The San Lorenzo valley before it was transformed into orchards of mango and lime trees. All images courtesy of Guarango films.
In her recent review of the film Crude, Amelia acknowledged that the documentary/story of the big corporation destroying lives is something we’ve become shamefully accustomed to. It’s a huge issue in an age of what seems like information overload. But in a lecture I attended a few days ago in LSE, press freedom scholar and president of the University of Columbia Lee Bollinger reminded us that the more information we have, the better. And the truth is that the information we get on what is really going on in the world is still very slight. Yes we have more information, but we also have extreme censorship and stereotypes to overcome. And desensitisation can only happen if we let it.
Tambogrande (2007) tells the story of a farming community in northern Peru, who through decades of hard work had transformed barren, desert lands into a thriving, successful green oasis of fruit trees and crops. In 1999 Manhattan Minerals, a Canadian Mining company, decided to cash in on the gold deposits discovered underneath the land by planning a kilometre-wide open-pit mine, fully supported by Peru’s then president, Alberto Fujimori. The mine would require the relocation of half the town’s residents, the destruction of two generations’ worth of transforming a desert into an oasis, and the contamination of surrounding land, water and air. Filmmakers Ernesto Cabellos and Stephanie Boyd follow the formation and progress of the farming community’s five-year mass democratic movement, the Tambogrande Defense Front. A peaceful, highly creative and organised movement, it became a rare success story of people against the violent and, in this case, murderous, tactics of the government and corporations. The movement achieved timeless international resonance and has inspired peaceful movements worldwide.
“Farming is a treasure worth more than gold”. The people of Tambogrande immediately see past the mining company’s empty promises of new housing, jobs and roads and economic benefit to the area. They are all too aware of the toxicity of gold mining, and all too wary of exactly what this will do to their community, their children, their land, water, health and livelihoods. Farming is life, gold is money. “We can never put gold or silver in a saucepan” as one farmer puts it. “Where did all these gringos come from saying Peru needs to produce gold, silver, and copper? Peru needs to produce food.”
The sharp, outspoken community is, for want of a better word, inspirational. They organised a referendum which gained huge media attention and which eventually led to the scrapping of the mining project. They used art, music and culture in a campaign which captured the imagination of both Peruvians and those much further afield. Yet this did not prevent government and business officials trying to stop the movement by resorting to violence and to stereotypes of the isolated, naive peasant. One official states: “In other developed countries, the levels of culture and education are very high, so you could probably use this kind of process [referendum]. But in Peru where the population is so easily manipulated…”. And how idiotic he sounds. It is rare that a moment in a film makes me want to gasp out loud/throw my shoe at the screen quite so much. It is all too easy to sit in a suit at a desk in an air-conditioned office looking important and refute a mass democratic movement on the grounds that it is formed by a group of dim farmers with no idea about how neoliberal ‘free’-market economics and total disregard for human life and the environment will somehow save them.
The people of Tambogrande rose, thankfully, well above this kind of ignorance. Their story is a reminder of how much the majority of the world’s population have to struggle and rise above the ideas of a powerful, wealthy, comparative minority to defend their right to life. Yet it is also a reminder of how upliftingly successful organised, united, peaceful and democratic protest can potentially be.
I’d read the international reviews of Tambogrande, heard the accolades and awards, but was not prepared to receive such a moving film through the post this morning. Tambogrande is a film that informs, moves you to tears and lifts you up all at once, yet doesn’t shy away from a healthy dose of irony and humour.
The reason I’m only seeing the documentary now is because I’ve been helping Movimientos organise a night of Peruvian cinema, photography and music at the Rich Mix Cultural Institute on the 18th of February (see listings), and this is one of the documentaries that will be screened. The event focuses on the issue of mining and will also include another documentary by filmmaker Michael Watts (interview coming next week), photos by the documentary photography collective Supay Fotos and live music. With the ever-growing Tar Sands project in Canada and the news that Brazil has just given the go-ahead for the construction of another hydroelectric dam in the Amazon, we need to hear more about how these projects affect the people who live there. So I hope I’ll see some of you at our event on the 18th.
In-depth article by Stephanie Boyd
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