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“Marmato: your coveted gold is the source of riches for strangers—and the cause of misery for yourselves.” —Old Marmateño saying.

In Marmato, a small mining town clinging to the side of El Burro, a mountain in the Colombian Andes, “los canadienses” are the talk of the town’s 8000 residents.For over 500 years small-scale “subsistence” gold mining formed Marmato into a distinct community that made its living, traditions and legends deep in the dank corridors of the mines. But five years ago the community’s roots were shaken when, through its subsidiary Mineras de Caldas, Toronto-based Colombia Goldfields began buying out local miners and consolidating ownership of El Burro, provoking what many in the community call the “economic forced displacement” of Marmato. Yamil Amar Cataño, a miner and president of the Marmato Pro-Defence Committee, a grassroots organization opposed to the company’s plans, can still remember the impact when the company first arrived in Marmato.  
“[The miners] had never seen so much money in one place,” he recalls. “They only know pesos. The dollars flashed in their faces were part of a plan to destabilize the community.”
  It is a plan which has proven successful. The company has already acquired 95 per cent of legal mines in the Zona Alta, an area dedicated since the ‘50s to small-scale mining, as well as the medium-sized operation at the base of El Burro. Such large-scale acquisitions are unprecedented in Marmato, and have had a profound impact on the community, which has long depended on small-scale mining for its economic well-being.  
“In Marmato, when a mine is bought, it is closed. Mills are bought and destroyed,” explains Diego Ruíz, a lawyer, miner and representative of the Colombian Federation of Small Miners (FENAMICOL). “The local economy is going backwards, and for the first time, people are unemployed. Hunger, prostitution and poverty are all that is left. Basically, this is a war on small miners.”
  Since the Spanish conquest, the pursuit of Latin America’s mineral riches has figured decisively in the region’s history, social relations and political fate. More recently—starting in the 1990s—a wave of free-market economic reforms opened many countries to increased levels of foreign investment and there was a sharp increase in mining industry activity in the region, the Canadian share of which had increased 35 per cent by 2004, making Canadian companies by far the biggest players in mining.   Colombia—rich in oil, coal, gold and emeralds—is also notorious for violence often associated with armed groups seeking control of the country’s abundant resources. The Colombian government under President Álvaro Uribe Vélez has promoted large-scale mining projects, which it argues brings foreign investment to a country where gross economic inequality and the ever-thriving drug economy fuel an armed conflict that has historically kept many investors away.   Uribe’s pro-business legislation and the negotiation of multiple free trade agreements have made him the champion of neoliberal reformers in Latin America. He has worked hard to portray to international investors and the world that he has the leftist guerrillas of the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, on the run and the right-wing paramilitary groups tamed. The idea is to curb the violence in the country to “acceptable” levels.   Canadian multinationals and the Harper government have heard that message loud and clear. Last July, Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Colombia, pledging Canada’s support for Uribe and announcing the beginning of free trade talks, seen as part of Canada’s “re-engagement in the Americas,” a major foreign policy priority.   Economic partnerships with Uribe’s Colombia are controversial—as was shown in March when the US Congress froze the ratification of a free trade agreement with Colombia—and there are undisputed problems.   Colombia remains the most dangerous place in the world for trade unionists. To date, 65 of Uribe’s allies in the Colombian Congress are being investigated for links to right-wing paramilitary death squads, a scandal known in Colombia as “para-política.” Of that number, 29 are currently in jail for proven links. The scandal has touched everyone around the president but not Uribe himself.   The LA Times reports that extrajudicial executions, or “false positives,” whereby civilians murdered by the army are subsequently dressed as guerrilla fighters in order to “gain points,” are on the rise. The armed conflict and the situation of the nearly four million displaced Colombians have been described by the United Nations as “the biggest humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere.”   While in Bogotá, Prime Minister Harper spoke of Canadian investment possibly leading to peace, and rebuffed critics of the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.  
“We’re not going to say, ‘Fix all your social and human rights problems, and only then will we engage in trade relations with you,” Harper said during his visit. “That’s a ridiculous position.”
  Canadian companies are finding in Colombia a yet-untapped bonanza of resources which, combined with agreeable fiscal reforms and a heightening of state and state-allied armed presence in the countryside, make the risk of popular opposition to megaprojects a minor concern.  
“The Uribe ‘stability’ is the most-cited reason for moving in now,” says Jamie Kneen of the Ottawa-based industry watchdog Mining Watch Canada. “[Along] with booming commodity prices and a shortage of development projects.”
  Coming to the aid of Canadian mining companies in Latin America is often the Canadian government.
“[The government] explicitly supports mining investment as a development tool,” says Kneen. “Based on what evidence, we don’t know.”
  In 2001, Colombia enacted the new Mining Code, but failed to consult with indigenous, peasant and Afro-Colombian communities as required by international agreements to which Colombia is a signatory.   Prior to ratification, however, the Mining Code received technical and financial support from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), who contracted for assistance an industry-funded think-tank based at the University of Calgary, the Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI).   Critics argue that the result was a controversial code with weakened labour and environmental safeguards and generous breaks for foreign investors, including four per cent royalty rates.  
“What is really at issue is the model of development being promoted [by CIDA],” states Kneen. “[The question is] whether facilitating foreign investment is more important than protecting and building on local economies, never mind human rights, labour rights and environmental protections.”
  On the ground in Colombia, one can sense the distance between the views of rural mining communities and those of Bogotá, Ottawa and Bay Street.   Colombia Goldfields, who did not respond to repeated requests by Vue for comment, declares on its website that it is “rediscovering the land of the golden mountain” through exploration projects that have revealed at least 5.3 million ounces (over 150 tonnes) of gold in the Marmato area.   According to its own press releases, the company’s consolidation of land and exploration projects will convert Marmato into “a world-class asset” and their “latest success story.”   But it is a story which has largely ignored the impacts on the community.
  “The company has a right to invest in Marmato,” Ruíz concedes. “But the community also has rights. The company and the government have ignored [the social problems associated with unemployment]. The community is left to deal with that on its own.”
  Having no prior exploitation experience itself, many suspect that Colombia Goldfields will sell its Marmato properties off to a larger company for exploitation. The method of choice of multinational mining companies is often “open-pit,” a process that at Marmato would remove “between 30 000 and 60 000 tonnes of earth daily in order to produce 250 000 ounces of gold annually,” according to the Medellín newspaper El Colombiano.   Such a large-scale mining operation is expected to provide several hundred jobs, but Marmateños see this as a limited opportunity. If exploitation is done through open-pit mining, it is expected to exploit in two decades what would take small mining 200 years. The environmental impacts of open-pit exploitation are another concern due to the use of cyanide in extraction and the giant holes left where mountains once stood.   The scale of the operation would also require the relocation of the residents of Marmato, a process which is not without precedent in Colombia.   In his book The Profits of Extermination, Francisco Ramírez Cuellar argues that paramilitary violence, forced displacement, massacres and disappearances have been used to remove entire communities from resource-rich areas and to secure investments for multinational corporations.   In the countryside, huge swaths of land have been cleared of their inhabitants and are now home to sugar cane and African palm plantations, part of the burgeoning “biofuel” industry.   But Marmateños remain vehemently opposed to relocation, despite numerous strategies which have been used to compel people to leave.   When a landslide ripped through the centre of Marmato during the winter rains of 2006, leaving several buildings in ruins, the state geological agency Ingeominas recommended the removal of the town, despite noting that mitigation projects could avoid such disasters in the future. The government promptly declared Marmato a “high risk zone,” making the unilateral decision to move the town for its own safety.   Colombian opposition Senator Jorge Robledo argues that while “millions of Colombians are living at risk” of geological instability, the real motive behind the government-sponsored relocation of the town is Colombia Goldfields’ mining project.   Despite the widespread opposition, there are already new buildings under construction in the neighbouring community of El Llano, where rivalries have a long and bitter history. Relocation to El Llano would also place the community within walking distance of an open-pit mine.  
“We don’t want what they are offering us,” says one miner. “We don’t want a nice big school or a new office for the mayor. We only want what we already have ... but here!”
  The company has hired a sociologist and contracted an NGO to promote alternative economic activity for Marmateños who have lost their livelihoods as miners, such as agricultural production and tourism. But Marmateños are skeptical about how likely the community is to shift succesfully to other economic activities.  
“I have never seen an example of a community of miners transformed into farmers,” argues Ruíz. “And what tourism will there be with an open-pit mine?”
But the rampant unemployment resulting from consolidation of property has been perhaps the most effective strategy in moving Marmato.

According to Miguel Alberto Giraldo, the son of a famous Marmateño historian, Marmato had always known full employment, however humble it was, and the economic impacts of widespread unemployment have been catastrophic.
“Marmato doesn’t exist for Marmateños anymore. They’ll all have to go, but how, where and when?” he asks.
At a public forum in Marmato, a community elder asks the question on the minds of many in the community.
“Why are they so intent on kicking us out of our homes?
“What lies below this ground, leave it there ... it’s for our grandchildren.”  

By: Michèal Ó Tuathail

Michèal Ó Tuathail is a freelance journalist and a member of La Chiva, an Alberta-based group which works with communities in Colombia.

Originally published in Vue Weekly, 22 May, 2008

La Chiva