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The Gold Mines of Colombia

Father Jose Reynal Restrepo is on edge. Flustered and eyes flicking frenetically across the room, his shirt is unbuttoned and he sweats. A video camera rolls.

“The voice of the people is the voice of God,” he announces.

“If the people stick together and put their faith in God we won’t be beaten.”

“I believe in non-violent peaceful protest and violence should be only used as a last resort. But if we have to use it, we will. And we may have to.”

It’s August 2011 and Father Restrepo is being interviewed for a documentary featuring locals from Marmato, a gold mining town of around 2,000 people on the slopes of the western Andes in central Colombia. They are arguing passionately against government plans to move the population to a new location several kilometres away.

Father Restrepo is one the project’s fiercest critics and he accuses the government of ignoring the wishes of the local population in favour of a Canadian multi-national mining company that, over the last four years, has been busily buying up mining titles in the area.

Gran Colombia Gold wants to create an opencast mine on the El Burro mountaintop where the town is perched. To do so they need to displace the people and blow the top off the hill. Understandably, the people of Marmato have been left unimpressed.

“I’m a parish priest and if they come for me and tell me to leave they will have to do so with their machetes and guns,” Father Restrepo warns.

Two days after the documentary is uploaded to YouTube, the father is murdered.

Shot from his motorbike on a lonely mountain dirt track a few miles south of his parish, the police concluded it to be an act of petty crime, a mugging gone wrong.

But in the town of Marmato, few believe it.

Before setting off on that fateful journey, the 36-year-old priest had received death threats advising him to end his opposition to the mine. The warnings weren’t the first.

Two years on, nobody has been convicted of Father Restrepo’s murder and the flames of political fury still grip the town.

Last month, miners from the over five hundred family-run mines that speckle the hills in this region decided they’d had enough. They went on strike and took to blocking one of Colombia’s main roads, the Panamericana highway that stretches along the backbone of South America, to voice their anger.

President Santos accused the miners of being infiltrated by terrorist groups and labeled their small-scale mining operations dangerous and environmentally unfriendly.

The protesters were left infuriated but things took a turn for the worse on August 1 when the government sent in special police forces to storm the blockade. It broke a previous agreement between local police and the protestors to open the road every two hours to allow traffic to pass.

“This government respects the right to protest, but I won’t allow any strike to blockade any road,” Santos vowed.

Caught unaware, the protesters were sent scattering back up the mountainside. The police burned the miners’ camp and the blockade was temporarily lifted.

But, undeterred, a day later the protesters returned, sticks and stones in hand. The police were pushed back down the hill and violence flared. It left one person dead and twenty injured.

As the tension increased, Marmato’s mayor fled the area. Last-ditch talks between the miners and the government failed to resolve the situation but disgruntled strikers returned to work saying they had run out of food.

Now, they are threatening to escalate their struggle.

Starting this week they will return to the picket line and join a wave of largely rural groups and workers across the country in nationwide action involving teachers, health workers, farmers, truckers, coffee growers and students.

At the root of the problem is the fight over resources. It’s a conflict raging across modern-day Colombia and President Santos has firmly chosen his side.

Upon taking office in 2010 Santos stated his government’s intentions to use mining as an engine to push development. Alongside this would be a drive to attract foreign direct investment.

But while some have benefitted – mining companies operating in Colombia pay some of the lowest tax rates in the world – others have lost out. On the bustling high streets of Colombia’s main cities, an unknown number of people dressed in filthy rags and with desperate faces sit with outstretched arms, plastic cup in hand. The elderly sit side-by-side with the young, faces worn with poverty. The majority of them belong to Colombia’s indigenous population.

The push to suck Colombia dry of its rich resources has only exacerbated the yawning inequality gap that maintains Colombia’s place as one of the most unequal countries in the world. Furthermore, the UN ranks Colombia as the country with more internally displaced people than any other.

The 2,000 inhabitants of Marmato are fighting against being added to that shameful list that includes almost ten percent of Colombians forced from their land.

People from Marmato have been mining these hills for over 300 years and they argue their history and traditions are more important than the vast wealth contained beneath the town’s surface.

Indeed, encrusted under Marmato’s earth is an estimated $14 billion dollar’s worth of gold, enough to sustain gold mining operations in the area for 20 years. Along with $1 billion dollar’s of silver also contained there, it has been described as “Colombia’s best under-developed mine.”

“The government is just interested in money, they have no interest in our lives,” Martin Garcia*, a local mine owner says. “They don’t care about us.”

He stands hunched over a large wooden disk, his neck as thick as leather and as dark as treacle.

His eyes are fixed on the flecks of glitter twinkling on the plate below. He swills water around the disk and discards the swill on the sludge pit below. To the uneducated observer the mound sitting atop of the plate is a mountain of gold, its wondrous purity winking furiously, seductively.

But there’s something lost in that lustful glint and demonic glow. Only a small fraction of the mound is real gold.

“This is the beauty of artisanal mining – small-scale mining. They still haven’t been able to find machine to do a better job than the human touch.”

“Look here,” Martin motions, pursing his lips to indicate the torn and weathered hands of the craftsman who continues to swirl water round the plate. “This is our revolver, these are our bombs.” Later he points to a “terrorist” trotting through the town square on a donkey. He’s a boy of around 8 years old.

We move out of the burning midday sun and over to the local restaurant. Martin hands me a glass of lemonade made, I suspect, from local tap water. I drink it reluctantly, fully aware that the local water supply reportedly has the highest levels of mercury in the world. In his nearby storage warehouse my luggage is sat next to dozens of huge drums of sodium cyanide, imported from Georgia. Cyanide is another dangerous chemical visibly present in rivers surrounding the town.

Not all is rosy in Marmato and soon our conversation about the fortunes of the local football side is interrupted by a commotion breaking the peace of the midday siesta. Several miners are furiously herding a teenage boy onto the back of motorbike. He’s had two of his fingers sliced off in one of the mine’s worn and creaking machines.

“We know things aren’t perfect here,” Martin admits. “But can you imagine what it would be like here after the company has finished? It will be a wasteland. The company aren’t interested in our lives, they just want our resources. This is a fight that we cannot afford to lose.”

* Name changed to protect identity.

Carl Worswick is a British journalist based in Colombia. He can be reached at carlworswick@gmail.com.

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