We were among the first to arrive at the gate erected by the mining company. Some complained that the road should not be blocked, since it's a public road. The men guarding the entrance to the disputed land were unmoved. We gathered on a hillside in front of the gate and waited for others to arrive. It was cold and damp under an overcast sky. It rained intermittently. People sang to keep spirits high, and coca leaves were shared around to energise our bodies and keep our minds clear in the high altitude (approximately 4,000ft / 1219.2m ). Our numbers swelled as truckloads of people arrived. At last the people on horseback crested the hill above us. It was one of the most impressive sights I've ever seen, equalled only by the sight of more than 1,500 people —mostly campesinos and campesinas—in a double row stretching as far as the eye could see, moving on foot and on horseback toward Laguna El Perol, one of several slated for destruction by Yanacocha's Conga Project.
Along the way, we passed Laguna Azul and the family home of Máxima Acuña Chaupe, an extraordinarily courageous woman who has refused to sell her land to Yanacocha. Her resistance in the face of harassment, beatings, the killing of her animals, and Yanacocha's endless legal challenges to her ownership of the land, has so far effectively thwarted the mining company's plans to turn the surrounding area into a giant open pit mine. Máxima does not stand alone. She is supported by numerous environmental and human rights organisations in Peru and in Europe, and by hundreds of thousands of people whose lives and livelihoods depend on the water that flows down to them from these pristine Andean heights.
As we approached Laguna El Perol, we passed a busload of police on the road. They did not impede our march, and I suspect that one of the reasons they were there was to videotape the march and to photograph each of us as we passed. Arriving at El Perol, we learned that a large number of people from the Bambamarca District had been prevented from joining us by a police blockade set up at the other end of the road.
We gathered beside El Perol under a threatening sky that occasionally broke open to shower us with cold rain. I was glad that I'd purchased a poncho made of heavy rubberised material in Celendin. It was big enough to share with one of Máxima's daughters. It kept us dry as we sat on one half and held the other half over our heads while we listened to the denunciations of Yanacocha by representatives of some of the many communities endangered by Proyecto Conga.
At the end of the day, as darkness began to close in, we headed back to where we started. It was one of the roughest days I've ever experienced (and there have been a few). Just when I thought I could not take another step, a compañero asked a man on horseback leading a riderless horse if he would allow me to ride it. And so, I rode for the last kilometre on the back of this gentle animal, thinking about many things: the courage and stamina of these people, the beauty of the land they are defending and its potential destruction by an evil corporation that has the support of the government of Peru. Like so many similar struggles involving people defending their land from rapacious mining companies, it's a "David and Goliath" scenario. But it's one that I believe can ultimately see the Earth and her inhabitants come out victorious.
One recent victory that has invigorated the movement to put a stop to the Conga Project is the decision by the Judicial Appeals Chamber of Cajamarca in favour of Máxima. This represents the final step in the legal process open to Yanacocha. Somehow, though, I do not believe that Yanacocha has exhausted its extra-legal means. The mining company is surely not about to give up on its 4.8 billion dollar investment. I'm waiting, as they say, "for the other shoe to drop." La Lucha sigue.