An urgent need for truth and independent journalism

Maxima Acuna

Máxima Acuña © Roxana Olivera

In an era of media moguls with corporate agendas and Donald Trump’s ‘post-truth’ and ‘fake-news’ politics, there is an urgent need for truth and independent journalism.

Unlike most mainstream media, New Internationalist does not censor or massage the news to protect corporate interests and advertizing barons.

Indeed, NI is bold and courageous. It reports on marginalized people whose voices would otherwise not be heard.

It tells us stories about those who fight to uphold social justice and defend our environment and human rights around the world.

As Máxima Acuña (pictured above) put it during an interview with NI, long before she received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her resistance against a gold mine in Peru:

Our national media have completely ignored our struggle and our suffering…

They have failed to report on how mining companies are stealing land from us, the poor; how they’re taking away our only source of food…

And, they have failed to report on how our authorities at the district attorney’s office and at the public ministry have sold their souls to the devil.

The world ought to know all this, but they don’t write about any of it!

In keeping us informed about current events and little-known activists like Máxima, New Internationalist gives us hope that change for a better world is possible.

That is why I write for New Internationalist, why I fully support this innovative community share initiative.

Read it, buy into it, and become a proud supporter of change!

Invest now at factsandheart.org

Roxana Olivera

'I will never give up my land'

Maxima Acuna

Máxima Acuña © Roxana Olivera

Before the mine came with lies about jobs and economic development, I lived here without any problems. I have been poor all my life, but I always lived in peace.

I was born and raised in the mountains of Cajamarca. When I was a child I never had any toys, never went to school. So I never learned how to read or write. I worked in the fields, helped around the house and took care of my deaf younger brother. In my spare time, I would make hats and clothes for other children’s dolls.

As a teenager, I never went to the movies, to theatres or parties, or on any dates. By the time I was 14, I got married. I had no choice… My husband Jaime, then 16, worked in agriculture. At first, I didn’t know what to expect of marriage. My first baby died during childbirth. After giving birth four more times – each time pretty much totally on my own – I had four wonderful children, all of whom went to school so that they wouldn’t be illiterate like me.

When my children were growing up, Jaime and I laboured on other people’s lands. We often took care of animals, breeding goats, sheep, horses, pigs and cattle for several farmers from our community. In compensation, we would keep one of the offspring. We grew all sorts of roots and potatoes, which we exchanged for grains and fruits with people from the region. We would usually keep half of that produce for our own consumption and sell the rest. That’s how our local economy worked back then.

In 1994, we bought a parcel of 27 hectares of land from my husband’s uncle in Tragadero Grande, where we built a small hut. To buy it, we sold everything we owned: one bull, a foal, several sheep and a whole bunch of small animals.

For many years, my family and I had a tranquil and peaceful life here. We live high in the mountains near a beautiful lake called Laguna Azul, our source of drinking water and our source of life. For us, our lakes are our real treasure.

Our nightmare with the mining company began in May 2011. Minera Yanacocha wanted to destroy our lakes and mountains and rob us of the land that my husband and I had bought with the sweat of our brow. It wanted to kick us out to build the Conga Mine, a huge open-pit goldmine [part-owned by US giant Newmont]. Where in the world are lakes for sale?

One day, a team of engineers from Yanacocha, along with private security guards and police, came to our property to evict us, claiming we were not legitimate owners.

Upon hearing this, I ran to grab the title to our land and showed it to them. I told them: ‘Gentlemen, you have no legal grounds to kick us out. My husband and I bought this land. Here is the proof. We are the rightful owners.’ But they didn’t care. They tore down fences and destroyed our home. When I went to the Celendin police station to lodge a complaint, they told me to go away.

On 9 August 2011, Yanacocha’s engineers came back with heavy machinery and a large contingent of riot police and soldiers. To prevent further damage to our property, my youngest daughter knelt down in front of one of the company’s bulldozers. They became like lions. They kicked us all over our bodies… They beat my daughter and me without compassion. They left us lying bloodied and unconscious on the ground. If that were not enough, the police had their machine guns pointed at the heads of my husband and youngest son. My eldest daughter recorded all this with her mobile phone.

They destroyed our new hut. They seized all our belongings: our beds, our clothes, our pots and cooking utensils, even our food.

We went to report these violent assaults to the authorities at the Celendin district attorney’s office, but they simply shelved our complaints. Desperate for justice, we asked Mirtha Vásquez from [non-governmental organization] Grufides to help us. She agreed and became our lawyer.

Then, Yanacocha sued us, making completely false accusations. And, believe it or not, the court found us guilty of illegally squatting on our own land! I was given a [suspended three-year] prison sentence, and ordered to pay civil reparations to Yanacocha. On top of that, the judge ordered us to leave our own land within 30 days.

But our lawyer appealed against the ruling and kept fighting for us. In December 2014, the courts ruled in our favour, overturning the previous ruling. When I heard about it, I thanked God for listening to our prayers.

But our nightmare continues. Yanacocha is taking the case to the [Peruvian] Supreme Court and keeps filing more lawsuits against us.

What’s more, Yanacocha has built a fence around our land and set up a watch-tower with guards to monitor our comings and goings. Security guards from Securitas working for the mine destroyed all our potato crops, killed our animals and tore down a pillar that supports the roof of our house. They don’t let us enter or leave our property. They have threatened to kill us. I’m tortured by the mining company, with the support of the police.

When I won the Goldman Prize, I was surprised to hear that I wasn’t the only one having problems with a mine. There are so many people in other countries with similar problems. A woman was killed in Honduras for defending the land of her indigenous community. I dedicate this prize to them, and I hope that it will become a symbol of strength for more people to protect our environment, to defend our lakes, to defend our human rights, and to let the world know about all the lies of development and progress that these companies tell just to steal our land. I will never kneel before Yanacocha, and I will never give up my land! Neither should anyone!

As told to Roxana Olivera, an award-winning investigative journalist based in Toronto.

Against their will

An indigenous Peruvian woman

Indigenous women in Peru still fear repercussions as they seek justice for the forced sterilizations they suffered two decades ago. © Roxana Olivera

It was meant to be another competitive match for Hilaria Supa, then-leader of the Women’s Federation of Anta, in the south-eastern Andean highlands of Peru. Her team showed up on the field in their traditional colourful polleras – multi-layered embroidered skirts – to play, Supa assumed, their usual fast and explosive game.

But something was wrong.

‘The women didn’t want to play football that day,’ recalls Supa, now a member of Congress, in her office in downtown Lima almost 18 years later. ‘That had never happened before. Those women loved the game!’

There was a good explanation, she would soon learn, for their unusual conduct.

‘We don’t have the strength to play,’ the goalie told Supa. ‘After what they did to our stomachs at the health post, we can hardly walk. Our entire bodies ache.’

As it turned out, the women’s fallopian tubes had been cut without their knowledge or consent.

What happened to the women of Anta was not an isolated case. In the 1990s, during a 10-year reign, President Alberto Fujimori set in motion a family-planning programme that resulted in the forced sterilization of more than 300,000 women. The vast majority of them were indigenous, impoverished and illiterate, living in remote rural communities with precarious infrastructure and services.

Threats and lies

In Chuschi, about 300 kilometres west of Anta, where communist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas began their grisly war against the Peruvian state in the early 1980s, everyone was suspected of being either a terrorist or a collaborator. The army hunted down and executed locals, mistaking them for guerrillas. The guerrillas hunted down and murdered anyone perceived to be collaborating with the armed forces. Rivers of blood ran through the district for more than 15 years.

But the tragic fate of the people of Chuschi did not end there.

From around 1996, teams of nurses and medical practitioners arrived in search of women of childbearing age. They went from village to village, house to house. One sunlit morning, they knocked on Juana’s* door.

‘They came offering free medical services. So I told them about my stomach aches,’ Juana recounts in her native Quechua. ‘“You have a tumour,” a doctor told me at once. “You’ll have to go to the Cangallo health post to have it removed. You don’t have to pay for the operation.” But I didn’t have a tumour. I came back, along with 20 other women, taking baby steps all the way home. We couldn’t walk well. We were half dead.’

‘When the doctor came to my house,’ says Dolores*, ‘my husband was drunk. Even so, the doctor had him sign an authorization form. I didn’t know what was going on. The doctor said to me: “Don’t worry, the government will pay… The operation will get rid of all your ailments.” He lied. I ended up ligada – with my tubes tied.’

In Sorochuco, Matilde* hand-spins wool into yarn, lost in her memories.

‘My children were malnourished. A nurse came to offer me food supplies if I agreed not to have any more children,’ she recalls. ‘She took me to the health post… I didn’t really understand what was done to me there… Nobody explained it to me. As a poor mother of four, I was desperate to feed my children.’

In La Encañada, Mamérita Mestanza gave in to pressure from staff at her local health centre to agree to the sterilization procedure, following threats that she would be turned in to the police. Eight days after the operation, on 5 April 1998, she died as a result of an untreated post-operative infection. Hers was the first case to be investigated, and was taken to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on 5 June 1999. In 2001, the IACHR reached a friendly settlement with the Peruvian State under which it promised to compensate Mamérita’s family, investigate fully the case of forced sterilizations, and bring the perpetrators to justice.

María* is sitting on the muddy ground in the foothills of the tiny Andean village of Acobamba as she relates the story of her aunt.

‘She didn’t want to go with the doctors. She tried to escape, but was caught, dragged and forced into a car,’ she says, crossing and uncrossing her hands atop her pollera. ‘When we arrived at the health post, women were screaming and crying in fear. Blood was splashed on the walls. I saw my aunt dead on a stretcher… but then she woke up. After that, she didn’t want to share her bed with her husband. She became a sort of ghost, he said. He became afraid of her and left her.’

Berta*, another survivor, tells her own story.

‘“You have too many children!” the nurses said. “Let’s go to the health post right now! We’ll give you pills and painkillers there.” I didn’t want to go. But they forced us…

‘I fell asleep. When I woke up, there was blood everywhere. Some women were dead. One husband demanded: “Give me back my wife! What have you done to her?” But she was already dead.’

More women died later on, while working in the fields: ‘After the operation, many of them suffered from severe headaches and haemorrhages. They couldn’t carry any weight… and then they died.’

Many fatalities occurred among the victims of the national sterilization campaign due to medical malpractice and serious irregularities, according to a congressional investigation that was made public in June 2002. The exact number of deaths is still unknown.

Rewards and repercussions

Clotilde* is sitting under the shade of an avocado tree on a sunny summer afternoon as she recalls the never-ending visits she received in 1996 from medical staff from the Ministry of Health (Minsa). She remembers the year because her youngest son was then just one year old.

‘A nurse said to me: “You can’t go on having children like animals! You have to have your tubes tied. It’s a new law”’

‘A nurse said to me: “You can’t go on having children like animals! You have to have your tubes tied. It’s a new law. You have to do it, otherwise we won’t get paid,”’ Clotilde recounts, running a hand-embroidered handkerchief across her forehead.

The more she and her husband resisted, the more aggressive the nurse became.

‘My husband and I were afraid and unwilling to break the law. We didn’t know what to do. The nurse spoke to my husband for a long time. Eventually he relented: “Let’s leave it up to God,” he told me. “If God wants to save you, you’ll be saved. If not, what else can we do?”’

The nurse, Clotilde recalls, quickly put a piece of paper in front of her husband. He signed it, and Clotilde was taken to the operating table.

The nurses were not exaggerating about possible repercussions. During the Fujimori regime, Minsa imposed upon health practitioners mandatory monthly quotas for the number of sterilizations to be performed throughout Peru. A memorandum dated 12 October 1997, which bears the signature of the director of the Huancabamba health centre, reads: ‘All staff are obliged to recruit two patients for AQV – Voluntary Surgical Contraception. Failure to comply will result in the termination of contracts, suspension of schedule extensions and poor-performance reports in personnel files.’

What’s more, healthcare providers were to be rewarded with food provisions and trips. As another Minsa document reveals: ‘Incentive for enlisting a patient: food supplies (15 kilos)… Top prize for attaining the greatest number of AQVs: a trip within the country for three persons.’

Scarred for life: Clothilde’s stomach bears evidence of her tubal ligation.

Roxana Olivera

In the Peruvian Amazon, medical care is practically non-existent. Many villages don’t have hospitals or health facilities, so health practitioners were often parachuted in to perform sterilizations to targeted population clusters. In many instances, medical teams didn’t have a sufficient quantity of anaesthetic for the procedures. But in order to achieve their targets, they went ahead anyway.

‘In many of these remote villages, people had a very basic understanding of Spanish. On top of that, most had never been examined by a doctor,’ explains Sigfredo Florián, a lawyer with the Legal Defence Institute (IDL), representing several victims. ‘So women didn’t really understand what was done to them at these so-called health facilities; they believed that they had been sexually assaulted.’

As a result of the women’s complaints, indigenous leaders filed a formal grievance to the minister of health in December 1997. ‘Several women had their tubes tied without their consent and without receiving adequate information about the procedure,’ the document reads. A copy of their complaint was forwarded to the International Labour Organization and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

In her film A Woman’s Womb (2010), Mathilde Damoisel reveals that Fujimori’s so-called family-planning programme received generous funding from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) during the Clinton presidency, as well as support from the World Bank and praise from UNFPA.

For years, Fujimori and his ministers have maintained that surgical contraception was the ‘informed choice’ of sterilization patients and that surgical procedures were never carried out against their will. Member of congress Rafael Rey clarified this point, or so he thought, during an interview on national television. ‘Women were not sterilized against their will,’ he said emphatically. ‘They may have been sterilized without their consent but not against their will.’

The government also denied the existence of monthly quotas, incentives and clandestine health facilities, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. Fujimori’s daughter Keiko, likely to win Peru’s presidential election this June, has chosen to put the blame on ‘irresponsible doctors’. Outraged by her remarks, Peru’s Medical Association (CMP) released an unequivocal public statement, published last October in La República newspaper. ‘The Fujimori regime imposed tubal ligation as a programme with monthly quotas, incentives and sanctions against the will of thousands of women who were poor, indigenous and spoke Quechua. Tubal ligations were performed in inadequate conditions and they formed part of Fujimori’s anti-poverty and health-reform policies,’ said César Palomino, chair of the CMP. Several physicians produced records showing orders under which doctors were expected to perform as many as 12 tubal ligations per hour.

Investigations into forced sterilizations have been shelved twice – in 2009 and 2014, under the presidencies of Alan García and Ollanta Humala respectively – for lack of evidence. In December 2015, Humala’s government announced that the investigation would be reopened, setting up a national registry of victims as part of the probe. To date, no-one has been charged.

In the streets of Lima, Sabina* sells cooked corn and potatoes to raise money for her treatment for ovarian cancer. A mother of four, she endured her worst nightmare after the birth of her daughter. ‘A nurse hosed me down with cold water, put me on a stretcher, tied my hands and feet, and sedated me with an anaesthetic… By the time I woke up, a doctor was already stitching my stomach,’ she recalls. ‘Twenty years have gone by and the government is still unwilling to compensate us, let alone investigate our cases. Who knows if there will ever be justice for us? I might be dead by the time they finally decide to conduct a proper investigation.’

*Names have been changed

Roxana Olivera is an award-winning investigative journalist based in Toronto.

Patricio Guzmán's search for the truth

Patricio Guzmán

© WENN Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

Acclaimed for his epic film The Battle of Chile: the Fight of an Unarmed People, Patricio Guzmán has been recording the horrors of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship for more than three decades. This year, the documentary filmmaker won a Silver Bear for best screenplay at the Berlin International Film Festival for The Pearl Button. In it, Guzmán delves into Chile’s dark past, weaving the history of the nation’s decimated indigenous people of Patagonia with that of the murder of political prisoners during the Pinochet regime. Guzmán also received the 2015 Outstanding Achievement Award at the Toronto Hot Docs Festival, where Roxana Olivera caught up with him.

How was The Battle for Chile born?

What was taking place [during the 1973 military coup that led to Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship] was so interesting that one felt the need to create a record of that unique phenomenon, of the hugely popular fervour and of the implacable rightwing, backed by the US, which wanted to destroy [President Salvador] Allende at any cost. How could one not film all that? So we did. Each day, we filmed each important event in a clear, conscious and rational manner. We filmed it all, every minute detail. Even though it was difficult to do so, what we filmed was sufficient to cover all important aspects of the evidence. And we spent an entire year secretly filming everything without telling anyone about it. Nothing. No press conferences or anything of that sort. We became anonymous entities so that no-one would bother us. That’s how we made the film.

When did you first find out that the CIA was involved in the military coup against Salvador Allende and that it had planted infiltrators at universities?

The first time was when a North American journalist reported that the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation in Chile was a net of CIA spies. This triggered an international scandal, and the cables that the spies had sent to Washington were subsequently published. That was towards the middle of 1971, when the entire world learned about all this.

But before then there was another warning sign, when Allende won the election and his presidency was to be ratified in Congress. During that period, the CIA was smuggling weapons, through the American Embassy in Chile, which ended up in the hands of a military unit and people working for the CIA. They assassinated the commander-in-chief of the Chilean army, a democratic and constitutionalist man, who was not against Allende. He was instrumental in keeping the army away from the conspiracy, and for that reason they eliminated him. Attempts to block off Allende’s election failed, but, of course, he lost a key figure within the army. That was essentially the first time that the CIA acted in such an overtly partisan manner.

The third warning sign came during the latter part of 1973, when the rightwing Patria y Libertad party received funds in US dollars in order to carry out political attacks and acts of bribery. Truck drivers, for instance, received $2 a day – in brand new bills – to go on strike. Back then $2 was a lot of money on the black market.

Many people say it is time to turn the page and leave the past behind. Why is it important to remind people of what happened in Chile during that time?

Generally speaking, people who argue that it is time to turn the page belong to the rightwing. I believe that we ought to remember the past because it is fundamental to denouncing state-sponsored terrorism. State-sponsored terrorism cannot go unpunished, because it destroyed the Chilean Republic, a republic which had been built over the course of 200 years.

Using the pretext of sweeping away communism, they swept away everything: universities, unions, freedom of the press, freedom of expression, women’s rights, indigenous rights, and the like.

‘How long will it take for us to rebuild what we had? To me, the future is rooted in the past’

So you have to ask yourself: how long will it take for us to rebuild what we had? Because to me, the future is rooted in the past. That is, we had a liberal republic; we had a republic in which ideas would flow freely throughout the nation. All that suddenly came to an end. Forever. Because none of that has been restored. Today, we still have a large segment of the middle class which simply refuses to try to understand what happened in the country.

Little by little, we are getting closer to the true story of the coup and to the truth about those who participated in those atrocities, and who then fled Chile in order to evade justice...

That is typical of a regime in which there is impunity. Not long ago, it was discovered that an individual linked to torture was actually working for the Chilean department of justice within the current government. Someone found out about this man and he was immediately sacked. But up to that point he was working quite happily there.

The fact is that the military dictatorship could never have functioned without the support of the civilian population. The military were incapable of doing all those things alone, because, in general, they didn’t have the slightest idea about how to govern a country.

Civilian members of the rightwing did the work of organization on behalf of the military. Yet civilians have seldom been brought to justice.

Sole responsibility for all crimes committed during the Pinochet regime has fallen upon a handful of military personnel.

The statistics speak for themselves. Only 40 per cent of all cases involving human rights violations have been brought to justice. So you have to ask yourself: how is it possible that, after 40 years, 60 per cent of cases are yet to be brought to justice? To expect that 100 per cent be brought to justice is naturally unrealistic, but how about at least 80 per cent?

The daily El Mercurio newspaper took a strong stand against Allende. It fabricated as many lies as it wanted during the Pinochet era. It denied the existence of enforced disappearances. It denied the existence of torture. It denied everything. And yet today, El Mercurio claims to be a democratic newspaper. The question is: ‘Who has judged the reporters who defamed Allende, supported Pinochet and travelled to London to defend him?’ There they are.

So, if there is impunity at that level, what else can one expect from justice? Consider the case of the man who killed Víctor Jara [singer-songwriter and social activist arrested, tortured and killed by the military regime just after the 1973 coup]. When a group of youths discovered the whereabouts of the murderer, they went to his office and filmed him right then and there. When that took place, the man almost died of a heart attack on the spot...

So it will be interesting to see how The Pearl Button – in which I reconstruct in minute detail how the military went about throwing people, some still alive, from helicopters into the ocean – is received in Chile.

Roxana Olivera is an investigative journalist based in Toronto, Canada.

‘Is this your fingerprint? Do you recognize it?’

peruindigenous.jpg

Environmentalist Santiago Manuin was shot at least eight times by police – but he’s the one on trial. © Roxana Olivera

Santiago Manuin Valera is an internationally respected environmentalist and indigenous leader.

In 1997 he was recognized by Queen Sofia of Spain for his environmental work in defence of the Peruvian rainforest and for his leadership in driving away narco-insurgents.

His meeting with the European monarch, which was scheduled for 15 minutes, lasted three quarters of an hour. The pair, it seems, got on like a house on fire.

Today, Manuin, who also founded the SAIPE Jesuit Social Center to promote agricultural research and development, faces a very different prospect. He and 51 others are on trial. The charges against them include homicide, aggravated assault, vandalism, incitement to violence and possession of weapons. If found guilty, the activist could receive a life sentence.

Manuin recalls the fateful morning – in the early hours of 5 June, 2009 – when life took a sudden turn for the worse. He and other unarmed indigenous protesters were on a stretch of road known as the ‘Devil’s Bend’ – just outside the northeastern city of Bagua – when riot police began firing teargas.

This was the culmination of two months of protesting against then-president Alan García’s plans to open up the Peruvian Amazon to private mining, logging, oil and gas interests.

At the time of the attack, the protesters had begun making preparations to leave the area. According to Manuin, local police and authorities knew of their departure plans – but still they attacked.

To try and calm the situation, he approached the officer in charge. ‘I just wanted to assure him that none of the protesters was armed.’

Engulfed in teargas and with his hands up, Manuin walked towards the police, shouting: ‘What are you doing? We are about to leave! Don’t shoot! Peace! Peace! Peace!’

Nine of the accused – including Manuin – face charges that could result in life imprisonment. One has since died. No police have been charged

‘All of a sudden, there was gunfire,’ he recalls. ‘One indigenous protester was shot dead; two others fell to the ground, wounded.’

Moments later, Manuin was shot several times in the stomach. With eight perforations in his intestines, bladder and colon, he was left for dead.

Rumours of his death spread like wildfire.

The protesters reacted, clashing with police and in some cases seizing their weapons. That is how the Bagua conflict – known locally as the ‘Baguazo’ – began.

By the time it was over, Peruvian National Police had deployed a total of 481 teargas bombs, 1,091 shotgun shells, 604 rubber bullets, and thousands of rounds of AKM bullets. A total of 33 people were dead – including 23 police. One officer was missing. Some 200 people were injured – 82 with bullet wounds.

Once it became known that Santiago Manuin was alive, Judge Francisco Miranda Caramutti issued an order for his immediate arrest on a charge of homicide. The order came while Manuin lay in hospital with a plastic pouch draining his intestines – waiting for a second surgical operation.

A US role in the violence?

The decrees to open up the Amazon to foreign investment were passed without consultation with local indigenous communities and so in violation of UN International Labour Organization Convention 169. Indigenous groups made repeated calls on the government to repeal the controversial measures. As Manuin explains: ‘Under those decrees, we were about to be robbed of our territory… our right to live. That’s why we had to protest. But let us be clear, we always protested peacefully.’

In order to discredit the legitimacy of their demands, President García set about attacking the reputation of the protesters, labelling them ‘barbarians’, ‘savages’ and ‘spiteful dogs’ and even calling them ‘second-class citizens’.

As García put it: ‘What right have 40,000 natives to tell 28 million Peruvians not to come to their lands?’ The protesters’ actions, he added, ‘would lead Peru into irrationality and a backward primitive state.’

The US too may have played a role in the Bagua mêlée. Embassy cables, made public by Wikileaks, revealed that the US ambassador in Lima criticized the Peruvian government’s ‘reluctance to use force’ to break up the demonstrations and said there could be ‘implications for the recently implemented Peru-US FTA [free trade agreement]’ if unrest continued. This cable is dated 1 June, just four days before the attack.

Not surprisingly, the President defended police actions. He condemned the killing of police officers, but not of indigenous protesters – accusing them of ‘slitting the throats’ of ‘humble policemen’ who had a ‘will for dialogue’ and ‘no desire to fire their weapons’.

Of the 53 originally accused as a result of the events at Bagua, 23 are members of the Awajun and Wampis indigenous communities. Nine of the accused – including Manuin – face charges that could result in life imprisonment. One has since died. No police have been charged.

‘What are you doing? We are about to leave! Don’t shoot! Peace! Peace! Peace!’ Moments later, Manuin was shot several times in the stomach

The majority of the accused rely on the forest, or subsistence agriculture, for survival. Many do not even handle money. They live in remote communities far from the town of Bagua, where the legal proceedings are taking place.

All of the accused are obliged to appear at each and every court hearing, although no-one knows when they will be called to testify, as the prosecutor only provides that information at the beginning of each hearing. Attending trial is costly for most of them. Manuin, for example, has to travel between 10 and 12 hours to get to Bagua. Currently, transport, food and accommodation costs are being covered by the Catholic Church.

There are serious deficiencies in these legal proceedings, which are expected to continue for several months. Translation services are poor and are not offered throughout all stages of proceedings. Interpreters (Awajun and Wampis) do not have the professional training to carry out services in court and they lack accreditation. Many of the accused do not have a clear understanding of the charges levelled against them.

According to several testimonies, statements were obtained from the accused in the absence of legal representation. The statements were taken after a period in which food and water were withheld and while they were being beaten.

At one point a prosecutor instructed one of the accused, who was illiterate, to approach the bench and demanded: ‘Is this your fingerprint? Do you recognize it?’

Another of the accused, whom the police arrested in the city of Chiclayo, had never been near Bagua. When it became apparent that he had been arrested by mistake, the prosecutor simply postponed his hearing.

The severity of the Bagua conflict prompted James Anaya, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People, to make a special visit to Peru. During his mission he visited Manuin, who had just undergone surgery. Queen Sofia of Spain also sent an emissary.

‘Santiago used to be extremely healthy,’ says Sister Carmen Gomez Calleja, an eyewitness to the Bagua violence. ‘He was on the chubby side, and he had rosy fat cheeks.’ Not any more. ‘Since he was gunned down, he has lost 32 kilos and 50 centimetres of his intestines. On top of that, he now suffers from severe diabetes.’

In the courthouse in Bagua, it is Manuin’s turn to take the stand. The prosecutor asks him how and when he learned of the deaths of police. He responds: ‘While in hospital, I learned of the deaths of so many police and so many indigenous people. I ended up regretting that indigenous people died for defending their rights and land, and that policemen died, too, simply for following orders… In that sense, they were all victims of all this nonsense. If it weren’t for that, why do we have to fight one another? This whole situation saddened me so much that I burst into tears.’

Roxana Olivera is a Peruvian-born investigative journalist, residing in Canada and currently working in South America.

‘Life yes, gold no!’

Yanacocha goldmine

euyasik under a CC Licence

With a blue plastic sheet and an alpaca blanket wrapped around her shoulders, Máxima Acuña, 42, walked through torrid rain for 10 hours to appear in court in the picturesque Andean town of Celendin. From the splendid hills of Sorochuco, she tracked down slippery roads and winding footpaths to hear the case that the owners of the Yanacocha mine in northern Peru have launched against her and her family. It is not the other way around.

‘These Yanacocha people are just trying to rob me of my land!’ Acuña tells me, tears swelling her eyes. ‘God is my witness! He knows that I am the rightful owner of that land,’ she adds between sobs, as she shows me a set of loose sheets of paper that she grips in calloused hands.

‘Are we expected to sacrifice our water and our land so that the Yanacocha people can take gold back to their country? Are we supposed to sit quietly and just let them poison our land and water?’

In 1994, Acuña and her husband Jaime Chaupe purchased, according to the property documents, a parcel of 27 hectares of land in a remote corner of Peru’s northern highlands known as Tragadero Grande. It is situated in the district of Sorochuco, province of Celendin, department of Cajamarca. Set at 3,249 metres above sea level and against a backdrop of rolling mountains and natural water sheds, Tragadero Grande offers a breathtaking, colorful landscape. It looks a bit like Tuscany – but with potato fields and a few llamas. Acuña built a small shack atop one of those rolling mountains. And, like most campesinos – indigenous peasants – in her community, she, her husband and three children, have been, and still are, engaged in subsistence production as farmers and herders.

Sadly, beneath those majestic mountains, particularly beneath two of their pristine lakes, lie rich deposits of gold and copper, minerals that Minera Yanacocha is determined to extract at any price.

To do so, Minera Yanacocha – 51.35 per cent owned by US giant Newmont Mining Corporation, 43.65 per cent owned by Peru’s Compañia de Minas Buenaventura, while the World Bank holds the rest of the shares – has mounted an aggressive campaign to promote the development of the Minas Conga. Minas Conga will be an open-pit gold and copper mine in the heart of the region. Worth an estimated $4.8 billion, the project is slated to become the largest single investment in the country’s mining history, with an annual output of 580,000 to 680,000 ounces of gold and 155 million to 235 million pounds of copper during its first five years of operation. The total surface area of the proposed open pit is 2,000 hectares – 20 km2.

Contamination concerns

A section of the prospective Minas Conga sits on land that Acuña owns, and she has refused to sell it.

The proposed open-pit mine would destroy four mountain lakes while it also threatens to contaminate and deplete groundwater supplies in the high Andes region of Cajamarca. Two of the lakes would be drained for mining exploration and mineral extraction and the two others would be turned into tailings ponds for mining waste.

There are concerns that the contamination may even leach into the Marañon River, an important headwater of the Amazon. Needless to say, the mining project also threatens to endanger the health of the local indigenous communities.

‘I fear for my life, for the life of my husband, for the lives of my children and for the lives of the people in my community who defend us and our water’

Yet, Minera Yanacocha claims that the Minas Conga venture meets rigorous environmental standards, and it promises to build four water reservoirs to replace the mountain lakes. ‘Water management practices incorporated in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA),’ the company proclaims on its website, ‘were based on more than 10 years of hydrology and engineering studies conducted by respected independent firms.’

But the company has a questionable reputation in Cajamarca.

With a 19-year-history of mining operations in the region, it was responsible for a mercury spill that poisoned more than 1,200 villagers in the nearby community of Choropampa.

And, according to health records featured in a documentary film that is currently on the festival circuit, it appears that many workers at the nearby Yanacocha mine – the largest open-pit goldmine in Latin America and the second largest in the world – are suffering from severe mercury poisoning.

As for promises of greater benefits from gold extraction, it is noteworthy that after 19 years of mining activity in Cajamarca, the province has sunk from being the fourth poorest province in Peru to the second poorest.

Defending the real treasure

Fully aware of that dubious past, Máxima Acuña doesn’t buy into any of Minera Yanacocha’s public relations rhetoric on economic opportunities and corporate social responsibility.

As she puts it, ‘I may be poor. I may be illiterate, but I know that our mountain lakes are our real treasure. From them, I can get fresh and clean water for my children, for my husband and for my animals!’ She then adds, ‘Yet, are we expected to sacrifice our water and our land so that the Yanacocha people can take gold back to their country? Are we supposed to sit quietly and just let them poison our land and water?’

In spite of her valid property documents, and without being served an official eviction order, according to Acuña, Minera Yanacocha has made several attempts to forcibly remove her from her land.

In May 2011, she says, a team of mining engineers from Minera Yanacocha, along with private security guards and police, marched into her property, tore down fences, and dismantled her shack. She went to the Sorochuco police to report the incident, but, she says, they simply told her to go away.

On 9 August 2011, the mining engineers returned with heavy machinery to Acuña’s plot of land. They were escorted by a large contingent of Peruvian riot police and soldiers. On this occasion, they destroyed what was meant to be her new shack. They confiscated all of her possessions: her bed, her clothes, her cooking utensils, even her food – cooked and uncooked.

‘Then, they beat me and my daughter without compassion,’ Acuña recalls, her voice cracking. ‘And, the police had their machine guns pointed at the heads of my husband and small son.’

Máxima Acuña shows the bruising to her arms following the beating by the police in 2011.

Courtesy of Cajamarca

She wipes tears off her face with her poncho. ‘These mining people have tried to kill us, and they have threatened to come back again to kill us,’ she whispers, looking at me intently. ‘I fear for my life, for the life of my husband, for the lives of my children and for the lives of the people in my community who defend us and our water.’

Holding his wife’s hand, Jaime Chaupe steps in to fill in the blanks. ‘I saw the police beat and kick my wife. I saw them whack my daughter on the back of her head with their machine guns,’ he tells me, his voice fading away, despite his attempts to hold back his tears. ‘When I saw my wife and daughter lying unconscious on the ground, I thought they were already dead!’ he mutters. ‘While they tried to catch me, I heard my children scream in fear. They cried: “Help us! Help us! They’re gonna kill us all! They’re killing us!”’

Asked about media coverage of the eviction attempts, Acuña speaks bluntly. ‘Our national media have completely ignored our struggle and our suffering.’ Pause. ‘They have failed to report on how mining companies are stealing land from us, the poor; how they’re taking away our only source of food,’ she adds, more tears streaming down her face. ‘And, they have failed to report on how our authorities at the district attorney’s office and at the public ministry have sold their souls to the devil. The world ought to know all this, but they don’t write about any of it!’

The forced eviction that Acuña and Chaupe describe took place under the watchful eye of Minera Yanacocha’s team of engineers. Acuña’s 23-year-old daughter Ysidora captured images on her mobile. The clips are now available on YouTube.

With forensic photographs and video images in hand, Acuña and her family reported the violent assaults to the authorities at the Celendin district attorney’s office. But the authorities simply shelved their complaint.

Although mining representatives and government officials claim that there is full local support for the Minas Conga project, recent polls show that 78 per cent of the people in the area reject it outright.

Protests against the Minas Conga open-pit mine have become widespread.

The media have failed to report on how our authorities at the district attorney’s office and at the public ministry have sold their souls to the devil

On 3 July 2012, Peruvian police and soldiers open-fired on a crowd of protesters against the project. Four people were killed in Celendin and one in Bambamarca. Dozens were seriously injured.

Immediately after the bloody incident, President Ollanta Humala declared a state of emergency in the region, suspending civil liberties.

On 21 October 2012, more than 200 campesinos – many of them with infant children – mobilized to defend their mountain lakes. Acuña welcomed the protesters to stay on her land.

Vida Sí, Oro No!

Back in court, on 29 October 2012, Acuña crosses herself while she awaits the judge’s decision.

The judge finds Acuña and her family guilty of the charge of squatting on Minera Yanacocha’s property. She gives them a three-year suspended jail sentence, orders them to pay civil reparations in the amount of $200 soles (roughly US$70) to Minera Yanacocha, and to leave the contested land – within 30 days. Acuña faints. She is taken to hospital, and everyone leaves the courtroom.

The lawyer representing Acuña and her family has appealed the ruling, arguing that Minera Yanacocha has not established proof of ownership.

In the meantime, the 200 protesters, bearing signs that read ‘Vida Sí, Oro No!’ (Life Yes, Gold No!) and ‘Agua Sí, Oro No!’ (Water Yes, Gold No!), continue to camp on Acuña’s land in order to protect their mountain lakes. More than 400 heavily armed riot police and military soldiers surround the protesters. More are on the way.

Facts about mining

In order to extract one (1) gram of gold, vast amounts of water mixed with toxic substances, including mercury and cyanide, are required. A mere 0.1 gram of cyanide can be lethal.

Approximately 10,000 litres of water are required to produce one single gram (0.0032 troy oz.) of gold.

While a peasant family uses 30 litres of water per day, a small mine – much smaller than that proposed by Minas Conga – consumes 250,000 litres of water per hour. In other words, in a single hour, a mining company uses the same amount of water that a peasant family consumes in 20 years.

Minas Conga predicts that it will have an annual output of 580,000 to 680,000 ounces of gold and 155 million to 235 million pounds of copper during its first five years of operation.

Roxana Olivera is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to New Internationalist.

Hugo Blanco

PULLQUOTE_TEXT_GOES_HERE_GOES_HERE_GOES_HERE_GOES_HERE

Roxana Olivera

Dressed in blue jeans, an alpaca sweater, sandals and a large straw hat, Hugo Blanco stands outside the main doors of the Gran Hotel Bolívar in downtown Lima. He is holding up the latest issue of Lucha Indígena, just in case I miss him.

Peru’s rulers never liked him, Blanco tells me. But his followers adored him. As soon as he returned to Peru from exile in Sweden in 1978, Blanco was elected to Parliament. Soon afterwards he became a member of Congress – though that did not save him from police brutality. He was once beaten, for instance, when he attended a protest organized by Lima’s street vendors.

In 1983, Blanco was suspended from Congress after accusing General Roberto Clemente Noel of genocide. Twenty years later, a Peruvian truth commission established Noel’s role in violations, tortures and extra-judicial executions during his stint as political-military chief in the highland region of Ayacucho.

‘In the meantime I had to find another way to earn a living,’ Blanco tells me. Ever resourceful, he began to sell coffee as a street vendor, incredibly, just a stone’s throw from Congress – the very institution from which he had been ejected. ‘Many of the employees went out of their way to avoid me, but some bought my coffee, just for the thrill of it,’ he says, laughing. Needless to say, Blanco became the subject of considerable gossip. ‘One day a journalist from one of the local dailies asked me if I was not embarrassed to sell coffee on the street. “Look,” I said, “just two blocks away, other congressmen dressed in expensive suits and ties are selling out the country and they don’t seem to be bothered by it. So why should I be embarrassed by earning a living in an honest manner?”’ I ask if the story made it to the newspaper. ‘Unfortunately not,’ he chortles. ‘I suppose I didn’t give him the quote he was looking for.’

Although Blanco can’t remember how many times he’s been jailed, he’s been on 14 hunger strikes – the latest just last year. ‘In one of those strikes I was so frail that the interior minister of the day actually sent me a coffin as a present!’

Blanco then recalls the details surrounding one of his arrests during the first term of President Alan García. He was taken into custody after a public protest in Pucallpa on 9 February 1989. ‘A comrade saw policemen wrap a banner around my head and throw me into the back of a car. He called other union members in Lima who, in turn, contacted the Secretary General of Amnesty International in London. An international campaign to protest my arrest was mounted right away. That’s why I am not amongst those “disappeared” by García.’

But before they released him, García’s men kicked Blanco in the liver and genitals. He carefully straightens the straw hat that adorns his snowy white head. ‘They kept me on my knees and whenever I fell back on the soles of my feet, they propped me up with blows aimed at my head. As a result I am not too keen on removing my hat,’ he says. As a consequence of so many police beatings a vein burst in his brain. ‘The beatings caused a split between the skull and the brain,’ he explains. After surgery his doctor feared that his skull might not withstand even an accidental minor bump. ‘And so, he ordered me to keep a hat on my head at all times.’

The struggle now is about the survival of all species. To defend Pachamama [Mother Earth] against the predatory multinational timber, mining, oil and gas companies

Blanco then jots down some names on a piece of paper and reads them aloud. It is the names of the people that the national police gunned down at the protest. ‘Eight people dead, twenty-six wounded and eighteen missing,’ Blanco recalls sombrely. ‘I saw a lot of blood in Pucallpa.’

According to Peru’s Association in Defence of Human Rights (Aprodeh), as many as 3,000 peasants took part in that protest. Protesters asked for better prices for their crops and payment for the debt the government had owed rice and corn producers since September 1988. With inflation then running at more than 2,000 per cent and ever-increasing calls for García to resign, demonstrations had become a familiar feature of the Peruvian landscape. ‘And so, President García felt he had to teach the protesters a lesson,’ says Blanco. ‘And, of course, accuse me of terrorism.’

I ask Blanco what experiences stand out in his mind. He takes a deep breath. ‘It’s hard to tell,’ he says softly, his wrinkled fingers constantly fidgeting with his hat. ‘When I was in prison, I was not allowed to speak to my mother in her native Quechua.’ Pause. ‘That affected me a great deal.’ Then he recounts a story told to him when he was a child, which shocked him into numbness. ‘It was the tale of a landowner in my hometown who branded his farmers with the same burning iron rod that he used to brand his animals. That story is to this day engraved in my brain,’ he adds. ‘And, of course, the latest massacre, the Bagua massacre, has also had a profound impact on me.’

Indigenous vanguard

Leading the way: Blanco with Enrique Fernández, editor of Lucha Indígena.

Roxana Olivera

On 5 June 2009, a protest in the Bagua region of the Peruvian Amazon turned into a true massacre, Blanco tells me. Amazonian indigenous groups had organized the protest – blocking roads, waterways and pipelines – in reaction to controversial decrees issued by President García – now on his second turn as president. The decrees were designed to enable multinational corporations to pursue oil, gas, lumber and mining projects on communal lands without the consent of indigenous residents. (García has reportedly parcelled out 72 per cent of the Peruvian Amazon to private interests.) When Peruvian police and armed forces were sent to thwart the protest and break up a roadblock along a stretch of highway in the town of Bagua, all hell broke loose. Officially, 24 police and 10 protesters were killed. But eyewitnesses claim that at least 200 indigenous people lost their lives in the deadly encounter. ‘People saw policemen dump bodies into the Marañon and Utcubamba Rivers,’ says Blanco, raising his thick grey eyebrows and wagging his finger in the air.

‘García is notorious for being very economical with the truth. Look, an Awajún woman was helping one indigenous protester, who had been injured, when a policeman asked her: “What are you doing?” She replied, “I’m trying to get medical assistance for this wounded man.” “No,” he said, “no-one has been wounded here.” He took his gun out and shot him dead right in front of her eyes.’

What took place in Bagua is important to Blanco because it illustrates the well-organized nature of the Amazonian indigenous movement. But it also highlights his departure from old-style Marxist thinking. Blanco no longer believes that the struggle is just about class and social justice, or procuring land for disenfranchized peasants.

I don’t do things for people to remember me. I simply want to put an end to capitalism before capitalism puts an end to us

‘The struggle now is about the survival of all species,’ he says. ‘To defend Pachamama [Mother Earth] against the predatory multinational timber, mining, oil and gas companies. These companies are poisoning our rivers, destroying our soil, killing the fish, killing the birds and killing our people, too.’

And this destruction, he says, is with the full support of government authorities who are mere servants of the neoliberal system. ‘We have reached a point where the private ownership of the means of production has turned into the private ownership of the means of destruction,’ he says. And the most sensitive to that ferocious assault on the environment, he emphasizes, are the indigenous people, since they are closely linked to nature. ‘That’s why they are the vanguard in the fight to save Mother Earth.’

Finally, I ask Blanco how he would like to be remembered.

‘Let people remember me any way they want,’ he says with a shrug. ‘I don’t do things for people to remember me. I simply want to put an end to capitalism before capitalism puts an end to us.’

Roxana Olivera is a Peruvian-Canadian freelance journalist who lives in Toronto.

For further details see www.luchaindigena.com

A Canadian filmmaker wins damages from the government

In January 2007, Canadian doctoral student Steven Schnoor made a short documentary video that chronicled human rights abuses in Guatemala as a result of forced evictions carried out by military police on behalf of Vancouver-based mining company Skye Resources.

The video features a woman desperately protesting the evictions facing her Mayan Q’echni community in El Estor in eastern Guatemala. Still photographs of the violent expulsions, including that of houses being burned to the ground and of a man in utter despair, lend further testimony to the community’s ordeal.

Soon after Schnoor’s video began to circulate on You Tube, two representatives from the non-governmental organization Breaking the Silence (BTS) raised their concerns to Kenneth Cook, then Canada’s ambassador to Guatemala.

In a formal meeting held at the Canadian embassy, the ambassador told BTS that the video was not credible. He stated that the woman in the documentary was a paid actor and that the photos depicted in the film were actually taken decades earlier, within the context of that country’s civil war.

BTS confronted Schnoor with these accusations but he adamantly assured them of the authenticity of the film’s material, and wrote to the ambassador and to the Department of Foreign Affairs, seeking a retraction and an apology, along with an explanation. He received instead a routine form letter some months later.

Schnoor filed an Access to Information request. A year later, he obtained 200 pages consisting largely of blacked-out emails.

Compelled to safeguard his reputation, as well as to defend the voices of the people at the centre of the dispute, Schnoor contacted lawyers Murray Klippenstein and Cory Wanless, who took on the case pro bono and launched a lawsuit against Cook and the government of Canada in the small claims court.

‘For us, the case has always been about more than what one ambassador said in one meeting,’ explained Klippenstein. ‘It is about a Canadian government that promotes the interests of its own mining companies above the human rights interests of people in the developing world.’

In court, Cook testified that, in his mind, he ‘did not impugn’ Schnoor’s credibility. The Canadian government argued that the former ambassador was merely presenting an alternate side of the dispute.

Justice Pamela Thomson saw otherwise. In a courtroom void of any mainstream media, Thomson delivered a long judgment concluding that the ambassador’s comments were ‘defamatory’ and that on the basis of those comments, ‘any reasonable person would conclude that [Schnoor] was a maker of fraudulent videos’. She said that Cook’s conduct was ‘reckless’ and that he ‘should have known better’ when he made those comments.

The judge also drew attention to the behaviour of the Canadian government subsequent to the slander. She held that the ‘dead silence’ that Schnoor received in response to his attempts to get an adequate explanation from the government was ‘spiteful and oppressive’.

Thomson awarded the filmmaker $5,000 in general damages from Cook and the government, $2,000 in aggravated damages from the Canadian government and $2,930 in legal costs.

The Canadian government did not appeal Justice Thomson’s ruling.

In the meantime, Schnoor plans to make more documentaries about Canadian mining companies operating abroad.

His lawyers hope that the case will set a precedent. ‘Canadian officials shouldn’t be making comments that undermine the legitimate voices of local people,’ said Klippenstein. ‘We hope that this case is a wake-up call.’

Cook feels the heat

Eviction chronicles human rights abuses in Guatemala.

JAMES RODRIGUEZ / www.mimundo.org

In January 2007, Canadian doctoral student Steven Schnoor made a short documentary video that chronicled human rights abuses in Guatemala as a result of forced evictions carried out by military police on behalf of Vancouver-based mining company Skye Resources.

The video features a woman desperately protesting the evictions facing her Mayan Q’echni community in El Estor in eastern Guatemala. Still photographs of the violent expulsions, including that of houses being burned to the ground and of a man in utter despair, lend further testimony to the community’s ordeal.

Soon after Schnoor’s video began to circulate on You Tube, two representatives from the non-governmental organization Breaking the Silence (BTS) raised their concerns to Kenneth Cook, then Canada’s ambassador to Guatemala.

In a formal meeting held at the Canadian embassy, the ambassador told BTS that the video was not credible. He stated that the woman in the documentary was a paid actor and that the photos depicted in the film were actually taken decades earlier, within the context of that country’s civil war.

BTS confronted Schnoor with these accusations but he adamantly assured them of the authenticity of the film’s material, and wrote to the ambassador and to the Department of Foreign Affairs, seeking a retraction and an apology, along with an explanation. He received instead a routine form letter some months later.

Schnoor filed an Access to Information request. A year later, he obtained 200 pages consisting largely of blacked-out emails.

Compelled to safeguard his reputation, as well as to defend the voices of the people at the centre of the dispute, Schnoor contacted lawyers Murray Klippenstein and Cory Wanless, who took on the case pro bono and launched a lawsuit against Cook and the government of Canada in the small claims court.

‘For us, the case has always been about more than what one ambassador said in one meeting,’ explained Klippenstein. ‘It is about a Canadian government that promotes the interests of its own mining companies above the human rights interests of people in the developing world.’

JAMES RODRIGUEZ / www.mimundo.org

In court, Cook testified that, in his mind, he ‘did not impugn’ Schnoor’s credibility. The Canadian government argued that the former ambassador was merely presenting an alternate side of the dispute.

Justice Pamela Thomson saw otherwise. In a courtroom void of any mainstream media, Thomson delivered a long judgment concluding that the ambassador’s comments were ‘defamatory’ and that on the basis of those comments, ‘any reasonable person would conclude that [Schnoor] was a maker of fraudulent videos’. She said that Cook’s conduct was ‘reckless’ and that he ‘should have known better’ when he made those comments.

The judge also drew attention to the behaviour of the Canadian government subsequent to the slander. She held that the ‘dead silence’ that Schnoor received in response to his attempts to get an adequate explanation from the government was ‘spiteful and oppressive’.

Thomson awarded the filmmaker $5,000 in general damages from Cook and the government, $2,000 in aggravated damages from the Canadian government and $2,930 in legal costs.

The Canadian government did not appeal Justice Thomson’s ruling.

In the meantime, Schnoor plans to make more documentaries about Canadian mining companies operating abroad.

His lawyers hope that the case will set a precedent. ‘Canadian officials shouldn’t be making comments that undermine the legitimate voices of local people,’ said Klippenstein. ‘We hope that this case is a wake-up call.’

Coffee in the clouds

‘Our land is not for sale’. Campesinos in Ecuador’s Intag Valley oppose foreign mining companies.

MALCOLM ROGGE / AACRI

Polivio Pérez’s home is a majestic cloud forest in a remote corner of northern Ecuador, a tropical region of stunning natural beauty. More than 15,000 people live in the Intag Valley, flanked by the towering Andes and surrounded by pristine forests, mountain streams that carry clean drinking water, rare orchids and dozens of species of wild animals. Like Pérez, most residents are subsistence farmers growing maize, vegetables and fruits like papayas and pineapples, in one of the most ecologically diverse frontiers on earth.

But beneath this lush paradise are rich copper deposits that have lit up the eyes of foreign mining companies.

About 14 years ago a Japanese firm, Bishi Metals, discovered large copper reserves in the valley. Faced with the prospect of a destructive project on their land, an estimated 200 villagers burned down the mining camp, forcing the Japanese out of the valley. (The villagers first removed the supplies and equipment, which they later returned to the company.)

‘The stakes were high,’ reflects Pérez. ‘We weren’t going to avert our eyes to the destruction of our beloved valley so a foreign company could get its profits.’

More than 30 families now work in a thriving eco-tourism business

In spite of that victory, Pérez knew that there was more to come. To protect the valley he reckoned his community needed to find a sustainable economic alternative that it could develop quickly and promote over the long term.

Defensa y Conservación Ecológica de Intag (Decoin), a local grassroots environmental organization, became a key advisor. In 1998, Decoin helped create the Small Coffee Growers Association of Rio Intag (Aacri in Spanish) and soon Pérez and his community began growing organic coffee as an alternative to the mining threat. ‘It fits perfectly with our goal of conserving biological diversity in the region,’ says Decoin organizer Carlos Zorrilla.

Today, Aacri has more than 300 members and exports top quality shade-grown, organic coffee to Japan, Spain, Germany, Canada and the US.

The community has also developed ecological tourism, handicrafts and home gardens as part of its package of alternatives to mining. The nearby Cotacachi-Cayapas reserve, one of the world’s most biodiverse regions, attracts nature lovers from around the world. More than 30 families now work in a thriving eco-tourism business that offers hiking tours and guided horseback rides to the surrounding forest and to coffee and sugar plantations.

But the presence of those valuable copper deposits continues to threaten the Intag Valley. Recently, a Canadian mining company based in Vancouver (Ascendant Copper Corporation, now Copper Mesa Mining Corporation) mounted a public relations campaign to convince locals to support their project. According to the company, the reserve is the second largest unexploited copper deposit in the world, worth an estimated $32 billion.

Pérez says Copper Mesa embarked on an aggressive ‘hearts and minds’ campaign. ‘At one point,’ he laughs, ‘they even offered us chickens!’

But the people held their ground and that’s when things turned nasty. Pérez claims he and others were assaulted and threatened by company thugs. So, he and fellow coffee growers, Israel Pérez (his brother) and Marcia Ramírez, have launched a lawsuit against the company, its directors and the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX).

The farmers argue that the company’s security agents were paid with money raised on the TSX. They also claim the TSX listed the mining company despite warnings that there would likely be violence: Polivio’s brother was shot in the leg.

The defendants filed a series of motions to dismiss the claim and an Ontario court struck down the lawsuit filed by the Ecuadorians. But Pérez and friends are appealing.

‘We want the world to know that we have the right to say, ‘no’ to the Canadian mining industry. We don’t want to live in fear. We only want to live in peace in our cloud forest.’

Roxana Olivera is a Peruvian-Canadian freelance writer who lives in Toronto.

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