February 16, 2012

Defending Land and Life in Marmato, Colombia: Patterns of Division and Violence (Part 2)

It is immediately obvious to me that the people of Marmato have put a huge amount of effort into organizing our agenda. Despite their humble roots, they have managed to bring in an impressive roster of lawyers, social leaders, unionists, researchers and journalists from all over Colombia to meet with us.

Our first activity is a meeting with people from other Colombian communities affected by Gran Colombia Gold. One of these people is a young environmental leader from Arboleda, in the department of Nariño. He explains that his community, once characterized by peace and solidarity, has been embroiled in conflict since Gran Colombia Gold’s arrival in January 2011. Residents who expressed concerns about the mining project have received death threats through anonymous text messages and phone calls. This has polarized the town and driven a deep wedge between those who oppose the project and those who are embracing it by seeking employment with the company.

I ask whether Gran Colombia Gold has created similar divides in Marmato, and am reassured that the social fabric here is still relatively intact. However, many people worry that this won’t last long. Even as an inexperienced outsider, I see signs of social conflict looming around the corner. For example, after one of our meetings, a mine owner approaches me and shows me a contract that Gran Colombia Gold has offered him. The company wants to buy his mine, and commits to employing him and his miners. He asks me if I think he should sign it – he is only semi-literate and is concerned that he might not understand all the small print. He tells me that another mine owner recently signed a similar contract and that the company honoured its commitment to hire him and his workers, but then fired them all two months later. I feel unequipped to offer advice on such an important legal matter and tell him that he should consult a lawyer. He replies that there are no lawyers in Marmato and that people like him are feeling their way through the dark trying to make the right decisions. After he leaves, two other miners approach me. They tell me not to trust the previous man: People like him, they say, are allowing the company to tighten its grip on Marmato by selling their mines for personal gain. I realize that it’s just a matter of time before these tensions reach boiling point here too. Sadly, it’s clear to me that these tension are not caused by people acting in bad faith, but rather by people trying to navigate through complex and scary new realities with very little knowledge or legal guidance.

Violence is another thing that many people feel is likely to increase in Marmato. So far, in comparison to other mining-affected communities, Marmato has been quite peaceful. Other than the murder of the town’s parish priest in September 2011, there has been no real violence in Marmato. However, our encounters with human rights defenders from other parts of Colombia make me realize that this is the exception, not the rule. A miners’ union leader from Segovia, another community affected by Gran Colombia Gold, is accompanied by a personal bodyguard at all times. A young lawyer, who works with mining-affected communities in Antioquia, wears a bullet-proof vest. When Paul Webster, the journalist on our delegation, asks the environmental defender from Nariño if he can quote him in an article, the young man says no - explaining that he fears for his safety. These subtle signs remind me that Colombia is still very much in the midst of an armed conflict - a highly complex one in which political, economic and social forces are intricately linked. As if to confirm the predictions that violence in Marmato will increase, a Colombian journalist who produced a documentary on our delegation's visit to Marmato (see part 1, part 2 and part 3) received a death threat shortly after the film was released.

Our conversations with people from other mining-affected communities in Colombia reveal clear and consistent patterns. Despite the different contexts, their stories of violence and intimidation, especially in relation to foreign extractive companies operating on their land, are eerily similar. These patterns make it very difficult for ordinary Colombians to resist corporate extractive activity. They also highlight the inequalities that exist between North and South, especially between foreign capital from the North and ordinary people from the South. As one young Colombian we met so aptly put it: "imagine if the situation were reversed: if a Colombian mining company went into a Canadian town and forced residents to relocate so that it could create an open-pit mine". He's right, it's difficult to imagine...

This blog post was written by Brittany Lambert, coordinator of CCIC's Americas Policy Group (APG).

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of CCIC, APG or their members.

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