February 13, 2012

Defending Land and Life in Marmato, Colombia: A Call for International Solidarity (part 1)

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.

The next few blog postings will describe the delegation’s activities and findings, and reflect on possible solutions to the problem.

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 CCIC, APG or their members.

1 comment:

  1. This is important work and you are helping to generate awareness. As Canadians, we are very interested in this kind of information and will watch appropriately, especially when investing in Canadian mining operations abroad. Canadian mining companies would do well to pay attention.