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MARMATO, Colombia — Along the dusty and winding cliffside road that climbs the mountain of Marmato, about 500 men mine for gold as it has been done for many decades.

They swing picks, push carts and hang buckets of earth on wires and pulleys to send down the mountain. Small, wood-framed mine entrances dot the face of the mountain as the buckets sling back and forth overhead and streams of grey water trickle underfoot. And if one sticks a finger into the right pile of mud, it comes out sparkling.

The miners know their methods are relatively slow, but they provide enough income for each of them to support a family, and they say the pace would continue supporting families for generations. Gold has been mined in Marmato, in western Colombia, for more than 500 years.

"It's better to take a little piece at a time—it’s sustainable," said Emilsen Palacio, who manages a mine near the top of the mountain, in the region of Echandía, and is one of the few women working in Marmato’s mines.

But in recent years the mountain of Marmato—a wondrous place — has been part of a years-long dispute between the Colombian miners and a Canadian company. They are battling for billions of dollars worth of gold, and the dispute is featured in a new documentary.

The Sundance Film Festival debuted the documentary "Marmato" in Park City, Utah on Jan. 26, and while the film didn't win an award, its inclusion in the festival shows that the struggle in Marmato continues.

The Colombian miners say the Toronto-based company, Gran Colombia Gold, has used heavy machinery and 24-hour excavation for the past few years to more quickly mine the mountain. The pace is so fast that the Colombian miners now fear their livelihoods, and in some cases their homes, could be dug out from under them within only two to three years.

Gran Colombia Gold officials did not respond to requests for an interview about Marmato, but, the company's web site said that at its lower mine (it operates a second mine in Echandía) it extracts 25,000 ounces of gold annually. It said that the mountain contains 14.4 million ounces of gold. At the current price of gold, about $1,252 per ounce, that is worth $18 billion.

The web site also said the company plans to use a technique called "open-pit" mining. It would likely turn Marmato into a quarry and force miners who live among the mines to abandon their homes.

Even if Gran Colombia Gold does not pursue the open-pit technique, its current method of mining both vertically and horizontally worries the Colombian miners. According to the company’s website, it drills into the mountain and then explodes dynamite to open up holes that extend vertically. While the Colombian miners also use dynamite, they said they tunnel into the mountain horizontally, and thereby do not interfere with neighboring mines.

However, now that the company is blasting dynamite through the night—miners said they have heard more than 100 explosions on some nights—they fear that their horizontal tunnels will soon reach areas that have been hollowed out by the company’s vertical mines, which extend from below and above them.

Wilson Flores, a third-generation miner in Marmato, said the company is mining below his home, resulting in the long cracks he pointed out in his home's cement walls.

Flores said a different Canadian company owned the mines in the 1990s, but had shut down and abandoned many of them. So he and others started reopening the mines and building new ones. He is now the owner of a mine, and employs 35 people.

But the argument that the miners own their mines has been contested.

Alexander Restrepo is the lawyer representing the Association of Miners of Echandía—of which Flores and 44 other mine owners are members. He said that according to Colombia's 1886 constitution, rights to the subsoil underneath private property are generally owned by the federal government.

But, Restrepo said, "in Marmato something special happened."

In 1886, the subsoil rule was not applied to mining rights that were already privately owned, and Marmato was owned by an English company at the time, Restrepo said. Therefore, it remains one of the few regions of Colombia where subsoil rights are transferred with property ownership, he said.

That means possession law also impacts subsoil rights in Marmato, and because Flores and other Colombian miners have been operating there for more than five years, they are legal owners of their mining rights, Restrepo said.

Jose Ruben Tapasco, a mine owner and the president of the Association of Miners of Echandía, said that after Gran Colombia Gold learned that it could not expel the miners, two years ago, it started negotiating buyout agreements. The mine owners who agreed to sell—based on a contract which included a clause guaranteeing employees' continued employment—were paid only part of what they were owed, and promised they would be paid the balance in 2013. But at a meeting in December, Tapasco said the company told him it did not have enough money, and that the miners would have to wait.

"They say possibly within two or three years," Tapasco said.

"But our great fear is that they are going to finish the reserve, and then they're going to tell us, now we're not interested in the region. And then what are we going to do?"

Restrepo said he shares Tapasco's worry, but doesn't know if he can do anything about it.

"I don't know if what the company is doing—or not doing—is legal or illegal. What I know is that it's illegitimate," he said. "No matter what, they are not keeping their word."

Restrepo said the miners will sue, but he fears that even if they win, they will be told Gran Colombia Gold is broke.

A document of Colombia’s National Mining Agency, publicly available on the agency’s web site, shows that the mining titles were pawned to a Canadian bank in 2013, Restrepo said.

"This is what makes the miners most hopeless," he said.

But they have not lost hope entirely. Tapasco said he and his allies are looking for funds to travel to Canada. They want to meet with solidarity networks and Gran Colombia Gold's stockholders, and to continue their struggle.

Global Post

Jake Rollow