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Culture

What Happens When an International Mining Company Comes to Town?

A new documentary shows how Marmato, Colombia, suffered.

by Jordan Sowunmi
11 October 2014, 7:00am

Five years ago, Mark Grieco was a 24-year-old independent photographer traveling through Latin America. Like many, Grieco was struck by the continent's vast economic disparities—massive ghettoes across the street from gigantic mansions with walls and security guards—and this imbalance spurred Mark into action. He quickly abandoned his photography ambitions and began plotting a film that would illuminate the inequalities, explore the continent’s history, and speculate on its future.

He settled on a gold-rich town of 10,000 called Marmato as his subject. Marmato was an enticing anomaly—a municipality sitting on one of the biggest untapped gold reserves in the world (estimated to be worth nearly £13 billion) while operating completely devoid of foreign mining companies. Intrigued by the way the locals continued to subsistence mine in the traditional manner, Grieco began documenting the community. As chance would have it, shortly after he arrived, the first international mining company arrived in Marmato and started buying up the local stakes, providing him with a captivating conflict to document.

The resulting film, MARMATO, is a gripping story about the growing influence and control foreign investors have over the Colombian town, as shown through the eyes of the local miners, mine owners, and foreign executives sent in to help smooth the transition. MARMATO captures many dramatic developments—including the moment the government stops selling the locals the dynamite essential for them to mine, effectively asphyxiating the local economy so it is easier for foreign officials to take control. This leads to a protracted resistance from local workers, who enter the mines illegally and use homemade dynamite to get to the gold, leading to tension with a government unafraid of sending the military into towns to do its bidding.

After Mark visited Toronto to premiere MARMATO for three sold-out screenings at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, I gave him a call to discuss the long-term implications of foreign investment in economically desperate Latin American towns, how the American military is used to protect foreign mining company investments, and why he thinks the Canadian government has been dragging its feet on appointing a federal watchdog on the mining industry.

VICE: How did you end up choosing Marmato as a subject for your film?
Mark Grieco: I started looking for a mining town that didn’t have a tourist-y environment, either presently or historically, and at the same time didn’t have a multinational mining company controlling that resource.

When I found Marmato, I knew it was exactly what I was looking for as soon as I arrived. It’s a town where the miners themselves are still mining the same way they have for centuries and the gold is staying within the local economy. And just by coincidence, almost [on] the week I arrived, the first Canadian mining company arrived and started buying up the mines. I started filming a little bit over a year later after that first trip to Marmato.

At one point in the film, you show that ads for the Canadian mining company that bought up 80 percent of the mines in Marmato—Midoro—are running on local television talking about how their advanced drilling techniques are better for the environment. They also brag about the jobs they’re going to create for the community and how they’re going to eventually turn the mine into an eco-friendly space. Do you think that there was any truth to those plans or is that just a marketing tactic?
This is an old game companies use to come in and sell the snake oil to these kinds of communities that are vulnerable to these kinds of messages, and vulnerable to the attraction of capital—foreigners showing up with briefcases of dollars.

But if someone could show me a mining project that actually started by promising these things and then actually achieved that for the community, I’d be shocked. It rarely ever happens. It really is a publicity tactic. In the video in the film, I would say every single thing they promised they never completed. I know the first time it was shown to people in Marmato, it was at a closed meeting with just the mayor and the councilmen and -women of town. The public wasn’t even allowed to see it.

So what they’re saying is, "We’re going to create these jobs and this beautiful new town." But they rarely, if ever, explained to the community what the implications of an open-pit mine would mean to the community.

What are the implications?
It meant the ultimate destruction of a 500-year-old town. It meant eroding the social fabric. It meant death of their territory, their land. And ultimately, the destruction of the town… They may guarantee employment, but it’s only for the short term, that this is a project that has a lifespan (at maximum) of 30 years. 

In the film, It seems like a lot of the Canadians and others who traveled to Marmato seem genuinely convinced that they would improve the locals' quality of life. Do you think that they’re actually convinced, or is their certainty just another level of their pitch?
Well, I think that on some levels, they could improve certain aspects of their lives. This case is complex. There are two major things: The way that the locals are mining now is just not safe and it’s really not sustainable for that community, and they’re also damaging the environment to a certain extent.

The difference being between that and the big mine is that the big mine would be done on such a massive scale that the environmental impact would be huge—and so would the social impact. The other thing that I hope comes across in the film is that I’m not attacking the foreign investors. I’m allowing them to justify their type of work and their existence in a community like [Marmato] to see how they can justify these claims—and the inevitable upheaval of the cultural and social fabric of this town.

I think that they truly believe what they’re saying, because if you were a foreigner who’s worked in the mining industry for decades and you’re used to regulated industrial mining, if you went to Marmato and saw the way they were mining, you would say, "My God, this is exactly like the stone ages," [which is what] one of the execs says in the film. There’s this perception from foreigners that “we’re here to save the community from their primitive ways.”

Miners at the entrance of the Marmato mine. Photo via Mark Grieco

Seventy-five percent of the world’s mining companies are headquartered in Canada. Why do you think that is?
I think a simple answer would be that Canada doesn’t have a highly industrialized economy. And so for a long time, it’s been a resource-based economy. Canada has historically been a resource-based economy: fur trade, mineral resources, that kind of thing. And I think that part of the economy was and is a huge part of the Canadian economy.

In the case of Colombia, there’s an interesting way to look at this is in that Colombia receives the third-largest military aid package in the world from the US, outside of Israel and Egypt. And what’s been happening in the last few decades in Colombia is that a lot of that military aid is going to fight the insurgent groups in the country. But the places where they’re kind of clearing out those insurgent groups from territory that they previously controlled are places rich in petroleum and mineral resources. So once that’s cleared up, then business can come in.

Now if the majority on mining companies were American, you could easily make that connection. But if it’s a mining company from Canada that comes down and starts taking advantage of those newly controlled and secured areas, then the connection is not as clear. 

We’ve previously reported on Stephen Harper's administration dragging its feet on hiring someone to oversee the mining industry. What's the cause of their delay?
Well, it’s hard for me to say. I’m an American. I don’t know much what’s going on in terms of politics here, but I think it’s clear: [Mining is] one of the cornerstones of [Canada’s] economic success. The government has a great interest in not letting there be too much regulation. A lot of the big banks in Canada are investing directly into huge projects… for example, the Canadian Pension Plan since 2011 has invested $£3.7 million in Gran Colombia Gold, which is the Canadian company in Marmato. I just think that there’s been attempts to regulate these companies and most of the times those get crushed.

What do you think people should know about the way mining companies are conducting their businesses around the world?
People don’t even know what is happening and how this business is conducted. There may be some plausibly positive examples of this type of investment in the underdeveloped world, but most of the time it’s done by way of tactics that are shown in MARMATO. And I think that in the case of Colombia, it’s because most of the media won’t report on the story in the same way in which I covered the story: investing a lot of time and speaking directly to people who were affected by this investment.

Hopefully people who are for this type of investment and those who are completely against it may see the film and identify all sides of the story by way of a humanistic portrayal of this kind of conflict. To say Look, we need to think about this in a more profound way and try to find a dialogue somewhere in the middle. And I think that that’s kind of the first step: to raise awareness.

Marmato debuts on Netflix in January 2015. For more information on the film and screenings, click here or here.

Follow Jordan Sowunmi on Twitter.

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