In Harm’s Way

Claudia Sparrow on experiencing life through the lens of an imperiled environmental activist for her new film, Maxima.

If you had asked me five years ago if I would ever make a documentary film, I would have answered with a resounding, “No.” My focus had always been on fiction filmmaking. That was, of course, until I came across the story of Máxima Acuña.

Máxima, a Peruvian activist and farmer who cannot read or write, is standing up to the largest gold producer in the world, U.S.-based Newmont Corporation, in defense of her land and its precious natural resources. Newmont owns the largest gold mine in Latin America (the second largest in the world), and now wants to expand. But to do so, they need Máxima’s land. This is a $5 billion project. The company claims that they own Máxima’s land, and yet she says that neither she nor her husband have ever sold it.

My goal in making my documentary Maxima was to give Acuña’s brave voice a larger platform and a chance to tell her side of the story.

It was the fall of 2016 when my three-person crew arrived at Máxima’s land in the Cajamarca region of the Peruvian Andes. Her house is located at about 14,000 feet of altitude and the temperature in the area can reach freezing. Under normal circumstances, we would have been able to get to Máxima’s in two hours, but the mine has closed all public roads that take you to her home and installed security checkpoints at each entrance. To get to the security checkpoint closest to Máxima’s, we had to take an alternate route and drive along dirt roads along the Andes for eight hours. From there, if security lets us through, it’s still a 20-minute walk to her house with all our gear and supplies.

In a way, I was hoping that there was some sort of misunderstanding regarding the land dispute, the physical violence, the criminal prosecution, and the harassment that Máxima said she had experienced since 2011 at the hands of the mining company. I was secretly hoping that, because otherwise the alternative seemed inconceivable.

What struck me the most about Máxima when I first met her was her energy and charisma. She is so gentle and yet so strong, and a hard worker. She was either peeling potatoes, cooking, tending to her farm animals, or knitting when I talked to her. She was almost annoyed by my asking questions, because I was distracting her from her duties.

When I finally asked Máxima why would she risk her life for a plot of land, daily, for so many years, she looked me in the eye and said: “What are we going to do when we no longer have land to grow food from, when we no longer have water to drink? Are we going to eat gold?” She then agreed to take us to Laguna Azul, a lake about a 40-minute walk down the hill from her home – which was more like a 20-minute walk for her! Laguna Azul is one of the many lakes that would be destroyed if the mining expansion project moves forward. As we struggled to follow Máxima down the hill with our gear and stay out of sight of mine security guards, I took in the mountaintops, clear skies, natural springs, and lakes around her land. It all came together so beautifully, it was breathtaking. It was the most stunning landscape I’ve ever seen. The air was so fresh and clean, and the setting was so peaceful that it almost felt surreal. If you removed the mining company from the area, it could be the setting for a fairy tale.

A photo of Máxima Acuña on her land, taken during Claudia Sparrow’s first shoot with her.

As soon as we arrived at Laguna Azul, I suddenly understood what was at stake. We were at the top of the Andes, at a watershed. This is the water supply for hundreds of thousands of people in the area. “Water is life,” Máxima reminded me, and then went on to explain how the mining project would not only dry up the lake, but use it for toxic waste once the gold was extracted. Once the lake and the land beneath it were contaminated with toxic waste, it would forever stay that way. The rain would then create bodies of water contaminated with heavy metals and that water would be supplied to the communities. Suddenly, I too wanted to do everything in my power not to have the lake destroyed, because I could breathe its life and witness how this lake and the ones around it are a perfect, pristine ecosystem.

When Máxima asked me if I knew where the water I drink and the food that I eat comes from, I remained silent. That question had never crossed my mind, and I felt deeply ashamed of it; I realized how, as a city person, I had taken it for granted all my life. We set up for an interview by the lake, and an hour later, we headed back. It was getting dark. I could see security workers from the mine and I suddenly got worried. What would we do if one of them approached us? What if they decided to harm us? There was nowhere to go. Máxima’s land is basically surrounded by the mine, its workers, and security.

Back at Máxima’s, we set up for the night in our tents. It was freezing and there was no electricity. Our winter clothing and jackets were not cutting it. It was also pitch dark outside. I heard noises and realized how incredibly vulnerable we were in that moment. I remembered the story Máxima had told me earlier, of the time when her husband Jaime heard gunshots right outside their home. Or when the mine security guards ran her dog over, or when they burned all the family’s belongings. Or the time when they hit her youngest daughter and left her for dead during a violent eviction attempt. I think of the footage and testimonies that we had from the day, and I genuinely got scared for our lives. I momentarily regretted bringing my crew and putting them in that situation. If they were to get hurt or sick from the cold, I had nowhere to take them. The closest hospital was eight hours away by car. But we don’t have a car. With some luck, we might have been able to find some cell reception and call the van that drove us there to come pick us up, but there was also the chance that the mine security at the checkpoint would not let it through. I closed my eyes and started brainstorming alternatives, in case of an emergency.

Not long afterwards, I heard steps, followed by the sweetest voice. It was Máxima, who had brought us extra blankets, handmade with the wool of her sheep. She also offered to let us sleep inside her home with her family. I was taken aback by the kindness of this woman, who earlier had insisted on feeding us, even though there was barely enough food for her family, and who was now opening the door of her tiny one-bedroom home to us, complete strangers. I looked into her eyes and knew that her offer was genuine. I had documented her life for less than 24 hours and I was already scared, tired and emotionally drained from what I had heard and witnessed. But this was her life, her reality, 24/7. I was suddenly in awe of this woman’s strength.

Máxima was up before dawn the next morning. I sat outside and watched her cook breakfast. I could barely sleep due to the cold and the stress of the many what ifs, but she seemed calm and rested. As the sun rose, I noticed the full extent of the fence built around her property by the mining company. It is such an ominous presence. Máxima couldn’t help but turn nostalgic as she explained to me how much she missed being able to walk freely in and out of her property. She told me how she was never looking to become an environmental activist, but she just couldn’t stand by and watch injustice happen in front of her. She was not going to let the tactics of a transnational corporation intimidate her, and she was never going to stop fighting to protect resources that we all need to survive.

That was only the beginning of my journey with Máxima. I had the honor to document Máxima’s life for the following three years, and my admiration for her only continues to grow by the day. Making this film made me realize how brutally hard it is to stand up to an economic power, to stand up for your rights, and to protect the environment. It is a fight which the system sets you up to lose.

Claudia Sparrow with Máxima Acuña.

In times when our government is stripping away the rights of the people, creating policies that favor corporations over its citizens, and failing to protect the environment, I hope that Maxima is a much-needed reminder that we, the people, have the power to make a difference.

If Máxima Acuña, a Peruvian farmer from the Andes who cannot read or write, can stand in the way of a multibillion-dollar mining company, why can’t we all stand up for our rights and protect what is important to us?

Featured image shows Máxima Acuña looking out over her land. All photos courtesy Claudia Sparrow.

Born and raised in Lima, Claudia Sparrow is an Emmy-winning filmmaker who has been recognized as one of the ten most prominent directors in Peru. Her latest film, the documentary Maxima, about Peruvian farmer and activist Máxima Acuña, is out January 11 in theaters and on demand. Prior to Maxima, she wrote and directed the romantic drama I Remember You, which is available on all major digital platforms. Claudia is the recipient of the Franklin J. Schaffner Fellow Award for directing her film El Americano.