Post image for Christiana Ochoa

Christiana Ochoa

October 16, 2014

This story was written by Steve Hinnefeld and posted originally in Inside IUBloomington. Photo courtesy of Christiana Ochoa.

 

The battle over the páramo of Santurbán, a unique moorlands area in the highlands of Colombia, had all the makings of a classic David-and-Goliath tale: A multinational corporation invades a remote, pristine area with plans for a giant gold mine, threatening the region’s ecological health.

But the account of the conflict in “Otra Cosa No Hay,” the first documentary film by law professor Christiana Ochoa, is more nuanced than that — and more thought-provoking.

Largely hidden behind the battle over the environment were longtime residents of the area, whose lives and livelihood lay in the balance regardless of which side prevailed. “It’s a complex story,” Ochoa says. “My hope is that people leave the movie with more questions than answers and with a deep sense of the anxiety and uncertainty that has permeated the region since foreign mining interests arrived.”

“Otra Cosa No Hay” debuted in September at Vickers Theater in Three Oaks, Mich., and will be shown this month at the Bogotá International Film Festival, the leading venue for independent film in Colombia. On Nov. 10, it will be screened at IU Cinema in Bloomington, and the filmmaker will speak at the event.

Ochoa, professor and Charles L. Whistler Faculty Fellow at the IU Maurer School of Law in Bloomington, worked with nongovernmental and human-rights organizations in Nicaragua, Colombia and Brazil before starting her academic career. As a legal scholar, she studies the intersection of business activity and development with issues of human rights and well-being.

She turned to film as a way to engage a different and potentially larger public than legal analysis could reach. She saw making a documentary as a way to tell a story that would tap into an audience’s visceral sensibility, a stark alternative to the more abstract approach of scholarship. And the subject she chose, the fight over the ecologically vital Santurbán páramo, a unique, high-elevation wetland area, was on its way to becoming an environmental cause célèbre, gaining the attention of activists across the Americas.

Working with a crew from the Colombian film company Enlalucha Films, Ochoa made multiple trips to the Colombian highlands over four years to produce the film.

The conflict developed when Eco Oro Minerals Corp., a Canada-based mining company, was awarded a permit for large-scale gold mining near the Santurbán páramo. The company and its supporters, including the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corp., argued the mine would bring jobs and economic development to the region, and put Colombia on the extractive industry’s map.

But environmental activists, many of them from the nearby city of Bucaramanga and the capital, Bogotá, fought back. They said large-scale mining, which requires removing massive amounts of earth and which makes use of toxic chemicals, would destroy the fragile, high-elevation environment and endanger the source of drinking water for millions of Colombians. Using sophisticated social media, they generated widespread opposition and put pressure on the government, seeking the creation of a regional park that would prohibit mining and other economic activity.

“What you couldn’t see from a distance,” Ochoa says, “is that the mountain towns in this region have been gold-mining communities for all their history. It’s what sustains people. The elevation is too high for them to have successful agriculture or ranching operations.”

For 400 years, small-scale gold mining had provided jobs and an economic livelihood. As one woman told the filmmakers, “Otra cosa no hay.” There is nothing else.

Local residents were torn. They could side with Eco Oro, trading their current way of life for the hope of jobs in the company mine. Or they could side with environmentalists, protecting the precious ecosystem but losing their best chance for making a living.

For better or for worse, a regional park has been created in the area, and large numbers of formally employed miners have had to turn to illegal gold mining to get by. This has put them at odds with the government and returned a stabilized region in Colombia to a period of insecurity and uncertainty.

“The people in those towns, what they saw coming at them were really difficult choices,” Ochoa says. “Watching how the communities related to those devastating prospects and the lack of traction they had in the political and legal system ended up being what the film is about.”

Ochoa, the film’s director and executive producer, received travel support from the Maurer School of Law and the Center for the Study of Global Change. She self-funded the production of the film and decided early in the process it would be a non-commercial endeavor. In a media experiment, she created a website for the film — www.nothingelsefilm.com — but has chosen to not promote yet, in order to observe how the webpage moves through the globe on its own, before setting out to promote it actively. As of early October, it had garnered about 4,000 page views.

She hopes the film will shine light on the issue of conflict between economic growth and human well-being. And she hopes it achieves enough success to open doors for her next planned film project – an examination of the impact deep-sea mining could have on places like Vanuatu, the South Pacific island nation dubbed “the happiest place on earth.”