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Marmato is a small town nestled in the rolling green hills of Colombia’s coffee growing region. The surrounding area exudes tranquility and natural beauty with its shimmering coffee bushes, idyllic farms and singing birds. Entering the town of Marmato is like stepping back in time. Horses and donkeys carry lumber up the steep cobblestone streets. A painted scribe on one of town’s historical buildings alludes to Marmato’s long history of small-scale gold mining. The town’s rich culture and history explain why, in 1982, Marmato was declared a national heritage site.

In Marmato’s central plaza, residents greet each other with smiles and hugs, and invite each other to sit down for coffee. I am struck by the sense of happiness and community in this small town. Residents are quick to confirm this in conversation. They tell me that Marmato is a peaceful community in which everyone has work and no one goes hungry – things that can’t be taken for granted everywhere in Colombia. Their love for, and pride in, their town is obvious.

Lately, however, there is change in the air in Marmato. Residents are increasingly being pulled away from their friendly reunions in cafés and bars to deal with more serious matters. Marmato lies on a mountain that is believed to contain some of the largest gold reserves in the world – reserves that have recently caught the eye of Canadian mining company Gran Colombia Gold.

For many years, small- and large-scale mining coexisted in Marmato. A legal horizontal division, created in 1954, reserved the lower part of the mountain for large-scale mining and the upper part of the mountain for small-scale artisanal mining. For generations, the small-scale miners operated informally. But in 2001, CIDA-sponsored reforms to the Colombian mining code obliged small-scale miners to formalize their operations and obtain mining titles from the government. This created several problems for the artisanal miners in Marmato. The vast majority of miners were unable to secure titles within the allotted timeframe: Many were unaware that the rules had changed, others lacked the resources and know-how to complete the process, and others applied but were never attended to. Simultaneously, the mining company now known as Gran Colombia Gold was competing for the same titles, often more successfully. It was also pressuring the few small-scale miners who had managed to obtain legal titles to sell them. As a result, many small-scale miners in Marmato have now lost the legal right to work in the mines that have secured their livelihoods for generations.

The company began exploring the feasibility of creating an open-pit mine on the mountain, and determined that the town of Marmato would have to be moved. It began designing plans to relocate Marmateños to El Llano, a community located a few kilometers downhill. Marmato residents mobilized against these plans, arguing that the company had not respected its obligation to obtain free, prior and informed consent from the community. Marmato’s parish priest, José Reinel Restrepo, was a strong voice in defense of the community’s right to remain on its territory. On August 28th 2011, he appeared in a documentary saying that the company “would have to expel him by bullets” to get him to leave Marmato. Two days later, on September 1st 2011, he was shot dead while traveling on his motorcycle on a country road. Investigations have been inconclusive, but many suspect that he was targeted for his opposition to the open pit mining project. In a country where human rights defenders frequently come under attack and where the lines between corporate, state and paramilitary forces are often blurry, this is not implausible.

Concerned by the rising tensions and by their lack of power and recourses, Marmato residents invited the Colombia Support Network, a US-based solidarity organization, to bring a delegation of Canadians and Americans to Marmato in January 2012. The delegates chosen were:

  • Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, a highly respected Roman Catholic bishop and peace activist from Detroit.
  • John Laun, a lawyer, professor and expert on free trade agreements.
  • David Newby, president of the Wisconsin AFL/CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States.
  • Paul Webster, an award winning Canadian journalist who has published in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the Lancet, and Reader’s Digest.
  • And myself, Brittany Lambert, coordinator of the Americas Policy Group at the Canadian Council for International Cooperation.

The delegation took place from January 14th-22nd 2012 and involved meetings in Marmato, Manizales (the provincial capital), and Bogotá. The goal was to enable delegates to observe the situation in Marmato first-hand and to forge lasting links with the community that would enable follow-up work in their respective countries. It was also hoped that the presence of international delegates would facilitate meetings and dialogue between the small-scale miners and government officials or company executives. Unfortunately, it is often difficult for artisanal miners to secure such meetings on their own, given the power differentials between them and the upper spheres of society.

It is immediately obvious to me that the people of Marmato have put a huge amount of effort into organizing our agenda. Despite their humble roots, they have managed to bring in an impressive roster of lawyers, social leaders, unionists, researchers and journalists from all over Colombia to meet with us.

Our first activity is a meeting with people from other Colombian communities affected by Gran Colombia Gold. One of these people is a young environmental leader from Arboleda, in the department of Nariño. He explains that his community, once characterized by peace and solidarity, has been embroiled in conflict since Gran Colombia Gold’s arrival in January 2011. Residents who expressed concerns about the mining project have received death threats through anonymous text messages and phone calls. This has polarized the town and driven a deep wedge between those who oppose the project and those who are embracing it by seeking employment with the company.

I ask whether Gran Colombia Gold has created similar divides in Marmato, and am reassured that the social fabric here is still relatively intact. However, many people worry that this won’t last long. Even as an inexperienced outsider, I see signs of social conflict looming around the corner. For example, after one of our meetings, a mine owner approaches me and shows me a contract that Gran Colombia Gold has offered him. The company wants to buy his mine, and commits to employing him and his miners. He asks me if I think he should sign it – he is only semi-literate and is concerned that he might not understand all the small print. He tells me that another mine owner recently signed a similar contract and that the company honoured its commitment to hire him and his workers, but then fired them all two months later. I feel unequipped to offer advice on such an important legal matter and tell him that he should consult a lawyer. He replies that there are no lawyers in Marmato and that people like him are feeling their way through the dark trying to make the right decisions. After he leaves, two other miners approach me. They tell me not to trust the previous man: People like him, they say, are allowing the company to tighten its grip on Marmato by selling their mines for personal gain. I realize that it’s just a matter of time before these tensions reach boiling point here too. Sadly, it’s clear to me that these tension are not caused by people acting in bad faith, but rather by people trying to navigate through complex and scary new realities with very little knowledge or legal guidance.

Violence is another thing that many people feel is likely to increase in Marmato. So far, in comparison to other mining-affected communities, Marmato has been quite peaceful. Other than the murder of the town’s parish priest in September 2011, there has been no real violence in Marmato. However, our encounters with human rights defenders from other parts of Colombia make me realize that this is the exception, not the rule. A miners’ union leader from Segovia, another community affected by Gran Colombia Gold, is accompanied by a personal bodyguard at all times. A young lawyer, who works with mining-affected communities in Antioquia, wears a bullet-proof vest. When Paul Webster, the journalist on our delegation, asks the environmental defender from Nariño if he can quote him in an article, the young man says no - explaining that he fears for his safety. These subtle signs remind me that Colombia is still very much in the midst of an armed conflict - a highly complex one in which political, economic and social forces are intricately linked. As if to confirm the predictions that violence in Marmato will increase, a Colombian journalist who produced a documentary on our delegation's visit to Marmato received a death threat shortly after the film was released.

Our conversations with people from other mining-affected communities in Colombia reveal clear and consistent patterns. Despite the different contexts, their stories of violence and intimidation, especially in relation to foreign extractive companies operating on their land, are eerily similar. These patterns make it very difficult for ordinary Colombians to resist corporate extractive activity. They also highlight the inequalities that exist between North and South, especially between foreign capital from the North and ordinary people from the South. As one young Colombian we met so aptly put it: "imagine if the situation were reversed: if a Colombian mining company went into a Canadian town and forced residents to relocate so that it could create an open-pit mine". He's right, it's difficult to imagine...

Some of our most interesting meetings are with the staff and executives of Gran Colombia Gold. We meet with them on two occasions: once in Bogotá and once in Marmato. In Bogotá, we meet with CEO María Consuelo Araújo, who served as Colombia’s Foreign Affairs minister from 2006 to 2007. Araújo resigned from cabinet in the midst of a scandal linking several of her family members to paramilitaries, the right-winged armed actors responsible for many of the political killings and human rights violations in Colombia. María Consuelo Araújo’s brother, former senator Alvaro Araújo Castro, was sentenced to 9.5 years of jail for conspiring with illegal paramilitary groups to intimidate voters with violence in the lead up to the 2002 elections. Her cousin Hernando Molina Araújo, former governor of the province of Cesar, was sentenced to 7.5 years of prison for his involvement with paramilitary groups, who allegedly financed his election campaign and threatened his principle opponent. The Araújo family is an excellent example of the connections that too often exist between the state, the corporate sector and illegal armed actors in Colombia.

In Marmato, we meet with Gran Colombia Gold’s environmental manager and its director of sustainability. They strongly emphasize the fact that many small-scale miners in Marmato are operating without titles and are therefore “illegal”. Our conversations with the small scale-miners, however, suggest that the situation is far more complex. In 2001, CIDA-sponsored changes to the Colombian mining code eliminated the differences between small-scale and large-scale mining. This forced artisanal miners and multinationals to compete for titles under the same conditions, despite their different environmental impacts, economic benefits, levels of state protection and tax exemptions. Small-scale miners, who had less knowledge, experience and money than multinationals, were naturally hampered by this process. Many failed to secure the titles they needed to continue working in the mines that had sustained them for generations. Recent estimates suggest that 70% of small-scale miners who applied for titles did not receive them, while 90% of mining areas have been granted to multinationals. There therefore seems to be an important gap between the legal dimension and the moral dimension of this question. One small-scale miner from Marmato sums it up nicely: “We may be now be “illegal”, but we are legitimate. We are doing the same thing that we have been doing for generations. The only thing that has changed is that unjust laws, laws that were designed to benefit multinationals, have been put in place”.

These laws seem all the more unjust when one considers that they not always work both ways. According to the mining code, if a mine is abandoned for more than 6 months, the owner loses the right to the title. As Gran Colombia Gold acquired mines in Marmato, it closed them down to focus its efforts on exploration and the acquisition of further mines. These mines have been sitting empty for months - sometimes years – but the state has not stripped the company of its titles. Nor did it prevent police and company security guards from evicting the small-scale miners when they entered the mines after 6 months, incensed that they were jobless while their former mines – the ones they had lost the legal right to work in - sat empty.

Another legal and moral challenge is the debate surrounding the right to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) for afro-Colombian and indigenous peoples in Colombia. This right is is enshrined in the country's constitution, as well as in the ILO’s Convention 169 on the rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (which Colombia has ratified) and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (which Colombia supports). More than 50% of Marmato’s population is afro-Colombian and 17% is indigenous. However these groups must be formally organized and self-governed for the right to FPIC to be recognized. The afro-Colombian and indigenous communities in Marmato are not: they live among the rest of the population and are therefore not legally protected by the right to FPIC. I find myself reflecting on the ostensible goal of this right. Presumably, it serves to protect people’s prior right to their lands and resources, and to enhance their ability to control their own development in a context of growing inequality and vulnerability. Why, then, should the people of Marmato – indigenous or not, self-governed or not – not have the right to consent to changes on the land they have lived and worked on for hundreds of years?

The geological situation in Marmato is also complex. Gran Colombia Gold and the Colombian government claim that Marmato’s historical center is susceptible to landslides and that its residents should move for their own safety. It is true that the hillside is crumbling and that there is loose mining debris in many places. The people of Marmato acknowledge that the situation isn’t perfect but think it’s ironic that nobody was concerned about their “safety” until a powerful multinational wanted to move the town to build an open-pit mine. They feel the same way about recent attacks on their environmental record. If the government was so concerned about their environmental practices, they ask, why didn’t it ever say anything or provide them with training and support? Small-scale miners take issue with claims that Gran Colombia Gold, with its technical expertise and sophisticated practices, will do less environmental damage than artisanal miners. They believe that large-scale mining will necessarily have large-scale impacts, especially when analyzed from a sustainability point of view. The proposed open-pit mine project would last 20 years. After this time had elapsed, there would be no gold left for small-scale mining and there would be a large hole in an otherwise pristine landscape. Artisanal miners feel that it would be better, from both an environmental and human sustainability point of view, for them to continue mining at their current pace – something that could sustain them for another 200 years.

Whether they have legal arguments, moral arguments, or both, one thing that the small-scale miners in Marmato do not have is power. At odds with the company and feeling abandoned by their own government, the people of Marmato see international solidarity as a last bastion of hope. They want Canadian investors to learn about, and begin to question, Gran Colombia Gold’s behaviour in Marmato - since companies are first and foremost accountable to their shareholders and likely to be most responsive to this type of pressure. International solidarity through the presence of a delegation succeeded in drawing media attention (see article in La Patria and interviews on LPTV) and allowed small-scale miners to engage in direct dialogue with government officials and company executives (these meetings are usually difficult for them to secure on their own, given the power differentials between them and the upper spheres of society).

So what can we, as interested Canadians, do to support people like the small-scale miners in Marmato – knowing that we are sometimes their best hope? First, we can become more responsible and informed investors and shareholders. Second, we can support urgent action and public awareness campaigns (for more information about these strategies, contact Brittany Lambert). Third, we can analyze these situations within the broader context of Canadian foreign policy, and call for change. For example, Canada and Colombia recently signed a free trade agreement and there is concern that it will protect and promote foreign investment at the expense of many ordinary Colombians. There is no doubt that trade and foreign investment can drive growth in the right circumstances. However, in a country characterized by complex historical relationships between the state, the corporate sector and illegal armed forces, and in which the right to unionize is severely constricted, free trade may have unintended negative consequences. Canada and Colombia have signed a treaty requiring both governments to report annually on the human rights impacts of the free trade agreement. The first reports will be released in May 2012. We, as interested Canadians, must ensure that these reports are not just public relations exercises. We must hold our elected officials accountable for ensuring that negative findings have real consequence, and are not just shelved in a library.

If you are interested in seeing pictures of Marmato and of the delegation, please explore our Flickr album.

This blog post was written by Brittany Lambert, coordinator of CCIC's Americas Policy Group (APG).

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Canadian Council for International Cooperation, APG or their members.


Brittany Lambert