peruvian peasant woman living on the land where the Yanacocha Mining Company wanted to develop the Conga mine. Máxima fought Yanacocha in court and received the support and admiration of people around the world for her valiant fight (as well as significant hostility from her detractors). Coincidentally, Máxima has been called the ‘Lady of the Blue Lagoon’ (Dama de la Laguna Azul was the title of a newspaper article by Miranda 2012), while Nélida (who was made into the titular ‘daughter of the
lake’) does not reside near the lagoons but is shown in the film with Máxima. Nélida’s community of Porcón is located downstream from the Yanacocha mine, near the city of Cajamarca, but these geographical referents and other contextual information are absent from the film, which shows both women together, interacting with the lagoons. When asked why he did not make Máxima the protagonist of the film, Tito responded that at the time he started filming, Máxima’s case was not yet well known. But he also pointed out that her struggle was different: It is about property. This was not, to him, as compelling as Nelida’s narrative
, though it was nevertheless important to show. He felt that this particular story (about property) was the one that is usually told in the mainstream media, while Nelida’s perspective (the poetic and ‘spiritual’ dimension of her struggle to defend the lagoons) was not given sufficient attention. In other words, Nélida’s story makes clear that these struggles are not only about property, but the language of property is one that people like Máxima must rely on when presenting their case to the courts, the company, and the state.
Like Nélida’s story, the case of Máxima Acuña illustrates the local and global dimensions of resistance to mining. Following the approval of the Conga project, Máxima refused to move from her plot of land at the site of the proposed mine. The mining company claims that it bought land from the community in 1996. Máxima insists that she purchased the land two years earlier from her husband’s uncle and never gave up her rights to it. Máxima’s house is located near the Laguna Azul, one of the lagoons that risks being turned into a toxic
waste deposit if the mine is built. In an interview for the Spanish El País, Máxima is quoted as saying: ‘I am poor and illiterate, but I know that our lagoons and our mountains are our true treasure, and I will fight so that the Conga project does not destroy them’ (Ramírez 2015). Máxima and the Guardianes de las Lagunas say they are fighting first and foremost against the destruction of their sources of water. The Guardianes are campesinos and ronderos (members of the Rondas Campesinas or rural patrol),Footnote 5 most of them from the centro poblado (hamlet) El Tambo, who have set up camp to protect the lagoons from the encroachment of mining activity.
Since 2011, when the company built a road near her house, Máxima has faced a number of aggressions from company personnel. In May 2011, her small house was burnt down and her potato fields destroyed (Zárate 2015). In August, she and her family were confronted by the police and the mine’s security guards, who tried to evict them and did not hesitate to use force against them. This aggression was documented with a cellular phone but denied by the company in court and in their statements to the press. To them, and to many of her enemies and detractors, Máxima was selfish and stubborn, squatting on land that did not belong to her, and preventing others from benefiting from the mining project.
The role of social media and international solidarity networks have been crucial for legitimising and raising awareness about Máxima’s plight and have brought other women into the spotlight. A group of campesinas featured in documentaries such as Las Damas Azules (the Blue Ladies), by the Catalan Association of Engineers Without Borders, exposed the abuses committed against Máxima during vigils held at the San Francisco Church in the city of Cajamarca. These women also witnessed the actions taken by the company against Máxima when they accompanied her at her house in Tragadero Grande to lend their support. One of the women also acted in defence of Milton Sánchez, Secretary General of the Plataforma Institucional Celendina (PIC), when he was intimidated by the police during a march against the Conga project in 2014. After confronting the police, she was arrested along with some of her companions and taken to the police station in Cajamarca. When Milton Sánchez told this story, he affirmed: ‘Hay Máximas aquí’ (There are [many] Máximas here). As we can see, ‘Máxima’ refers not to one person but became a symbol for the many women who defended their right to protest and denounced the state for not recognising this right.
Another woman who emerged as a prominent actor in Máxima’s legal battles against Minera Yanacocha was Grufides lawyer Mirtha Vasquez, who became one of her closest allies. The courts initially found Máxima guilty of illegal land occupation, handing her a prison sentence of almost three years and a fine of USD 2000. Máxima appealed and in 2014, a higher court ruled in her favour and lifted the charges against her, a decision that was supported by the Supreme Court in spite of Minera Yanacocha’s objections. Regardless of the court rulings, the company has continued its efforts to evict Máxima, through both intimation and force. But Máxima’s struggle—often described as a battle between David and Goliath—also attracted the support of people in Peru and internationally.
An important moment in building alliances was when delegations from various countries arrived in Cajamarca for the First International Encounter of the Guardianes de las Lagunas in El Tambo. Held in the first week of August 2014, this event was attended by people from Colombia, Argentina, Spain (the Basque Country and Cataluña), Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and the Netherlands. Particularly noteworthy was the participation of delegates from France, among them the group Solidarité avec Cajamarca, Ayne-France, associations of Peruvians in France, and the French Senator Laurence Cohen. Also present were members of the NGO
Grufides and the Plataforma Institucional Celendina, and Hugo Blanco, a well-known political figure and leader of the Confederación Campesina del Perú (Campesino Confederation of Peru).
In the evening programme the documentary The Guardians of the Lagoons (Los Guardianes y Guardianas de las Lagunas) was shown, along with a preview screening of the first part of La Hija de la Laguna, with the presence of members of Guarango. The French delegates also showed a documentary that told the stories of several campesinas active in the campaigns against Conga (e.g., La Ronderita Shilica). The construction of figures like Máxima and Nélida, as well as other female leaders, was influenced by the activists’ intentional focus on gender, considered to be a crucial aspect of social justice work. Though it may be the case that the mining-development discourse
tends to exclude women, it is necessary to also keep in mind the risks identified by Spivak (2010) and Abu-Lughod (2002) of ‘Western’ women constructing an image of the ‘Third World woman’ as lacking agency. However, in the documentaries mentioned, activists took special care not to ‘speak for’ the women but to let them tell their own stories and to be the protagonists of the films.
On the first day of the encounter, participants received the news that Máxima and her family had been ordered to vacate their land and pay 5000 soles for allegedly usurping Minera Yanacocha’s property. The following day, as planned, event participants marched to the El Perol lagoon, passing by Máxima’s house where people, including the French senator, expressed their solidarity with Máxima.Footnote 6
Though her case is not an isolated one, Máxima has become a national and international icon of popular resistance to extractive industries. She has travelled to meet with activists in France and Belgium and, most recently, to the United States, where she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in a ceremony in San Francisco. In lieu of an acceptance speech when receiving the prize, she sang a melancholy song that told of her hardships and her desire to protect the lagoons in the face of police and corporate aggression. Máxima’s habit of using song seems to be inspired by her Evangelical faith (combined with a strong Andean lyrical tradition), and she usually sings religious hymns. Her Evangelical faith is not usually mentioned in media or activist accounts and is a significant difference from Nélida, who invokes her grandfather’s teachings about what she calls the cosmovisión andina (‘Andean cosmovision’, a term that has been popularised by the media and used by Nélida in her interviews with the press) and whose community of Porcón is traditionally Catholic.
Máxima’s case has inspired comparisons with other women involved in environmental struggles, including the case of Bertha Cáceres, another Goldman Prize winner who was tragically killed in Honduras after speaking out against the construction of the Agua Zarca dam. But Máxima’s story is also different in some respects: she does not consider herself an activist and is not a leader with previous experience. In one of the many news profiles written about her, Maxima’s struggle is portrayed a personal one: ‘Máxima Acuña explains that she only wants to preserve the only life she knows and that belongs to her: harvest potatoes, milk cows, knit blankets, drink water from the springs and fish for trout in the Laguna Azul without a guard telling her “that’s private property”’ (Zárate 2015). Máxima’s struggle could be said to be about property and resources, but it is also more than this; it is about the defence of life that can only be made in place.
During a visit to her home in Tragadero Grande in September 2014, Máxima said to us: ‘The land will shelter me until god takes me to heaven; is a van worth all of that?’ This statement was reminiscent of other comments about Yanacocha’s relationship with communities. For example, a Cajamarca-based teacher claimed that the kind of development encouraged by Yanacocha was intended to make it possible for everyone to acquire a Hilux (Toyota) van. The teacher, Nora, explained that the van corrupted the autonomy of the campesino: ‘If [the van] breaks down, you have to take it to the mechanic. On our land, we plant, and if something happens, we plant again.’Footnote 7 This vision of life is based on people’s relationship with the land (and water), and emphasises the need for campesinos to design their own life projects, to depend on others in a way that does not compromise their autonomy and to sustain their relationships with the human and nonhuman world. From the perspective of Máxima and Nora, the act of sowing is done in relationship with the land, which, as Máxima says, never abandons you (nunca desampara).Footnote 8
Shortly before the announcement of the Goldman Prize winners, Newmont announced that it would not pursue the Conga project due to the ‘current social and political environment’ (Newmont Mining Corporation 2016). Among other considerations, the company acknowledged that local opposition was one of the factors leading to the decision (Jamasmie 2016). Welcoming the announcement, Máxima stated: ‘The fact is our way of
life, and the clean water we need to sustain it, is more important to us than Newmont’s new gold mine ever could be. We know from Newmont’s Yanacocha mine that, no matter their promises, we can’t have both the mine and our way of life’ (Earthworks 2016). Máxima’s statements, unlike Nélida’s, do not appeal to a sentient, agentive nature. It could be said that her ways of expressing her connection to the land are based on her everyday survival, which depends on having access to clean water. For her, mining is incompatible with her way of life—the two cannot coexist, but she refuses to accept that she must make way for extractive activity.
As an article in The Guardian notes, ‘environmental activism was probably not what Máxima had in mind when she refused to sell her 60 acre plot of land’ to the mining company (Collyns 2016). Yet Máxima’s struggle is representative of new forms of activism that are shaping conflicts over extraction in Latin America. These forms of activism do not necessarily conform to the values or discourses of international environmental or indigenous movements but are sometimes embraced by them. In some cases, the global embrace of anti-mining campaigns by international media and solidarity activists can reinforce simplistic narratives about traditional knowledge and stereotypes of indigenous peoples. Simultaneously, however, activists are complicating these narratives with practices that challenge nature-culture binaries, break down divisions between local and global, and disrupt assumptions about indigeneity, local knowledge, and ‘authenticity’.