Ever been to Marmato, Colombia? Ever heard of Marmato? Unlikely. Marmato is a small mining town built on the side of El Burro mountain in the lush and beautiful foothills of the Andes northwest of Bogota. For hundreds of years, the people of Marmato have lived in peace, with work – albeit hard work – for all, and a reasonable standard of living.
Now, all that is threatened.
About five years ago, a Canadian multinational mining corporation, Medoro Resources, which later merged with and into Gran Colombia Gold, began to move into the Marmato area. Gran Colombia Gold, with extensive mining operations in Colombia, had great plans for Mamato’s future: raze the town and gradually destroy El Burro and replace it with an open pit mine.
Through various legal (and illegal) maneuvers, and with the collaboration of high officials in the Colombian government, they began buying land and buying individual mines from the local owners through deceptive practices and promises.
Violence has not been absent either. In late August 2011, the local priest, Father Jose Reinel Restrepo, said in a video soon posted on YouTube (see bottom of article) that the only way his church would be moved and an open pit mine dug in Marmato would be if he were dead.
Four days later he was murdered.
Those who killed him have not been found. No evidence has been produced to connect Gran Colombia Gold to Father Restrepo’s murder, but his assassination has made the local population understandably nervous.
Still, the miners and people of Marmato have not been passive in the face of veiled threats from unknown quarters and Gran Colombia’s developing plan to destroy their town with an open pit mine. The miners formed the Asociacion de Mineros Tradicionales de Marmato, and the populace as a whole formed the Comite Civico pro defensa de Marmato. They reached out to student and other groups at the university in the provincial capital of Manizales who helped organize demonstrations to block Gran Colombia’s actions. They also asked the Colombia Support Network (based in Madison) to send a delegation of both Americans and Canadians to come to Marmato to investigate—and by doing so, shine a powerful international light on the threat to the people of Marmato and to their heritage.
Our Delegation was in Colombia from January 14-22. It was led by Jack Laun, President of CSN, and also included Bishop Thomas Gumbleton (retired) of Detroit; Brittany Lambert, coordinator of the Americas Policy Group at the Canadian Council for International Cooperation; Paul Webster, a freelance journalist based in Toronto; and myself.
While there, we talked to miners, government officials at the local, provincial and national levels, as well as managers of Gran Colombia who were in charge of the project in Marmato. We also talked to the President of the corporation and other top officials in Bogota (who assured us that all was fine and Gran Colombia had nothing but the best of intentions).
Most moving was a mass meeting with the miners of Marmato on January 17. The meeting was held in the second floor of the local disco dance hall in the early afternoon. In the morning, you could see miners in the distance up the mountain coming in and out of their mines, while others worked in the small processing mills. But after lunch, they set down their tools and began to stream to the meeting hall. By the time we started, at least 500 packed the hall.
Cheers greeted the representative of the Governor of Caldas Province who announced the complete opposition of the Governor to open pit mining in all of Colombia. The courageous national president of the miners union, Francisco Ramirez (who has survived seven assassination attempts by right wing paramilitary death squads), declared solidarity from miners elsewhere in Colombia. He acknowledged the difficulty of the struggle, but also the need for solidarity. He stressed the importance of international support, especially from the AFL-CIO and unions in the United States.
The leaders of the Indigenous Community and the Miners Association also spoke, as did members of our Delegation. We got huge applause and cheers when we promised to take their story back to Canada and the United States and thus attempt to put greater international pressure on Gran Colombia to abandon their plans to destroy Marmato.
While the miners seemed skeptical when they first arrived at the meeting, so many expressions of support seemed to turn that skepticism to hope and determination. It is clear that they will continue their struggle no matter the cost (which might include their own lives) to protect their town, their jobs, their families, and their way of life.
And our Delegation visit may already have had some positive results: CSN recently received word that Gran Colombia has promised to have good-faith meetings with both the Indigenous Community and the miners. Are they serious? Time will tell.
We have a real responsibility to support our brothers and sisters in Marmato. Supporting them is a small step toward stopping the rape of the planet’s resources by multinational corporations strictly for the benefit of the 1%, whether that 1% be rich stockholders and CEO’s in the United States and Canada, or the wealthy oligarchy that controls Colombia.
– David Newby is president of the Wisconsin Fair Trade Coalition, and President Emeritus of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO. This article first published in the Summer 2012 issue of the Colombia Support Network newsletter
Please support the people of Marmato by taking a moment to send an email to these decision makers:
Mr. Rafael Pardo, Colombia Minister of Labor: firstname.lastname@example.org
Message: Hope you will use the power of your office to stop Gran Colombia Gold from digging an open pit mine in Marmato, thus destroying the jobs and heritage of the miners and community of Marmato.
Ms. Maria Consuelo Araujo, President, Gran Colombia Gold: email@example.com
Message: Have recently learned of the plans by Gran Colombia Gold to destroy the town of Marmato and the jobs of the artisan miners of that town by digging an open pit mine there. Following this plan would be a disaster for the people of Marmato and is totally unnecessary for the profitability of your corporation. Please abandon this project!