Marmato's Mining Battle

John Harold Giraldo Herrera & Rodrigo Grajales Murillo

If multinational enterprises continue to extract gold through strip mining in Marmato-Caldas, the second largest municipality in gold mining in Colombia, it will take them two years to finish off the mountains, according to Mario Tangarife. Tangarife is the president of the Association of Traditional Miners (Asociación de Mineros Tradicionales) that comprises more than 800 members. The wealth of this region would be taken away, leaving in its place a desert camp the size of two golf courses. 

Marmato is experiencing extreme tension from the mining boom, which is now a driving force in Colombia with more than 49 foreign companies in the country, in 14 of its 32 departments. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has a flagship plan to boost the country's economy through this very sector and has pursued it by compliantly handing thousands of mineral titles over to foreign businesses without taking the social and environmental consequences into account. Traditional miners, those who extract the coveted metal conventionally, are now being persecuted with their mining practices branded illegal. In their place, strip mining gold on a large scale with backhoes, and even opencast mining, are being permitted by Colombian legislation. Since the multinational mining company Medoro (whose name has gone through frequent changes) entered Marmato with the objective of taking advantage of the wealth of this municipality, there has been constant conflict. According to the new Territory Ordering map, a little more than ten thousand people live in Marmato, with some 90 percent dependent on gold.

"The problems are diverse," says Freddy Muñoz, president of the Marmato Federation of Traditional Miners (Federación de Mineros Artesanales de Marmato). "We need to keep in mind that in many places it isn’t exactly the same type of mining. For example, cubic mining through dredging is considered problematic and not recognized in mining laws, and it is a problem for the miners who practice it. The barequeros are hounded and treated as criminals by the police."  

There are more than 300 thousand traditional (or conventional) miners who are seeking to be legalized in Colombia, with an average of about two million people, including the families who live off the precious metal. They have been mining for over 450 years, since before the Spanish invasion, when indigenous people extracted gold to pay tribute to the sun and their deities.

"It is considered ordinary for a miner to extract what we call a ‘castellano’ of gold, which is approximately 4.4 grams of gold. The amount is worth between 240 and 250 thousand pesos (the equivalent of about 130 US dollars). This represents what the average miner lives off per week here in Marmato," says Mario Tangarife. That's how the vast majority lives in Colombia.

The miners' lawyer, Jorge Herán Palacio, explains further: "Decree 2235 takes up one of the articles of Law 685 concerning traditional mining, and see what it says: 'Traditional mining is the that which has been performed in mining since before 2001.' This means that traditional miners do not exist in this country from 2001 on. Whoever hasn't done mining before 2001 isn't a traditional miner. That is absolutely absurd. It goes against the culture, the history - against the very desire of the miners to be recognized as such."

In Marmato, the multinational companies intend to extract some 12.5 million ounces of the total estimated amount still present in "el Burro,” the main hill in Marmato. However, resistance among residents has impeded the opencast extraction and stopped the advancement of multinational business. Still, every eight days, a helicopter arrives and loads the gold output onto it. There have been no figures of the gold taken by the multinationals. 

"How much gold do they take? No one knows. We see that the helicopter arrives, picks up the gold bricks, but we do not know where they go to next," says Herán Palacio. "We don't know how much they are paying in royalties or taxes. We're in the dark about their social and contractual obligations. When we do know them, they can't be made to comply.”  

The resistance against the multinational enterprise has increased tension among those demanding a change. Miners have blocked one of the country's main routes connecting the southern part of the country with Antioquia. More than one hundred people have been arrested and several injured as a result of the confrontations. The conflict will continue as long as the multinational business keep extracting gold.

"Marmato is a paradise" has long been the sense one gets from the majority of the miners. It has become a hell, however, because of anxiety in the workplace and harassment by the multinational enterprise.

“Marmato lives amidst legal, social, political, environmental and cultural entanglements; people now want to move to another place,” explains Yamil, leader of a civic committee for municipal defense.  

According to Mario Restrepo, councilman and Marmato's indigenous leader, “the multinational business can no longer strip mine because the council has prohibited it, yet they keep taking away the gold."

"Even though the traditional miners hold deeds, they continue to consider those deeds illegal and view the miners as criminals” says Fredy, another leader. Gold has given the Marmateños identity, culture, and a way of life.

"Gold reflects our daily bread," adds the governor of Adriana Palomino, a faction consisting of 2,850 indigenous people. 

The anthropologist and investigator of mining, Carlos Junio Gonzales Colonia, affirms that the Marmato case, "is emblematic of Latin American mining conflicts following 1995 when big multinational enterprises began to arrive motivated by the outrageously high gold prices." This has made mining operations more profitable in a certain way, similar to the mining operations that existed some years ago. Gold continues to be very sought after. In Marmato, there isn't as much poverty, but the tension between the miners, the multinationals and the government is high. Mario Tangarife and the indigenous councils believe that there are only 20 or 30 thousand ounces of gold left in Marmato, an amount that could last more than 800 years if extracted using traditional methods. But seems like it will be running out much sooner if the multinationals continue their race for it. 

Translation by Adam Wier

All images ©Rodrigo Grajales Murillo

John Harold Giraldo Herrera was born in the city of Pereira, Colombia in 1979. He is an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker. He publishes his work with various local and national medias such as El Espectador, La Revista Semana, La Patria, El Meridiano, La Opinión, Sucesos y Opiniones, L Tarde, El Diario del Otún, Revista Malpensante,  Miratón, and with international newspapers and magazines such as Letralia from Venezuela, and Revista Ñ from Argentina, among others. His interested in writing about communities from his own country, and on politics and topics related to culture and art. John Harold is the director of the journalism group Enfokados with whom he creates radio, television and digital works. He holds a degree in Spanish and Media Communications with a specialization in Journalism and Literature from the University of Technology of Pereira. He is also a university professor of Media, Pedagogy, Literature and Journalism.

Rodrigo Grajales Murillo was born in Colombia in 1960. He has dedicated his life to writing with the light. For more than 30 years he has worked with photography on subjects related to art. He has exhibited his work in various events and received recognition for his photographs on indigenous communities, social movements, political conflicts, and groups of political and social resistance. Rodrigo is also an independent documetary filmmaker and journalist, he alternates his work as artist with teaching at centers for higher education. He holds a degree in Spanish and Media Communications, and in Aesthetics and Creation from the University of Technology of Pereira. He has published with Revista Ñ from Argentina, Internazionale from Italy, Athropos, and in newspapers such as El Espectador, La Patria, La Tarde, El Diario del Otún, Revista Malpensante, and Semana, among others.