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Lay of the Land

Local filmmaker sheds light on grisly disputes in rural Ecuador

From the very first moments of Under Rich Earth — the debut documentary from Winnipeg-raised Malcolm Rogge — it’s pretty much impossible not to be intrigued.

Shaky handheld video footage captures a group of Ecuadorian farmers as they face down gunfire from a posse of paramilitary goons.

Onscreen titles inform us the farmers and their families are fending off the advances of a land-hungry copper mining company — a Canadian copper mining company, no less — and have already spent weeks with just a thin steel chain separating them from the barbarians at the gates.

It’s a tumultuous time, to be sure, and Rogge’s documentary does an impressive job of depicting the drama that’s still being played out in Ecuador’s Intag Valley region, where struggles for control of the pristine farmlands have made the international spotlight.

Rogge, a former Winnipegger now living in Toronto, was first made aware of the conflict while doing graduate research for law school. Since he’d already worked for human rights and environmental groups in Ecuador, it seemed like a no-brainer to return with a camera in tow.

And it’s those cameras (some wielded by Rogge himself, others by the farmers or international observers who embedded themselves in the community as a precautionary measure) that provide us with a first-hand look at the situation as it unfolds.

At some points — in particular, the dicey scenario described above — the antagonists appear unfazed by the presence of recording equipment, or at least, not enough to keep their weapons holstered and their dogs at bay.

But at other times, one has to wonder whether the cameras may have prevented an already volatile situation from escalating even further.

“I think that probably had a lot to do with it,” says Rogge, who’s back in Winnipeg to screen his film at Cinematheque this Saturday and Sunday. “In the case of the confrontation that took place in the mountains, there was a German volunteer videotaping that, and there was another German woman who was photographing. It’s quite possible their presence may have influenced — or even helped to avert — what could have been a bloodbath on both sides.”

Over the course of Rogge’s documentary, which premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, we meet many of the driving forces behind the anti-mining movement: A kindly opposition leader who’s forced into hiding by rogue police squads, the devoted neighbour who regards him as something of a father figure, and an unflappable young woman who squares off against the aforementioned band of ex-soldiers.

We also spend time with one of the reps for the mining company, whose attempts to paint the townspeople as dangerous eco-terrorists grow increasingly sleazy in the face of Rogge’s video evidence.

“To really understand why there’s so much organized opposition to this company — this Canadian mining company — you have to understand the indigenous population in that region of the country is very strong,” says Rogge. “Their institutions are highly organized and established.”

And while the disputes have yet to be settled, the issue is by now a matter of national concern — proof the mining companies may have vastly underestimated their opponents, Rogge says.

“These are people who were born and raised here, and whose grandparents settled these farms. They literally know the land as well as they know their own bodies.

“And it’s such rich land, and the resources are so pure, and they’re so close to primary rainforests and mountain ranges that are completely wild. So these people are willing to put their lives on the line to defend that. They see the land as an extension of themselves.”

See the article in the Winnipeg Sun:

Lay of the Land

 

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