Marmato’s Gold Bonanza


Manizales, Colombia – Uncertainty prevails in the cobbled streets of Marmato – a small mining town of some 8,000 souls clinging to the side of El Burro, a mountain in the Colombian Andes. For more than 500 years, ‘subsistence’ gold mining formed a distinct community that made its living, traditions, and legends deep in the mountain’s dank corridors. Mining the gold of Marmato defines the Marmateño condition. But five years ago, its roots were shaken when the Compañía Mineras de Caldas, a subsidiary of Toronto-based Colombia Goldfields Limited, began its project of consolidating ownership of the mountain, leading to what many call the "forced economic displacement" of Marmato, the social eradication of a working community.

Colombia Goldfields is "rediscovering the land of the golden mountain" through two major projects in the region, the Marmato Development Project and the Caramanta Exploration Project, located approximately seven kilometres apart and holding at least 5.3 million ounces (over 150 tonnes) of gold.

Historical Site or "World-class Asset"?

But there is more to Marmato than gold. In 1982, the Colombian government recognized the town as a national historic site, given its centuries-old mining tradition and unique history and culture.

The first to mine El Burro were indigenous peoples, including Cartamas and Quimbayas. Later, the Spanish Conquest brought to Marmato the first African slaves through the port of Cartagena. In 1825, the liberator, Simón Bolívar, conceded the mines to England as collateral for loans that would fund the war of independence from Spain. Marmato holds a celebrated place in Latin America’s history.

Coursing through the extensive veins bored through El Burro is the distinct Marmateño condition – a consequence of the community’s pluricultural roots as well as the relationship between the miners and the mountain, characterized by the eternal darkness of life in the mines, the ever-presence of death, and the constant drone of the mills – which would influence the imaginations of distinguished Marmateño writers and poets, such as Iván Cocherín.

Historical and cultural importance aside, Colombia Goldfields’ literature portrays Marmato as "a world-class asset" and their "latest success story". In the Medellín newspaper El Colombiano, the project merited the description "the Cerrejón of gold," a reference to the world’s largest open-pit mine located on Colombia’s north coast, controversial because of its environmental costs and the violent displacement that preceded development.

An open-pit gold mine at Marmato would be "one of the largest in South America," requiring the removal of "between 30,000 and 60,000 tonnes of earth daily in order to produce 250,000 ounces of gold annually." The operation would exploit in 20 years what small miners could in 200.

While small mining practises are notorious for their use of harmful chemicals such as cyanide, open-pit mines are environmental disaster zones, bringing limited short-term employment and leaving behind gigantic holes in the ground where communities once lived.

Yet, it is a plan that the Colombian government actively supports, as it is expected to attract foreign investment to a country where armed conflict and the threat of Latin America’s longest-surviving guerrilla insurgency, the FARC, has kept many investors away.

Since his inauguration in 2002, Colombia’s President, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, has made it his personal crusade to portray to foreign investors and the world that he has the Colombian insurgency on the run.

A strong military presence throughout the country and pro-business legislation – such as the distinctly neoliberal Mining Code of 2001, which included shockingly-low four percent royalty rates, and further reforms currently in Congress – have made the Uribe government the star champion of neoliberal reforms in a region that has, in recent years, seemed to move in another direction. Colombia is open for business, as the message to investors goes.

Pro-business legislation changes have much to do with Colombia’s controversial ‘free trade agreement’ pending ratification in the US Congress and similar deals currently being negotiated in secrecy with Canada and several European countries.

The Shock of Cold, Hard Cash

Colombia Goldfields arrived in Marmato approximately five years ago, developing what it refers to as "a multi-million ounce gold resource … through a program of property acquisitions, community resettlement and exploration."

Yamil Amar Cataño, president of the Marmato Pro-Defence Committee, a grassroots organization opposed to the company’s plans, recounts the arrival of the company: "[the miners] had never seen so much money in one place. They only know pesos. The dollars flashed in their faces were part of a plan to destabilize the community."

Indeed, most have sold their mines. According to Colombia Goldfields, 95 percent of legal mines have been acquired in the Zona Alta, an area dedicated by decree in 1954 to small or ‘subsistence’ mining. In January 2008, the company won a bid for Mineras Nacionales S.A., which employs close to 700 people and exploits the Zona Baja, allocated for medium-sized operations. Such large-scale acquisitions are unprecedented in Marmato, and the community is anxious because the company’s plans remain unclear.

Diego Ruíz, a lawyer, miner and representative of the Colombian Federation of Small Miners (FENAMICOL), expresses concern for the company’s behaviour: "In Marmato, when a mine is bought, it is closed. Mills are bought and destroyed. The local economy is going backwards, and for the first time, people are unemployed. Hunger, prostitution, and poverty are all that is left."

Purchasing mines is not a crime. "The company has a right to invest in Marmato," Ruíz adds. "But community also has rights. The company and the government have ignored [the social problems associated with unemployment]. The community is left to deal with that on its own."

Talking with Marmateños, resentment towards multinationals is not overtly apparent. For years, especially when gold prices are high, various companies have come and gone, leaving their technologies as "gifts" and the community intact.

"We are not enemies of capital," explains Amar Cataño. "But we are worried because there was never any mention of an open-pit mine [when the company first arrived]. Now, the people are totally paralyzed. That is why we are mobilizing."

A "High-Risk Zone": the Government Lends a Hand

Numerous strategies have been used in attempts to force Marmateños out of Marmato: the sudden suspension of dynamite sales to small mining cooperatives, a concerted attempt to deny legalization of small mining operations without titles, new laws threatening expropriation of small mines if deemed in the ‘national interest’, and others. In 1986, Ingeominas, the state geological agency, declared Marmato – the historic centre and its surroundings – a "high risk zone."

The winter rains of 2006 caused a landslide that tore through Marmato’s historic centre. Fortunately, no one was killed, but several buildings were in ruins. Studies were ordered, and Ingeominas again declared the area a "high risk zone," though those same studies concluded that geological instability could be addressed through mitigation projects.

Colombian Senator Jorge Robledo has been critical of the government’s treatment of Marmato. He regards the state’s concern for Marmato’s safety suspicious, given that "millions of Colombians are living at risk" of geological instability.

Robledo protests that if the real motives for displacing Marmato are for a mining project, "those costs should be assumed by the company, which would be enriched by the eradication." With the declaration of a "high-risk zone," the Colombian government, not the company, would pay for relocation.

Prior to the 2006 landslide, Ian M. Park, president of the Compañía Mineras de Caldas, stated "we are willing to help the community but with the help of the government, because I’m not going to take the entire social responsibility."

Responsibilities aside, residents of Marmato are vehemently opposed to their displacement. "We don’t want what [the government and the company] are offering us," states one miner. " We don’t want a nice big school or a new office for the mayor. We only want what we already have. But here!"

Community consultations have been non-existent. On February 21, 2008, a public forum was held in Marmato. Colombia Goldfields and the Minister of Mining were invited to address the community directly. The company sent low-level functionaries, who refused to discuss the project. The minister did not attend. According to Ruíz, "the forum was their opportunity to respond honestly to the concerns of the community, and they simply refused."

Uncertainty Prevails

The secrecy surrounding the plans of Colombia Goldfields has led some to believe that Marmateños are victims of speculative capital. As the consolidation of property in Marmato nears completion, it is thought that unemployment and misery will force those who remain in the town, those not directly involved in the mining economy, to leave behind their businesses, schools and homes – not to mention their history, culture and identity – to join the nearly four million displaced Colombians that currently surround the country’s metropolitan centres.

Miguel Alberto Giraldo, the son of a Marmateño historian and former mayor, sums up what one can clearly sense in Marmato’s streets: "Marmato doesn’t exist for Marmateños anymore. They’ll all have to go, but how, where and when? […] For me, this is whole thing is forced displacement through unemployment and apocalyptic threats of total disaster."

As the bedrock of El Burro cracks with the shocks of dynamite, so too does Marmateños’ identification with place, that which has held the community together for hundreds of years. With more of its inhabitants seeking more precarious work in other sectors and in other parts of the country, the community itself is splitting, fragmented from the shocks of a few thousand dollars and government indifference.

"If they are doing this to Marmato," states Senator Robledo, "they can do this to any community in Colombia." The Canadian multinational is participating in setting a dangerous precedent.

Micheál Ó Tuathail is a freelance journalist and translator based in Edmonton, Canada. He is also a member of La Chiva, an Alberta-based collective working in solidarity with Colombian social movements and communities.

Useful Links in English:

Senator Jorge Enrique Robledo. "Why Marmato is Being Displaced," 11 January 2008. http://www.chicagoans.net/node/133

Colombia Goldfields Ltd. Website: www.colombiagoldfields.com

In Spanish:

Marmato Mío: Blog of the Marmato Pro-Defence Committee: http://www.marmato.blogspot.com

Luis Javier Caicedo. "Marmato: From Colombia’s "Cradle of Gold" to Canada’s "Golden Mountain," Revista Semillas, No. 32/33. 7 March, 2007. http://www.semillas.org.co/sitio.shtml?apc=w1-1–&x=20155132.

Communiqué from CRIDEC, Caldas Indigenous Organization. "Canadian Mining Company Places Marmato at Risk of Disappearance," 7 March, 2007. http://www.onic.org.co/nuevo/comunicados.shtml?x=1254

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