Exporting Destruction: Corporate Gold Mining Threatens Mountaintop and a Small Mining Town

Canadian mining companies dig deep with their massive open pit mines to claim their treasure, but take an enormous toll on the earth

coal mineMining companies have aimed at another mountaintop for gold, in “Marmato,” a film that captures their transformative impacts to a Colombian town

“Marmato” 

by Jake Bortnick and Chris Buchal, for Cascadia Times

“Marmato,” a documentary that debuted at the 2014 Sundance film festival about gold mining in a small Colombian town of the same name, took director Marc Greico six years to make, and underscores a wider story of a pattern of exploitation of small foreign communities, by Canadian transnational resource-extraction corporations. Welcomed by the Colombian government, Toronto-based mining companies Medoro and Gran Columbia Gold have teamed up to deplete Marmato’s gold reserves for mega-profits, with relatively little local resistance. “Marmato” chronicles how the townspeople faced the changes and challenges brought on by foreign interests.

Colombia’s vast reserves have become the focal point of a global gold rush with the 500-year-old mining town Marmato, and its 10,000 inhabitants, at the epicenter. Gold mining has been the way of life in Marmato. The town’s economy vitally depends on it. Inhabitants tell stories about how their fathers, grandfathers, and great grandfathers worked the mines, situated on a mountain riddled with little mines historically owned and worked by locals using primitive, yet relatively sustainable, mining techniques.

 

To boost their image in the town, the foreign mining corporations teamed up with a Colombian-based corporation to hold mini-festivals and to hand out school supplies to the kids. This attempt to mask their true intention – which was to relocate the town away from the mountain so that they could commence with the digging of an open pit where the town and the mountain once stood, undermined the community’s social, economic and environment foundations. The Colombian government, influenced by the corporations, agreed with their plan to move the town and remove the mountain, reasoning that the town must be moved to avoid an eventual catastrophe caused by excessive mining of the mountain.  And so, mines continued to be bought up by the corporations, while locals struggled to make ends meet.In recent years however, recognizing Marmato’s treasure potential, large foreign mining corporations  have bought up existing deeds, shut down the old mines and muscled mining properties from locals who wouldn’t sell. Their tactics included political moves, such as persuading the Colombian government to enact tough mining regulations like forbidding the sale of dynamite, that made it nearly impossible for anyone other than the Canadian transnationals to control the mines.  This created a movement among the townspeople dependent on mining, to work the mines illegally by manufacturing homemade dynamite. These tactics have created resentment among the townspeople.

The locals continue to fight for their land, heritage and town employing whatever means might be necessary.The filmmakers offered some sensitive insights about Marmato’s plight in the following Q & A.

 

Q & A with “Marmato” director and producer

 

Mark Greico – Director  “Marmato”

Stuart Reeve – Producer  “Marmato”

CT – Cascadia Times

 CT: What was the environmental impact of the open pit on the surrounding community?

Mark: If you can imagine they’d move 40,000 tons of earth a day and use 60,000 litres of water a day which put a lot of particulate matter into the air. The mining corporation had no plan of where to move this waste material, and they intended to store it below the mountain.  This would create an unsafe situation for the town to be directly below such a mine operation.

CT: Due to things like landslides mentioned in the film?

Mark: No, this would be for the future impact. The Canadian company overseeing the mine has plans to do this. The town itself suffers from its own impact of what the mine is doing to the mountain as well.  They are throwing a lot of the waste rock and ore out of the mine down the mountain, and also use cyanide to treat the gold. So there is an environmental impact today from just the small-scale mining. So if you were to imagine this becoming the large-scale mining operation you could see the negative impact this would have on the environment.

Stuart: What about the wildlife and plantlife?

Mark: There is not much there now, due to the impact of the miners for hundreds of years.

CT: In the film, it was mentioned that there was an “old school” way of mining, juxtaposed to the large scale-mining operation “open-pit” system. Why is the “old school” method that was employed better for the environment and the town.

Mark: Environmentally speaking its just on a smaller scale. They wouldn’t be moving the same volume of earth or of water.  They don’t use the amount of water that a large-scale mine would use.  Also the Canadian company would use cyanide to treat the gold on a tremendous scale. There is still an environmental impact, you can’t have any mining without an impact, but it can be on a smaller more manageable scale. I think it can be regulated, and the government can actually be to to make attempts at that, but by enabling a large-scale mining operations, its more profitable for the company and local government to take out 14 million ounces of gold in 20 years, as opposed to a small town continuing to tunnel, using 100 year old methods, and having it take longer to get the gold and thus money out.

Stuart: With what they are doing with the water, how much do they reuse.

Mark: They recycle some of the water, and there is a tremendous waste of water filled with what they call “heavy solids” and they are just storing these reservoirs in the town, and they don’t really have a place for it.  Marmato is built on a fault line, and because of this they have yet to find a place to store the reservoir safely.  Their studies have not found a place to safely store it, but they do so anyways.

CT: In your approach to filmmaking, do you feel you took more of a national geographic “hands off” approach, or did you approach this with an agenda?

Mark: No, I came in with the idea to find the most balanced story I could.  Immediately I started seeking out people in the town to find those who could represent every side of this story. Through the years I would attempt to talk to the Canadian company, perform interviews with them, speak with people who were for the mining project, and those against it. As the years progressed the town expressed their own own resistance as well, and this shows through in the film.

 CT: In the film there is a Canadian driller who expresses sadness due to the actions of his company. Do you find him hypocritical in this story.

Mark: The reason he starts to feel bad about running of the drilling operation, is he never before had this close connection to the people.  He begins to have a fondness with Marmato, and he’s starting to have second thoughts, and doubts about what he does. So of course he’s  hypocritical because this is his industry, and his job, to oversee this large-mining operation.  He may be hypocritical, but he can see the impact it’s having on the town.

 Stuart: He’s a three-dimensional character, and he’s interesting to us, because he’s not easily labeled as villain, because he sympathizes and starts to have second thoughts or doubts about his work.

 Mark: Ultimately that’s what we tried to do with the film. Find characters who have depth. So when you walked in, if you have a “fixed” perspective, you could after this film look across the aisle and rationalize why people were coming to their decisions.

 CT: Economic development, environmental protection.  Are they mutually exclusive?

Mark: I think any large scale economic development is usually associated with environmental degradation. Especially in the mining industry. Any type of large-scale or even small-scale project has environmental impact. Human history has been that the more we have developed and created these types of industry the more impact we have on the environment. I think that’s what we need to explore, especially with things like gold. Why do we mine this? Why do we need to create a mine that’s going to remove 40,000 tons of earth a day? You can see how its benefits the community, and created generations of really successful families in a country where it is a difficult place to live, and continued for centuries making it an economical place to live. I don’t think these things are mutually exclusive, the problem is we have to find better ways to do it, and that’s not going to happen if we can’t have the right kind of dialogue if we can’t decide how to best manage policy.

 Stuart:  Its a cost-benefit analysis, we can’t always look at it from a financial benefit, but from a human cost, and I think its really important about where you draw the line.

Mark: Within the current profit driven system, its a paradox, because if this Canadian company did promise and execute the right amount of money towards its environmental impact, did build a great town, where they gave 100% employment, and restructured in a sustainable way- It would cost them so much money the operating cost versus the profits from the price of gold would not be enough of a profit margin. Its of my opinion, that investors would lean towards a company that wouldn’t slim the profit margin.There isn’t enough motivation to protect the environment. It’s a contradiction to level a mountain and protect the environment, and to do what’s best practice or policy…would not be enough. An investor would look for a company with a larger profit line.

CT: Any ideas how that could be improved?

Mark: I don’t believe I have the answer, I think part of my reason for making this film is an exploration, an exploration of my own doubts and personal thoughts on things, and also really trying to give a space for the people to speak their own experience. My opinion doesn’t matter as much as what these people believe. This is their territory, their lives, and their experience. 

Stuart: It’s a film about accountability, human value, environmental value, and finding a balance between those three.

Mark: I will say that if companies want to do projects like this, and they promise to do the right thing, there needs to be a pressure that they do execute it, and that there’s an enforcement via international pressure, or government.  If there is a solution it lies in regulation. However, the international organizations are not doing enough to execute this vision.

CT: Have the people of the town seen it.

Mark: They haven’t yet, but I plan to bring it to them.

CT: Thank you for your time.

 

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