Amnesty International Film Festival: Canadian conquistadores exposed in Under Rich Earth

Villagers in a remote Ecuadorian valley band together to repulse rapacious Canucks

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      The documentary Under Rich Earth, screening at this year’s Vancouver Amnesty International Film Festival, has been in release for a couple of years now, but don’t let that stop you from checking it out if you haven’t already done so.

      Popular docs such as Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and Big Boys Gone Bananas!*, both of which are also part of this latest installment of Amnesty’s local exposition, do a good job of uncovering government and corporate malfeascence.

      The appeal of Under Rich Earth—which details the struggle in Ecuador, a putative democracy, of poor farmers against police, politicians, and paramilitaries in the employ of a Canadian mining company—is how it fits into the part of Amnesty’s mandate that commits the volunteer-activist organization to fight against political killings and disappearances.

      Neither of those outrages are inflicted on those portrayed here, but the film details the myriad small steps—including corporate spin-doctoring, police co-optation, economic suasion, the division of communities, and, finally, threats, bogus legal charges, and physical intimidation and harm—that often lead to those ultimate violations of human rights. And it is not uncommon for highly visible and loud opponents of transnational resource-extraction companies, especially those dedicated to oil and minerals such as copper and gold, to be threatened, arrested, harassed, and even assassinated in Central America and South America.

      Sadly, also common in those extralegal incidents is the involvement, almost never directly and often through screening layers of associated companies, subsidiaries, and “security” firms, of Canadian mining companies, often with big bucks easily raised on the Toronto Stock Exchange, probably the favourite home for international mining concerns and associated junior exploration companies worldwide.

      The film had a bare-bones budget and is, essentially, unscripted and without narration, and that, along with some remarkable footage and a steady vision in the editing process, resulted in a powerfully persuasive product of engaged filmmaking. Toronto director-producer Malcolm Rogge first travelled through remote regions of Ecuador a decade before starting Rich Earth, working on academic research about the effects of oil development.

      When he heard about courageous villagers in a remote fertile valley banding together to fight a Canadian mining-exploration company (Vancouver-based Copper Mesa Mining Corporation, then known as Ascendant Copper Corporation), he returned to South America to make this film.

      Rogge’s footage is combined with video and stills taken by local activists, volunteers, and international human-rights observers, and they captured some gripping developments in the years-long nonviolent struggle by sugar-cane and coffee farmers in several communities in the Intag Valley to preserve their land, their children’s birthright, from a potentially ruinous copper-mining development.

      Best of all are the scenes involving the tracking down, disarming, and “arrest” of almost five dozen armed paramilitaries (mostly Ecuadorian ex-soldiers or reserve military men) in a remote mountain forest. This is accomplished by mostly unarmed villagers fed up with continued no-shows by politicians and police during their protracted struggle to keep Ascendant from accessing its mining concessions in the valley.

      The resultant detention (called a “kidnapping” or “hostage-taking” by Copper Mesa) of the paramilitaries in the village church led to the intervention of the federal government, widespread media coverage, and the eventual suspension of the Canadian company’s privileges in the Intag Valley, which lies right next to an internationally acclaimed national ecological presserve.

      It’s not often that we get a chance to see exactly why Canadians are often thought of as modern-day conquistadores by the descendants of the Aztecs, Incas, and Mesoamerican indigenous peoples. From within the confines of one remote valley, with lessons that have provided inspiration and hope for exploited communities in a dozen other South American and Central American countries, Under Rich Earth provides just such an opportunity.

      Under Rich Earth (91 minutes) screens Sunday, November 4, 3:15 p.m., at the Pacific Cinematheque.