The following guest blog was written by Elizabeth Ferry, a Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, USA. She has been conducting research on mining in Latin America since 1996. With Stephen Ferry, she is the author of La Batea, a book of texts and photographs on small-scale gold mining in Colombia (Editorial Icono/Red Hook Editions, 2017, available here).
In Marmato, Caldas, Colombia, a coalition stands firm against encroachment by Canadian corporation Caldas Gold (Aris Gold) in defense of their vibrant town and ancestral culture.
Marmato, Caldas, located in the auriferous zone of Central Colombia, has an active, small-scale gold mining economy and culture based on traditional practices and lifeways. The town dates from 1536 and includes descendants of Cartáma people, enslaved and free Africans, Spanish and other Europeans who came to extract gold.
Marmato has been facing threats of invasion and expropriation from outside capital for nearly two decades, since Canadian-owned Medoro Resources, later Gran Colombia Gold, entered the rich gold-silver zone in 2006. This company arrived with plans to displace 5,000 miners in the upper zone of Marmato’s Cerro El Burro mountain and build an open-pit mine, with a projected mine life of 15-20 years.
A robust social movement backed by the municipal council—with the help of the downturn in gold prices after 2012—successfully defended Marmato against this threat. In 2017, in a landmark decision sentencia SU-133, the Constitutional Court of Colombia halted the open-pit project on grounds that the indigenous and Afro-descended communities’ rights to free, open, prior consultation had been violated.
A Slow-Motion Invasion
Five years later, the company, now Aris Gold (operating in Colombia as Caldas Gold) has begun a slow-motion invasion against the ancestral miners and the community. In particular:
- The National Mining Agency has extended Caldas Gold’s permit for exploration and production by 30 years, expanding production from 900 to 5,000 tonnes daily, with no change in the environmental impact plan and no prior consultation of the indigenous and afro-descended communities or the traditional miners in the municipality, as stipulated in the constitutional decision SU-133-2017.
- The company is constructing a 5 meter x 5 meter tunnel (the ventilation ramp “el Higuerón”) for the expulsion of toxic gases only 120 meters away from the town, near the sectors of Ubarbá and Ranchería. Detonations in the area in the summer of 2022, as the tunnel was being constructed, have damaged at least 11 houses in the area and alarmed residents.
- The legal mechanism of “servidumbre minera” or mining easement (Resolution No. 180102 of 2012) has been activated for the first time in Marmato. Under this mechanism, which is enabled and supported by the National Agency of Mining, the company can compel private landowners to negotiate a price for the use of lands to benefit of mining production and transport.
- Caldas Gold is using unfair and disrespectful tactics in carrying out these compulsory easements, such as providing only a few days or even hours between notifying the landowner and putting the petition before a judge, who frequently approves a 30-year contract. The company has also been applying unfair pressure on landowners under conditions of unequal access to information. The deployment of this legal mechanism lays the groundwork for an ongoing and overwhelming invasion of territory and eventual displacement of citizens.
This invasion is more gradual and less obvious than the open-pit plan, but in the end could be nearly as destructive to the town’s survival.
Fuerzas Vivas Marmato
Fuerzas Vivas Marmato is stepping up to defend Marmato with peaceful mobilizations, manifestos, press conferences, and meetings for dialogue, among other potential actions. The group is a diverse and committed coalition of traditional miners, the union that represents Caldas Gold workers, the indigenous and Afrodescended constituencies, and citizens concerned for the economic and cultural vitality of this unique place. There have been two meetings to promote dialogue between the group and the company, but the latter has refused to halt its projects.
In a press conference in Manizales in June 2022, Nancy Elena Castro Giraldo, member of Fuerzas Vivas Marmato and author of a book in progress entitled Marmato, mi Pueblo Ancestral y Colonial: Su Historia un Legado, explained that “the mines of Marmato were mortgaged to the English in 1825 to pay the debt for the War of Independence. Colombia owes a lot to Marmato.” Ms. Castro continued, “There aren’t any armed groups here—we are free of this type of violence.” This peaceful environment, rare in the goldfields of Colombia, can be attributed to the presence of small landholdings, the openness to outsiders, and the relative lack of inequality in the local economy, which is centered on traditional mining and buttressed by farming, mule transport and commerce.
All of this is put in jeopardy by the current practices of Caldas Gold, with the support of federal, departmental and municipal authorities.
Mining, Yes, But Not Like This
Fuerzas Vivas Marmato is not demanding that the company stop working in the district, particularly now that many people in the area work for the company. They are asking the company to halt the projects currently underway to participate in open dialogue with the community, including access to information about the expected impacts and the company’s plans to mitigate these impacts, as well as recognition of the right to prior consultation confirmed by SU 133-2017. And they are seeking firm support from authorities at all levels of government to obtain this information and guarantee these rights.
In spite of efforts by Fuerzas Vivas Marmato to enter into dialogue, the company is continuing with the tunnel and the contracts activated under the mechanism of mining easements, without consultation or consideration of social and environmental impacts.
These acts are a continuing invasion that may overwhelm Marmato, damaging the town and displacing citizens in just a few years.