Gold Fever a sobering eye-opener about modern Vancouver conquistadors in Guatemala

New documentary gets Canadian premiere at VIFF's After Effects film series

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      Guatemala’s indigenous population has had to deal with a lot of misfortune during the past five centuries: Hernando Cortés’s killers and Spanish colonialism, epidemics, the United Fruit Company, and, most recently, decades of military dictatorships and outright genocide resulting from a "scorched earth" policy.

      But ever since a UN-negotiated peace accord between the military and leftist guerrila groups in 1996, Guatemala has been blessed, ostensibly, with a constitutional democratic republic.

      Today, though, the same substance that initially brought murderous conquistadors to their shores—gold—is still responsible for a frenzy of exploitation that is visiting environmental, health, and cultural ruin on that country’s rural Mayan population.

      And a Canadian company, a big player on the world mining stage, is one of the exploiters.

      The makers of the new documentary Gold Fever realized that the now 17-year-old Guatemalan political makeover did not dismantle the generals’ institutionalized corruption and power structures. That is probably why they began this eye-opening, inspiring, and, yes, depressing film with an ancient quote attributed to Spain’s empire-building King Ferdinand: "Get gold, humanely if possible, but at all costs, get gold."

      Gold Fever—which is getting its Canadian premiere Saturday (July 6) as part of VIFF’s After Effects film series—focuses its attention on the giant Marlin open-pit gold and silver mine in the remote Guatemalan Highlands in that nation’s southwest. The mine, which grinds through 25,000 tonnes of mountainside soil and rock every day, employs 1,600 people and has been in operation since 2005.

      SINCE THEN, THE EXPLOSIVE rise in world gold prices has meant that the mine—acquired in 2006 by Canada’s controversial (and Vancouver-based) Goldcorp—has become the goose that lays golden eggs.

      Unfortunately for the Maya, their ancestral lands and waters are left looking like the other stuff that comes out of a goose’s rear.

      The film--strikingly, even artistically, shot--opens with a local woman describing how an incensed mine supporter would have taken off her head with a machete if she hadn’t been holding a baby high in her arms.

      After watching Gold Fever, you could be forgiven for wondering why the baby was any kind of impediment to the thug.

      Three women—Gregoria, Crisanta, and Diodora, all of whom defied the mine’s operating company, Montana Exploradora de Guatemala, S.A., by refusing to sell their land or by being active in resistance efforts—tell their stories throughtout the film. One of them had her home attacked by hooded, gun-firing paramilitaries at night and was forced to watch as her brother burned to death while his assailants prevented her from getting him to medical care. Another was shot through her right eye (the bullet somehow missed her brain) in an assassination attempt while walking her land.

      All of them, true heroes, resist to this day the company that they claim has poisoned or dried up their sources of drinking water (the mine runs through nine million litres of water per day and will generate 20 billion litres of wastewater by the end of its projected "life"). The day-and-night explosions that expose the ore shake their farms and crack their homes. Farm animals that drink the mine's runoff after rains have died, and some of the locals' babies have lesions on their limbs.

      Power-line pylons have been erected on private land without permission. Villagers who have sold their land are set against the "holdouts" who are said to be blocking expansion of the mine and who are villified. Nonviolent protesters are arrested by compliant police. Forty-eight bars have opened in the area, and violence and prostitution are now part of farmers’ rural lives. Activists claim that a much-vaunted local hospital/health centre built for area residents is, in actuality, nothing more than an empty building.

      The mine--whose representatives allegedly refused interview requests for the movie and are seen only in news clips and other archival footage--denies that it is responsible for the violence or for any of the above ills that have visited the upland communities since 2005.

      A REPRESENTATIVE OF THE UN, some supportive NGOs, academics, and journalists are interviewed to offer economic, cultural, and historical perspectives on the universal passion for the yellow metal, but it is the women who are the heart and soul of the project. (One of the most interesting segments comes when interviewees are asked to articulate why gold is even a valuable commodity in the first place.)

      Outside supporters such as Grahame Russell, a director of Rights Action (a direct funder of resistance struggles such as this), can’t be accused of ivory-tower, "sandalista" dilettantism, though. Russell is in the frontlines, and even back home, in rural Connecticut, he breaks down during an outdoor interview as he describes the environmental ruin he has witnessed thousands of kilometres away.

      Disturbingly, a 2010 demand from the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that the Guatemalan government suspend operations at Marlin was rescinded by the IACHR less than two years later, without any decrease in mine activity in the meantime. The reason? An obviously persuasuve "petition" from the government’s so-called Presidential Commission on Human Rights, which stated that "no proof exists" that any people have ever been put in harm’s way as a result of mining activity at Marlin.

      It is the silence from Goldcorp—which has at least 10 mines in production or development in Central and South America—that is perhaps the most troubling.

      According to Gold Fever, the company’s local payroll in 2011 was $11 million. Marlin’s 2011 profits were $607 million. Of that, one-half of one percent went to the Guatemalan government.

      The company, like King Ferdinand, is obviously a fan of the "trickle down" economic theory.


      Gold Fever screens at the Vancity Theatre on July 6 (7:15 p.m.) and July 10 as part of a Vancouver International Film Festival series titled After Effects: Guatemala and El Salvador. There will be a panel discussion and filmmaker Q&A (with codirector J.T. Haines in attendance) after the July 6 screening.




      Jul 4, 2013 at 10:59pm

      gee, I should invest!

      Inquiring minds want to know...

      Jul 5, 2013 at 10:12am

      Can we shed light, and put names to the people responsible, please.

      Martin Dunphy

      Jul 5, 2013 at 1:25pm


      I guess the best thing to do is to see the movie or pretend you are a Goldcorp investor (and if you pay into the Canada Pension Plan or any number of large private pension plans, you are) and look up the public information available to any shareholder.
      As well, the film's makers are holding a Global Screening Day this fall (October 17), when they will be making the film available for a nominal fee (on a sliding scale based on attendance) to groups that are interested in getting out the word about Canadian resource exploitation in Third World countries or this particular project.
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