The small Colombian town of Marmato stands on a $20 billion mountain of gold that villagers have mined for more than 500 years.
In a country rived by a half century of violence at the hands of guerrillas, paramilitary death squads, and drug kingpins, Marmato was a rare oasis. The small, locally owned gold mines provided steady employment and benefits for the village’s 8,000 residents.
That began to change in 2006, when the government opened Colombia to foreign investment. A Canadian company, Gran Colombia Gold, started to acquire the villagers’ land so it could level the mountain for a giant open-pit mine. That year, photographer Mark Grieco began to document the villagers’ struggle to preserve their way of life. His film, Marmato, airs at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on Pivot TV, the television network owned by Participant Media, TakePart’s parent company.
“As a photographer I thought I couldn’t capture what I needed,” said Grieco, 34, who stumbled across Marmato while backpacking through South America. “I had to film. So I went home, started raising some money, and little over a year later I was back in Marmato, living four hours away and shooting the documentary.”
Grieco shot Marmato over the course of six years. It reveals the growing conflict among Gran Colombia Gold, small mine owners, the miners, and their families. The Canadian company’s arrival immediately divided the town, according to Grieco.
“There were people who said, ‘I own a mine, I could sell it to whomever I want, and I believe that this is the future for Marmato,’ ” he said. “Then there were people saying, ‘No way do we want foreigners here. This is ours, and this could be ours for another two, three, five hundred years.”
The miners earn around $100 a week. This may not sound like much, considering the value of the gold, but the villagers prize the work not just because it’s a centuries-old tradition.
“It’s rare in a country like Colombia to have stable work, fixed pay, and benefits, and also living in a town that has no guerrilla or paramilitary violence or little crime because there’s almost 100 percent employment,” said Grieco. “They call it a paradise in a country in the middle of a 50-year-old internal conflict.”
Gran Colombia Gold’s plans for an open-pit mine will not only displace thousands of Marmato’s residents but will also take an enormous toll on the land, Grieco said.
“They’re going to be using cyanide to process the gold, and they would need to dispose of those heavy solids in giant waste reservoirs because there’s a lot of rain in that area, which happens to lie in a fault zone,” he said. “It would run straight to Rio Cauca, Colombia’s second-largest river.”
Marmato makes the miners the face of the issue. Many, including the few who still own mines in town, continue to resist the government’s push for large-scale mining.
“It’s a bomb waiting to go off,” said Grieco.