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  Number 342 | Enero 2010
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El Salvador

A kraken is a legendary gargantuan sea monster, similar to a giant squid, that lives in the depths and attacks ruthlessly with its powerful tentacles. A few years ago one was sighted in the Salvadoran department of Cabañas. It’s a powerful killer that suffers from an age-old disease: gold fever.

Elaine Freedman

El Salvador lies along Central America’s Gold Belt. According to First Point Minerals Corp., this valuable belt, which runs from Guatemala down into Costa Rica, is a treasure chest of 7 active gold mines with more than 20 million ounces of past production and known reserves. The deposits in El Salvador consist of veins whose reserves—both measured and indicated—add up to over 1.1 million ounces of gold and 7.4 million ounces of silver. A further 185,000 ounces of gold and 1.2 million ounces of silver are in the inferred category.

These figures for El Salvador come from the web page of the Canadian-US mining company Pacific Rim. In 2004 this company obtained the prospecting license for the “El Dorado” operation in San Isidro, in the northern department of Cabañas, although its presence in the region under other corporate names goes back to 1994.

Buried treasure

These days the price of an ounce of gold on the New York stock market is quoted at US$1,100 and an ounce of silver at US$18.45. With these prices the monetary value of the Central American Gold Belt comes in at around US$11 billion. The most conservative projections for El Salvador’s El Dorado mining operation estimate it as just under US$1.35 billion, not including the inferred category.

The figures leave no room for doubt: Pacific Rim is playing for high stakes in Cabañas. Although Cabañas isn’t its only project in El Salvador—the company subsequently obtained licenses to explore in the departments of Chalatenangom Santa Ana and Morazán—this is where, in its own words, “its strategy is focused,“ the “strategy” being to accumulate capital from mining exploitation.

At first nobody said anything

“From 1994 to 2004 the miners worked in Cabañas with virtually no social resistance,” explains Antonio Pacheco, executive Director of the Santa Marta Socioeconomic Development Association (ADES). “But by 1998 people began feeling the effects of the mining exploration: the wells dried up on them, they got skin allergies and their animals began to die. They started coming to our offices looking for help. But at that time we still thought mining was a good option for getting out of poverty in Cabañas.” Due to people’s insistence, ADES hired a specialist to investigate and learned that the mining extraction was highly contaminating and the studies done by Pacific Rim had no scientific validity.

Guilty of an
environmental catastrophe

In the environmental impact study for its El Dorado mining project, Pacific Rim presents hair-raising data, revealing the almost unimaginable dimension of the environmental, social and economic tragedy the country would suffer if the government and the people allow mining exploitation. For example, the company declared it would use 10.4 liters of water per second, almost 900 million liters daily, in the El Dorado mine alone: the same amount an average family uses in 20 years. In Sensuntepeque, the capital of Cabañas, drinking water only arrives once a week as it is. Obviously, this problem would be aggravated by any mining projects.

The study “Mining for metals and its infeasibility in El Salvador” reveals that the environmental permit request presented to the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources estimates the use of 2 tons of cyanide daily in the El Dorado mine alone. This poison is banned in many mining countries and various states in Canada and the United States given the serious harm it causes to people’s health. Nevertheless, all the mining companies in El Salvador would use cyanide to separate the gold from the ore. In one year in El Dorado, Pacific Rim would use 720 tons of cyanide, for a total of 8,640 tons if the extraction were to last ten years, which would make the water useless for human consumption and productive activities, affecting almost half the country, which depends on the Río Lempa. The mining projects are located in this river’s watershed, the biggest in El Salvador.

A mine of serious illnesses

According to the World Health Organization, exposure to high levels of cyanide for brief periods causes brain and heart damage, coma and death. And exposure to low levels for several years produces respiratory problems, chest pains, vomiting, changes in the blood, enlargement of the thyroid and other terminal diseases.

Water pollution is also caused by leaching heavy metals and the creation of acid spills. This happens because a great quantity and variety of heavy metals existing in the subsoil are loosened and brought to the surface with fragments of ore containing gold and silver. Dangerous metals such as arsenic, lead, selenium, thallium, antimony, cadmium and chromium end up polluting rivers and underground water reserves, just as happened with rivers in the old mining zones in San Miguel, Morazán and La Unión. Arsenic causes skin lesions, respiratory disorders and stomach, skin, lung and other cancers. Lead produces physical and mental retardation, lack of concentration and learning difficulties in children and kidney and nervous system disorders and hypertension in adults. Selenium causes hair to fall out, circulatory problems, fatigue, nervous irritability and damage to the kidney’s delicate tissues and to the nervous system. Thallium causes hair to fall out, changes in the blood, and kidney, intestinal and liver disorders. Antimony increases cholesterol levels in the blood, decreases sugar levels and causes nausea. Cadmium causes kidney damage, lung cancer and osteoporosis. And chromium produces kidney cancer, liver damage and problems in delicate nerve tissue.

The resistance awakens

ADES Santa Marta had already begun to get involved in the affair by 2005, accompanying the affected communities, providing educational activities and organizing a first forum, which they called “Mining in El Salvador: Opportunity or threat?” Thus was born the Cabañas Environmental Committee, which was joined by a series of community organizations from different regions affected by mining, environmental NGOs and research and human rights defense center in the National Working Group against Mining.

At the national level the communities started saying NO to mining. In San José las Flores, a municipality with a history of grassroots organization from before the war, the community held an assembly and rejected the presence of the Au Martinique Gold Mining Company and forbade its inhabitants to work for the company or sell it their land. It organized the first national mobilizations against mining and from there a political advocacy campaign was stitched together with mayors and national legislators.

During 2005 and 2006, the intense awareness-raising and educational campaign of the resistance organizations against mining began to bear fruit in Cabañas. This was despite the totally adverse context, given that in addition to Pacific Rim’s operation they were also attacked by the whole political apparatus of the National Coalition Party (PCN) and the National Republican Alliance (ARENA), rightwing parties that historically had a highly favorable relationship with this department, marked by fierce conservatism and little presence of communities with the experience in grassroots organization others accumulated in the seventies and eighties.

The resistance gets going

With the support of the resistance organizations, backed up by scientific studies conducted by ADES Santa Marta, the Cabañas communities opposed Pacific Rim’s request for an exploration license in El Dorado through established channels to the Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources and also through Hugo Barrera, a member of ARENA’s National Executive Council at the time. The campaign worked to halt the granting of the request, although no rejection of it is registered publicly. Shortly afterwards, in May 2007, El Salvador’s Bishops’ Council took a stand against mining.

In Cabañas, inhabitants started taking matters into their own hands. In the Canton of La Trinidad, Sensuntepeque, where another Pacific Rim project, Santa Rita, is located, both male and female residents blocked miners from exploring El Limón hill and forced them to leave. Neither the mayor’s presence nor that of army operatives silenced the people, and after a confrontation the company had to negotiate its withdrawal from the area. The Cabañas resistance was on a roll.

Buying people off and
selling “development”

Once it saw the nascent power of the resistance, Pacific Rim began to change its strategies. Among other things, it included new legal representation: it replaced little-known, low-cost lawyers with ones with political clout, such as Fidel Chávez Mena, secretary general of the Christian Democratic Party and foreign minister during the eighties. This new legal representative appeared for the first time when the company was forced into a negotiation process with the community of La Trinidad, with the human rights ombudsperson mediating. In this setting, Chávez Mena’s son, Rodrigo Chávez, became visible for the first time as vice president of the Pacific Rim Subsidiary in El Salvador. The company was clearly raising the stakes.

At the same time Pacific Rim started to buy people off both locally and nationally. Antonio Pacheco remembers: “They approached us and told us they saw us as a very strong organization, very capable and that they’d decided to put a development fund in ADES’ hands.” It caused quite a stir in Cabañas, given that they refused it. It was another story of “donations for development” that various councils in the area were more than happy to accept. This campaign of economic contributions and financing of political campaigns in exchange for sympathy and support continued to increase in 2008. That year Pacific Rim visited all of the country’s 262 municipalities, regardless of their political stripe, explaining the benefits of mining and offering to finance their projects. The battlefield grew: now it wasn’t just on local turf, it was the whole country.

Campaign in favor
of “green mining”

In mid-2007 the mining companies launched a “green mining” campaign on TV channels and most commercial radio stations that continued all through 2008 praising the benefits of “ecological” mining. Several times a day the faces of Fidel Castro and George Bush appeared side by side on television screens, implying that both communists and capitalists saw green mining as the key to national development. Only the group of community radio stations boycotted the campaign, with one exception.

The mining companies’ campaign to neutralize the environmental organizations’ messages was in vain. A survey by the IUDOP/UCA polling institute revealed that 82.9% of the population didn’t believe green mining campaign. The environmental chemist specializing in water systems, Florian Erzinger of the Zurich Polytechnic, explained it technically: “Green mining is based on the INCO process, developed in the 1980s by the INCO company. So we’re not talking about cutting-edge technology. The process isn’t technological: it reduces the use of cyanide to 5%. Including physical recovery using active carbon, the quantity of cyanide used can be reduced by 0.5%, but if tons are used every day and we’re not even talking about years, you can’t reduce such a huge amount.” He finished with the ironic remark that “if you take a green crayon and write mining, then green mining exists.”

The legislative battle and national sovereignty

The legal battle was pursued parallel to the struggle between miners and residents. The current law was approved in 1995, allowing the return of mining transnationals that had left the country during the years of armed struggle. The law was reformed for the first time in 2001 to benefit transnationals, modifying the clause establishing that 4% of the wealth produced by extracting the national heritage with a mainly Salvadoran labor force would go to the Salvadoran State as a royalty. The reform reduced that percentage to 2%: 1% for the central government and 1% for the municipal government.

This reform made a mockery out of the Salvadoran people, not because 4% might have represented some sort of recognition of national sovereignty, but rather because the legislators shamelessly ignored the national birthright and the pillage of riches belonging to the people.

In late 2008 Pacific Rim, advised by Chávez Mena and with the complicity of then PLC legislator Orlando Arévalo and now leader of the new Popular Party, presented a bill that would put the faculty to grant mining licenses in the hands of a “mining authority,” in which mining transnationals would represent the majority.

Not even Arévalo, who submitted the legislation, could defend his proposal effectively. He stated contradictorily that “with the current regulations it would be better to ban mining, but that would be a serious mistake, given that in 20 years this industry and agroindustry could become El Salvador’s most important earners.”

In the legal debate mining interests were defended aggressively by characters such as former Treasury Minister Manuel Enrique Hinds, known as “the father of dollarization,” and by a team of technicians including Chilean and Peruvian officials. But not even this made it possible to defend the indefensible and the bill didn’t make it past the debate stage.

A year earlier the National Working Group against Mining introduced another bill that would in essence end the exploitation of minerals in El Salvador. To date, this bill hasn’t even been discussed in the legislature.

Extortion: We owe them $100 billion?

In June 2009, Pacific Rim, covered by investment capital from the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), sued the government of El Salvador for US$100 billion in the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), a World Bank corporate tribunal. It demanded this much in compensation for the damage and financial loss caused by not having obtained the exploitation permit. “The CAFTA violations are very clear, the violation of the country agreement is very clear. For that reason we believe there’s a very big chance of Pacific Rim winning the arbitration,” stated Alexandre de Gramont of the Crowell & Moring consortium, which is handling the case for Pacific Rim.

“In short,” says an Institute for Policy Studies analyst, “these companies are saying to El Salvador, ‘Either you let me exploit your land and get your gold out of it, regardless of how devastating it is for the population or the environment, or I sue you and you pay me money for the profit I hoped to make, because that’s what we have the brand new DR-CAFTA and tribunals like ICSIO for.’”

Although common sense would say that this sort of extortion cannot be validated by a court of justice, in only two cases in this tribunal’s history has the verdict favored the State over a private company: one in Venezuela and another in Argentina, although the Argentine State lost on appeal against a French company dealing in aquifer projects. Pacific Rim has good reasons for expressing such optimism.

Repression against
those who resist

José Fernando Menjívar was the first member of the Cabañas Resistance to be arrested in a confrontation between residents and the company in La Trinidad in 2006. He was released as part of a deal after 150 residents protested in front of the Pacific Rim offices and the Public Prosecutor’s office. Two years later, Nelson Ventura, a promoter with ADES Santa Marta was attacked in an attempted homicide. But not until 2009 did terror become the rule in communities where the mining company has interests.

The first incident occurred on January 31, 2009, when the house of Héctor Berríos and Zenayda Serrano was broken into. The couple belongs to MUFRAS-32, a member organization of the mining resistance movement in San Isidro that is also opposed to the electoral fraud in that municipality used to keep the ARENA candidate José Ignacio Bautista, supported by Pacific Rim, in municipal government. Curiously the criminals didn’t steal money or other valuables from the house, only evidence of the fraud.

Worse was yet to come. On June 18 Gustavo Marcelo Rivera, leader of the Cabañas Integral Development Association (ADIC), another member organization of the mining resistance in San Isidro, disappeared. Three weeks later his body was found in a well where it had been thrown after being tortured. The presumed date of death established by the authorities differed from the information gathered by his friends in the movement who undertook their own investigation. To them it was obvious that neither the public prosecutor nor the National Civil Police were fulfilling the tasks assigned them.

The kraken’s tentacles

Rivera had received threats before his disappearance, for both his anti-mining activities and his participation in protests against ARENA’s electoral fraud. Nevertheless, only after his death did his family learn that a thick file with his name and a series of photos of him and other members of the Cabañas grassroots movement documenting their political activity was found in the offices of CONCULTURA, a governmental body responsible for cultural centers. Rivera worked directing the center in San Isidro. It is said that much of the documentation in this file appeared on letterhead stationery from the San Isidro mayor’s office. This information helped the movement see just how far the kraken’s tentacles had reached.

Growing repression

The terror campaign escalated from then to the end of 2009. In late July, Luis Quintanilla, a Catholic priest committed to defending and promoting human rights, was the victim of physical aggression, death threats and an attempt to kidnap and murder him as he left Radio Victoria, the only community radio station in Cabañas, which is opposed to mining and the obvious electoral fraud ARENA perpetrated in San Isidro. Oscar Beltrán, the radio station’s director, charged that other members in the team of reporters that had covered the disappearance and finding of Rivera’s body were also threatened. Beltrán acknowledged that the station had been receiving constant threats since 2006 due to its social nature, but that they had intensified since the Rivera case, leading them to denounce the harassment to the Police and Public Prosecutor’s Office.

A few days later, Ramiro Rivera Gómez, a member of the Cabañas Environmental Committee and grassroots militant against Pacific Rim operations was shot in the back eight times on his way to milk his cows and gather ears of corn for people to eat in the committee’s assembly to be held that afternoon. He survived the attack, only to be ambushed five months later by a commando of hired killers who, armed with US-manufactured M-16/A1 rifles riddled the vehicle he was driving. Ramiro Rivera and Felícita Echeverría were both killed in this cowardly and criminal ambush, and Eugenia Guevara, a 13-year-old girl who was with them, suffered slight injuries. Strangely enough, the two officers from the National Civil Police’s Protection Division assigned to protect Rivera’s life were unhurt.

A week after that, Cabañas Environmental Committee director José Santos Ramírez’s partner Dora Alicia Sorto, who had lost two fingers of one hand when she was kidnapped and tortured the year before, was brutally murdered. And in early January 2010 the Radio Victoria team charged through the World Community Radio Association (AMARC) that they were once again being subjected to threatening messages on their mobile phones and in writing.

“The problems are
all down to family feuds”

Immediately after Dora Alicia Sorto’s death, Pacific Rim posted a statement on its web page saying it “had been the target of false accusations made by anti-mining groups that wrongly suggest Pacific Rim’s involvement in a series of murders in the Trinidad area (Sensuntepeque, Cabañas).” The communiqué states that “Pacific Rim roundly denies these accusations,” indicating that it had no more knowledge about the murders than what appeared in the Salvadoran media, which said the incidents were apparently related to a feud between two families.

Curiously, two weeks after this statement, the newspaper El Diario de Hoy published an article titled “Tragedy in Cabañas caused by vendetta between neighbors,” suggesting that the deaths in La Trinidad were due to fights between families. To the list containing Ramiro and Dora Alicia, they add Horacio Menjívar Sánchez and his wife Esperanza Velasco, and the parents of Oscar Menjívar, currently in prison for the assault on Ramiro Rivera in August.

The company is the
cause of the violence

This approach employed by the paper, which the organizations in the resistance against the mines see as hardly original, is an offense to all those who have lost family members in this struggle. The National Working Group against Mining replied in another statement: “We repeat that, just like the disappearance, torture and murder of Gustavo Marcelo Rivera; the threats to the staff at Radio Victoria; the attempts on the life of Father Luis Quintanilla and the rest of the offenses against community leaders in Cabañas, the crimes in Trinidad are due to the conflicts created by the Pacific Rim company’s mining projects and the impunity caused by the inaction of the prosecuting authorities and police.”

The statement goes on to say that “the personal or family feuds that may exist in Trinidad are due to Pacific Rim operations in the area and the opinions in favor or against mining that community members have adopted. Cabañas, despite its high levels of poverty and exclusion, was one of the least violent departments in the country, but this changed with the arrival of the dubious extractive company. Therefore, the main cause of the conflict and the crimes resulting from it, are not disputes between neighbors but rather the presence of Pacific Rim.”

Is Funes dithering?

The residents of Cabañas and the grassroots and environmental organizations accompanying them hope that President Mauricio Funes’ commitment might pass from words to deeds. Certainly he has publicly declared that his government will not systematically support mining projects. Now the resistance movement against mining is hoping that both the executive and legislative branches will concretize the talk of opposition against mining into a law banning mining exploitation. For David Pereira, one of the leaders of the Working Group against Mining, “President Funes is dithering over the issue. We need legal protection. His word isn’t enough, because we’re not a monarchy where the sovereign’s word is law. We see the same attitude from the legislators.”

The same happens
throughout the continent

The struggle for and against mining has been intensifying since the return of these companies to El Salvador after the Peace Accords. Hector Berríos of MUFRAS-32 put it in a nutshell: “There are 337 mining projects in the Latin American region, of which 118 are in conflict, with similar patterns of behavior: criminalizing the protest, destabilizing the communities, generating inter-community conflict, creating terror campaigns, buying people off, threatening and bribing authorities.” It’s very hard to imagine a Pacific Rim or Au Martinique Gold Company or any other mining company that wouldn’t act this way, given that gold has never been a charity business and today is no exception.

They should leave

The mining companies remind us of that marine beast called the kraken. In the 18th century the monster was already known in the deep waters of northern Norway. It acquired fame for the pitiless way it attacked its victims: beating them and wrapping them in its tentacles, with which it would drag them towards its terrible maw and devour them. The legend used to say that krakens could travel as far as the tropics, where they left entire islands emptied of both animals and humans.

The only solution to the conflict is the withdrawal of these companies, these voracious krakens, from El Salvador once and for all.

Elaine Freedman is a popular educator and envío correspondent in El Salvador.

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