The Miners of Marmato: A Model for Opposition to Open-Pit Mining

Last month I had the privilege of visiting the Colombian mining town of Marmato with a Colombia Support Network (CSN) delegation of Canadian and United States citizens. We responded to an invitation from the Civic Committee in Defense of Marmato, a grass-roots community organization which told us the town’s existence was being threatened by a multinational Canadian mining company, Gran Colombia Gold (GCG). This company, with support from the government of Colombia, proposes to develop an open-pit mine on the site of the town, forcing the 10,000 or so residents of the town to leave their homes and their jobs.

Marmato is not just another gold mining town. It sits on the slopes of a mountain called El Burro, said to contain one of the two largest deposits of gold ore in the Western Hemisphere, worth many billions of dollars at today’s prices for gold. The town dates back to 1537, just 45 years after Christopher Columbus reached the Americas. Even before that date, indigenous peoples had removed gold from the mountain; some of their gold artifacts are now on display at the Gold Museum in Bogota. And the Spanish colonial regime used indigenous labor to mine gold from the mountain. When that source of manpower was depleted, the Spanish brought in slaves from Africa to work the mine. Today many of the small-scale (artisan) miners of Marmato trace their ancestry to these indigenous and African roots.

The mountain also has great importance as a principal source of funding for the war for independence from Spain. Simon Bolivar mortgaged the gold of Marmato to the English to obtain the funds he needed to mount the army which defeated the Spanish forces, liberating what are now the countries of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Venezuela. Several years ago the Colombian government bestowed upon the town the title of Historic Patrimony in recognition of its great historical significance. Marmato is also located in an area rich in biodiversity (Colombia is rated second in biodiversity among all of the countries of the world) and water resources, with the country’s second most important river, the Cauca, flowing along a short distance from the base of the mountain.

But the lure of the potential profit to be made from Marmato’s gold led the government of Alvaro Uribe to attempt withdrawal of the protective historical status, granting GCG’s predecessor, Medoro Resources, a concession to explore the mountain to develop plans for an open-pit mine, which would cut down the mountain and remove its gold within 21 years, leaving detritus and a huge hole, which GCG has proposed to fill with water and make into an artificial lake. Marmato, meanwhile, would disappear and a new city hall, hospital and school would be built in a town at the base of the mountain, called El Llano.

Colombia’s current President, Juan Manuel Santos, has established mining development as the lynchpin of his economic strategy and no mining proposal promises the riches that the open-pit mine on Marmato promises. Not that Colombia as a whole will really benefit that much financially from the GCG mine, since in their eagerness to entice foreign capital to invest in Colombia’s mines the Colombian government has established a royalty level of 4% on gold (versus a reported 12% paid by Colombian indigenous communities on the salt mined in their lands) plus tax exemptions and other enticements which leave the Colombian state with as little as 1% of the value of the gold removed from the mine. (Under Colombian law the subsurface minerals belong to the nation, the basis for the government’s charging of royalties.) This regimen will, however, benefit investors in GCG and officials of the company, including several Colombians, among them former Colombian Foreign Minister and Culture Minister Maria Consuelo Araujo, now President of GLG.

Why should Marmato’s experience and the threats against it concern us? For two reasons: 1) The threats to Marmato are similar to the threats around the globe to resource rich areas; and 2) Marmato provides an example of how effective opposition to these mining plans can develop.

The threats even include a taconite (iron) mine which an out-of-state company wishes to build in northern Wisconsin. This mine would endanger water resources and, with a proposed open pit more than 4 miles in length, would ravage the countryside. The argument is made that this Wisconsin mine would promote employment in northern Wisconsin, where employment opportunities are limited (a difference from Marmato, where hundreds of artisan miners live on the mountain and gain their employment from their small-scale mines there). But it will pollute streams, foul the air with diesel fumes, and likely affect the water table. Northern Wisconsin’s clean air and water, and its extensive woodlands, are fundamentally important to fishing and hunting there and to tourism, itself responsible for many jobs in the area. Once these resources are damaged, they cannot be replenished, probably for millennia. And the indigenous people, such as those of the Bad River Tribe, would have their natural resources and their traditional lands befouled by this proposed mine. In both Wisconsin and Colombia indigenous rights to the land and their traditions must be respected. And it is high time to include as costs figured into the economics of these open-pit proposals the damage caused to the environment. If these costs were assigned their true values, these projects would make no sense.

Several aspects of the opposition to the mine in Marmato show us how effective opposition to open-pit mining may produce favorable results. First, it is essential to have a strong community organization firmly committed to oppose the proposed mine. The combined strength of the Civic Committee for Defense of Marmato and the union of artisan miners, many of whom have said they will act to oppose the GCG mine even if it costs them their lives, is an example of what is needed. And the threats to opponents are not idle. The parish priest of Marmato, Father Jose Reynel Restrepo, was murdered 4 days after a video was posted on You Tube in which he said the only way he would leave the town of Marmato would be if he was killed. And the journalist who made many of the arrangements for our visit has received a telephone threat on his life because of his defense of the town and the artisan miners.

The second element needed is international solidarity. The folks who invited us to Marmato understood the importance of support beyond Colombia’s borders, and particularly in the United States and Canada. We were pleased to have two Canadian citizens join our delegation, one a coordinator of Canadian NGO’s, Brittany Lambert, and the other a journalist, Paul Webster. Their comments in Marmato and later at the Canadian Embassy in Bogota and Brittany’s comments in meetings with GCG President Araujo, the human rights officer of Colombian Vice President Angelino Garzon, and the Vice Minister of Interior carried a lot of weight. And my fellow U.S. delegation members, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit and labor leader David Newby of Madison, brought the solidarity of the progressive wing of the Catholic Church and of United States labor leadership to Marmato. And, while Paul as a journalist must maintain a certain distance, I believe the rest of us all realize that this solidarity is not a matter of one delegation to Colombia; it is something we must promote continuously until the Marmato open-pit mine plan is defeated and Marmato’s designation as an Historical Patrimony is permanently restored. In this way, Marmato may serve as a model for those of us in Wisconsin and any other place where the environment and the historical traditions of our peoples are threatened by plans for open-pit mining.

John I. Laun
February 20, 2012

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