Director Mark Grieco takes us to a town in Columbia where long-standing conflicts over gold mining are overload with 21st-century complexities.

An emblematic industry in Colombia since pre-colonial times, gold mining has taken on much more economic and political importance with the rise of gold prices over the last decade. The country’s estimated $20 billion in untapped gold reserves has attracted foreign mining companies, among them several from Canada. But poor families as well have flocked to artisanal mines, digging gold crudely out of mountains or panning and sluicing for it in rivers in hopes of striking it rich. In the spirit of gold rushers everywhere and throughout history, they see gold mining as a path to a better life, one of the few economic shortcuts open to Colombia’s poor.

Thus the mining boom has also led to complex human rights conflicts, which are the subject of Marmato, a beautifully filmed documentary by Mark Grieco. Shot over a seven-year period, the film portrays local artisanal miners in the town of Marmato in northwestern Antioquia province who resist the arrival of a corporate behemoth, Canada-based Gran Colombia Gold.

In one corner are the poor miners who scratch out livelihoods every day amid risk and back-breaking labour, and who feel they have a natural right to the shiny ore they find. In the other is the modern, Toronto-based concern that bought up 80 percent of the land titles in and around Marmato, with a plan to replace them with a huge and more efficient open-pit mine. The economies of scale at the new mine meant many poor miners would lose their jobs and forced many Marmato residents to relocate to make room for the open pit.

The main protagonist is Dumar Velez, a former Medellin street kid whose station in life has risen with his work as an artisanal miner in Marmato. But the life of the  impoverished father of four is turned upside down by the sale of the small mine where he works to Gran Colombia. In response to protests by Velez and others, the firm closes down his mine and several others in anticipation of aggregating them to create a much larger facility, with an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars. Meanwhile Velez and others continue to mine illegally by trespassing on the property. How else to put food on the table?

The film affectingly juxtaposes the powerlessness of Velez with the corporate reach of Gran Colombia, which hired a former Colombian cabinet minister, Maria Consuelo Araujo, as its local CEO. She makes an appearance in the film handing out free school supplies to local pupils, including pencils and backpacks, all stamped with the mining company’s corporate logo.

Although not addressed in Grieco’s film, the plight of poor miners is just one of the thorny issues raised by Colombia’s mining boom. The gold rush was launched a decade ago when former president Alvaro Uribe granted hundreds of new mining permits in a bid to attract foreign investment to a country then desperate to receive it. That led to many megaproject proposals, several of which are sited near Colombia’s high-altitude archipelago of paramos, the neotropical, windswept  ecosystems that are the main sources of drinking water for Colombia’s biggest cities, including Bogota, Medellin and Cali.

Environmentalists have waged fierce  and so far largely successful — battles to prevent the inauguration of projects like British-Columbia-based Eco Oro Minerals’ gold mine near the Santurban paramo in northeast Colombia. Opponents argue that the project, which probably would use contaminants such as mercury and cyanide, could jeopardize the delicate ecosystem and the water supply of the city of Bucaramanga (pop. 550,000).

Eco Oro and other mining companies with projects near paramos, including South Africa’s Anglo Gold Ashanti, insist their mines would be safe. They allege the country is reneging on assurances that the millions of dollars they invested in acquiring land and in exploration would someday produce a return.

For the time being, President Juan Manuel Santos has frozen all new permitting of mines sited near paramos, which are supposed to be off limits to settlements of any kind, until his environment minister comes up with new guidelines detailing just what a paramo is. The issue is complicated by the fact that many of Colombia’s paramos already have been thoroughly invaded by farmers and miners. A toughening up of paramo parameters to keep miners out could, for example, force the government to pay for relocating the farmers who at Santurban produce half the region’s onions.

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Marmato, Mark Grieco.

Environmental disasters have already been documented. Illegal mining fuelled by higher gold prices and the nation’s weak enforcement of restrictions has led to horrific geological scarring in northwest Colombia. There, out-of-control dredging has turned once idyllic stretches of jungle-canopied waterways like the Atrato, Quito and Dagua rivers into moonscapes. Mercury traces have shown up in fish caught in the Bay of Buenaventura, a Pacific port town populated by mostly Afro-Colombians who rely on fish for food.

There is even a law and order angle to add to the mix of controversies. The leftist rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) controls much of the country’s artisanal mining by extorting taxes from the participants to finance its warfare against the government. Criminal bands are also heavily involved in illegal mining, controlling the market for illicit chemicals such as mercury and the jerry-rigged dredges that miners use to churn up gold ore from river bottoms.

The larger issue Colombia is grappling with concerns mining’s long-term economic benefits, or lack thereof. Opponents say there is very little sustainable economic advantage to mining, that it involves minimal technology transfer to a local economy and that its most noticeable impact on blue collar workers is to raise the cost of living when a foreign company’s highly paid foreign engineers and technical staff move in. Higher food and living costs have often been cited as aftereffects of the giant Buenaventura gold mine in northern Peru, near the city of Cajamarca, that is co-owned by Colorado-based Newmont Mining.

Insiders say President Santos is of two minds about how strongly to embrace mining. He is known to see Colombia’s long-term investment potential —  once the conflict with FARC rebels is settled — to be partially but firmly pegged to its appeal to eco-tourists, an appeal that mining could jeopardize.

But, big foreign mining companies argue, often persuasively, that with gold prices this high, Colombia will never escape the ravages of illegal mining. The country is better off having big multinational miners do the digging, they say, than leaving it to illegal and artisanal miners who are more likely to disregard environmental rules and avoid paying taxes and royalties. Or so goes their argument.

Grieco’s Marmato doesn’t grapple with the harder questions of that wider overview. The struggles over mining in Colombia are not simple black-and-white morality tales, and the film would have been enhanced by acknowledging the complexity of environmental, political and criminal issues that surround gold mining in the 21st century. But the documentary is a valuable and compelling record of ground-level impacts of global market trends, and of the eternal struggle between power and influence and the economically disadvantaged. Like those who live in Marmato.