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Villagers' Struggle has Message for Filmgoers
Published on Sunday, September 28, 2003 by the Toronto Star
Villagers' Struggle has Message for Filmgoers
by Michele Landsberg
 

In a remote, emerald green mountain valley in Peru, in the little village of Choropampa, some of the toddlers are bleeding from the ears and nose. The babies are sick.

But that has nothing to do with you, does it?

In Choropampa, the storekeeper's sister is suddenly bedridden and paralyzed. Her skin is yellow and she trembles. Some of the older women, strong and healthy till now, complain of constant kidney pain. In the local schoolhouse, the teacher notes bitterly that many of the children can't pass the final exams, and some are sick so often with headaches, blurred vision, dizziness and nose-bleeds that they can't finish the school year.

But that, surely, has nothing to do with you or me.

So some of us may think. An increasing number of young Canadians, however, are growing up with the reality of globalization, and they are restless. They trace the sources of our lucky North American lives to the farthest ends of the Earth, and they make the connections.

Stephanie Boyd, 31, is one such explorer. Armed with a degree in English literature and history, she went off to do volunteer work in Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan and Somalia, finally ending up in Peru with CUSO. Six years later, she is still there, having met and partnered with Ernesto Cabellos, a filmmaker in training.

When Boyd stumbled across the horror story of Choropampa, she knew it was the film she and Cabellos had to make.

Choropampa was a resilient little market town until Colorado-based Newmont Mining Corp., the world's largest gold mining company, opened Yanacocha, the biggest gold mine in Latin America, near Choropampa. The company proudly describes Yanacocha as its "low-cost crown jewel." Translation: cheap labor; weak environmental laws; huge profits.

In the spring of 2000, a cartage company used by Newmont accidentally spilled 151 kilograms (330 pounds) of liquid mercury down the main road running through Choropampa and two other hamlets. The villagers thought it was a beneficial metal used by their ancestors, and eagerly collected it with their bare hands to take home to their tiny houses.

It was, however, inorganic mercury, a deadly neurotoxin. As the mercury rapidly evaporated in the warm air, the people breathed it in. About 1,000 people were poisoned. As symptoms began to appear, Newmont offered one-time payments of $300 to $500 (U.S.) to some of the villagers. Some accepted, after company doctors said the mercury would soon leave their bodies.

Enter Boyd, who came to Choropampa to look into the story and was jolted by the pent-up anger and distress of the people. She and Cabellos scraped together some funds to start filming and became so intimate with the villagers that they were able to record the struggle from the inside.

Choropampa, the film, grabs you with its dramatic photography and narrative urgency. It begins with the election of the town's 22-year-old mayor, a passionate advocate of protest against the all-powerful mine. It ends with heartbreaking uncertainty two years later, as villagers still wait for justice. (Only the news that the legendary Erin Brockovitch and her Los Angeles law firm are now taking up the cause has given Choropampa cause for hope.)

You see the villagers gradually realize how ruthlessly they've been lied to and manipulated by the corporation, doctors and government. When they decide to blockade the highway as their only way to gain attention, you are there, thanks to dramatic camera-work. In one electrifying scene, as the villagers rush to block oncoming trucks in the pitch-dark Andean night, you can see only their bobbing flashlights and hear their panting breath.

Riot police march in to confront the furious village women. "Listen to us! The children are sick!" the women scream, unable to believe the heartless indifference of their compatriots.

What has it to do with us? Maybe nothing, unless you have put on a new gold ring recently (80 per cent of the world's gold is used for jewelery) or checked into your mutual funds and found that you own shares in the subsidiary, Newmont Mining Corp. of Canada.

Maybe it all has nothing to do with you, unless you believe that Andean Indians and the Earth and us are all connected in one web of being, one chain of responsibility.

Fortunately, Torontonians can see the film on Saturday, Oct. 4 at 7 p.m. at the intriguing environmental film festival called Planet in Focus, 416-531-1769. (http://www.planetinfocus.org)

In Ottawa, the film will be shown at the Canadian Museum of Nature on Oct. 27 as part of the World Inter-Action Mondiale festival.

Copyright 1996-2003. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited

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