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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 431 | Junio 2017
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El Salvador

The anti-mining law is a historic victory over the “dazzle of gold”

Many factors joined to achieve this victory. The frame on which the struggle was woven involved demonstrating that all mines contaminate; the mining industry doesn’t produce economic development and doesn’t even create a significant amount of decent jobs. By exposing the lies and revealing the truths about mining the Salvadoran people united to obtain a victory for all, but it’s only one step in dealing with the country’s serious environmental deterioration.

Omar Serrano

On March 29, 70 legislators from all political stripes in El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly passed the Law to Prohibit Metal Mining. The vote was unanimous because the other 14 Assembly representatives were either not in the session or snuck out of the plenary hall before the vote to avoid “showing their true colors” by abstaining or openly opposing it. Although the Salvadoran press gave the vote only marginal coverage, this law’s approval is an historic event, as reflected in media in the rest of the world, which did report its importance.

David beat Goliath


Is El Salvador the first country to ban metal mining? Yes and no, because other countries have already done so, but only partially. Turkey (1997) and the Czech Republic (2000) were later joined by Germany (2002) and Costa Rica (2010). These four countries banned open-pit mineral extraction due to the pollution and environmental damage it causes. As established in the first two articles of its approved law, El Salvador is the first country to ban metal mining in general (both small-scale and industrial); in all forms (both open pit and underground), and in all phases (exploration, extraction, exploitation and processing).

It’s an historic law and an historic happening because ir’s the result of a struggle of many years and many actors. It was a fight between David and Goliath, a small country against very powerful mining transnationals. Threatened communities, conscientious religious authorities and social, environmental and academic organizations joined together against the small but powerful national group that has always seen mining as a source—some say the only source—of development. Several factors also lined up so David could defeat Goliath, an achievement that only months ago seemed so far away.

The struggle began a century ago


While the current organized struggle against metal mining extended a little over a decade, the resistance to mining goes back more than a century. On August 8, 1912, 49 people from Santa Rosa de Lima, in the department of La Union, wrote to President-elect Manuel Enrique Araujo requesting that he put a halt to the environmental destruction being caused by two mining companies in that eastern part of the country.

They explained that “we, the people of this wretched land, have suffered immeasurable loses in our fields such that we have almost ended in poverty due to the poisoning of these rivers.” They complained that the three prior Presidents—Tomás Regalado, Pedro José Escalón and General Fernando Figueroa—had done nothing against the powerful San Sebastián mining company, which exerted “unlimited power over them because of the dazzle of gold.”

Mining was already so extensive in those years that four companies were operating in El Salvador’s eastern zone. All four were owned by the US engineer Charles Butters, who thus had a decisive say in the “nomination” of the country’s Presidents. In 1912 their gold exports represented 15% of Salvador’s total exportation. And naturally, as the industry grew, the problems the people from Lima were denouncing grew as well. In 1915 a fire in the warehouse of the El Divisadero mine in Morazán caused the deaths of 50 workers in one day.

Despite the contamination and such disasters, the mines continued operating and the people continued suffering. The San Sebastián mine closed down in 1953, but was started up again in 1968 under the multinational Commerce Group, which exploited it until 1980, when civil war erupted in the country.

Still traces of contamination


In 2012, after nearly 40 years of the mine’s inactivity, samples taken from the San Sebastian River by El Salvador’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources stukk detected cyanide, iron and mercury contamination, deeming its water undrinkable by either humans or animals.

Neither San Sebastian nor any of the other towns close to the gold mines operating during the early 20th century could be defined then, nor are they now, as economically and socially developed, although that’s what the mining company promised them.

The new gold rush


El Salvador’s war meant a pause in mining. It lasted until the nineties when the frenzy for metals, especially gold and silver, reemerged around the world, in part due to the rapid industrialization of China and India.

The international price for a troy ounce of gold rose from about US$614 in 1980 to a historical high of US$1,923 in September 2011. El Salvador’s mining law, which provided incentives for foreign investment in this industry, was approved in 1996. It is estimated that 29 permits were given to explore for metal minerals in the country during the administrations of Armando Calderon (1994-1999) and Francisco Flores (1999-2004).

In early 2000, Pacific Rim, a Canadian company, started operating in El Salvador, authorized by the Ministry of Economy’s Division of Hydrocarbons and Mines. It was permitted to explore for metals in the area of El Dorado, municipality of San Isidro, department of Cabañas, and in other regions of the country that showed potential for precious metals.

As is characteristic of ransnational extractive companies, Pacific Rim came into the area of Cabañas armed with clientelist practices to win over the support of local residents, mayors, religious leaders, community organizations and any other social actor with some influence. The promise, as always, was community development, creation of jobs and a better standard of living for the people. Conscious of the environmental damage mining had caused in the past, Pacific Rim also came in bearing the banner of environmentally-friendly “green mining.”

Neither “green” nor “responsible”


The two most important arguments all protagonists in the anti-mining struggle used to maintain the mobilization were the scientific as well as empirical verification that mining today is just as damaging as in the previous century and the clear verification that neither before nor now does it improve people’s standard of living or bring development to the country.

Despite the companies’ efforts to win over the hearts and minds of the people and of public opinion in general by insisting that new technologies are respectful of the environment, Pacific Rim’s “green” mining and later Oceana Gold’s “responsible” mining were gradually exposed as lies by reality and the scientific studies of specialists. The havoc mining continues to wreak in many parts of the planet, the damage still present today in the old mining areas of the department of La Union, and the negative effects that have started to be seen in Pacific Rim’s exploratory phase in Cabañas demonstrated the falsehood of their discourse about respect for the environment.

We’re on the border of hydrological stress


Mining, especially metal mining, is by nature damaging to the environment, mainly affecting water. Making the situation of El Salvador’s hydrological resources visible was especially important in the struggle to get the anti-mining law approved.

In the continent as a whole, El Salvador is only surpassed by Haiti with respect to environmental damage (UNEP, 2010), deforestation (FAO, 1993) and low per-capita availability of water. Ours is the only country in the region on the border of hydrological stress. According to a 2013 FAO report, a country falls into hydrological stress when water availability is a minimum of 1,700 cubic meters per person per year. That same year, El Salvador only had 2,031 cubic meters per person. And according to the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, only 11% of the country’s 56 rivers have water that could be purified for drinking. The other 89% have water that is too highly contaminated.

Faced with this serious situation, those struggling against mining also spread this crucial information: mining consumes enormous amounts of water in the process of separating metals from earth.

Water is “mining’s lifeblood”


For Andrés McKinley, a mining specialist, water is “mining’s lifeblood” because it’s impossible to extract and process metals without it. For this reason mining “competes” for water with the human need to consume it to live.

The Marlin mine in Guatemala, which started operating in 2005 and is presented as a model of modern technologies, goes through about 6 million liters of water a day, equivalent to what an indigenous family would consume in 30 years. Settlements near that mine have reported that more than 40 wells have gone dry. And in Honduras, people living by the San Martín mine have reported that mining activity has dried up 19 of the 23 rivers in the area during the nine years of its operations.

It wasn’t just knowledge of the damage mining caused in other parts of the country and region that created awareness of the threat among the people of the Cabañas communities. They also began to experience mining’s negative effects first-hand. Many wells of the municipalities of San Isidro, Guacotecti and Sensuntepeque, all in Cabañas, began to go dry even during Pacific Rim’s exploration phase. The lack of water also began to affect the farmers in the area, who up to then hadn’t paid much attention to the problem.

It doesn’t generate development


More recently, research done by OXFAM last year revealed that the mines and quarries operating in Central America only represent 1% of the region’s GDP and their fiscal contribution between taxes and non-tax payments is barely 0.71% in Guatemala, 0.03% in El Salvador and 0.09% in Honduras. The research refutes the propaganda that mining creates jobs, showing that the mining companies create less than 0.5% of each country’s total jobs and the salaries their workers receive are minimal compared to the profits they make.

McKinley adds that almost 70% of gold and silver extraction projects are located in countries with high poverty rates, vulnerable ecosystems and traditional lifestyles at permanent risk. He also observed that it’s common to see poverty belts around mining projects in Latin American countries.

They cause social conflict in the communities


The beginning of Pacific Rim’s mining exploration in El Salvador, accompanied by its usual clientelism and propaganda work, triggered not only environmental but also social concerns. The first focal points of resistance to mining arose within the area of the gold and silver vein discovered in the northern part of El Salvador, mainly in the departments of Chalatenango and Cabañas.

In 2005, what would turn out to be a determining actor in the struggle to defend the territory and environment was created: the Working Group against Metal Mining, made up of organizations from these two departments together with other organizations that decided to support their struggle. Given the mining company’s political and media work, that struggle had been launched in an unfavorable ideological environment.

The Cabañas communities where the exploration operations began had less organizational history than those from Chalatenango but found themselves at the epicenter of social conflict created by the mining company. Pacific Rim took upon itself to sow discord between those hired by it and those opposed to mining, with the latter charging threats, aggressions and harassment.

This struggle cost five lives


Five deaths were linked to this conflict. On June 18, 2009, Marcelo Rivera, director of the Cultural Center and a pioneer in the resistance against mining, was abducted. Twenty days later his body was found with signs of torture, according to forensic information from the Institute of Legal Medicine.

Ramiro Rivera was the next one killed, even though this community leader had been granted protective measures and was being guarded by two police agents. During the attack on him, environmentalist Felícita Echeverría was also killed. On December 26, 2009, Dora Sorto, eight months pregnant at the time, was killed. She was the wife of Jose Santos Ortiz, a leader who survived the attack on Ramiro Rivera. An alleged Pacific Rim employee had severed two fingers of Ortiz’s right hand a few months earlier. Then Juan Francisco Durán, who supported the resistance against mining, was returning home from studying in San Salvador on June 3, 2011, but he never made it. When they found his body, it had three gunshots to the head.

The line of investigation by the Attorney General’s Office and the National Civil Police never linked these killings to the resistance against mining. They were merely classified as products of family or personal disputes.

A growing awareness


Year after year, more people from the rest of the country began to learn about the damage caused by mining and to experience the divisions the mining company caused in the communities. Increasing numbers sided with the people of these areas resisting Pacific Rim.

The awareness of the threat increasingly spread to the other municipalities of our small country that were probable locations for mining projects. In a 2007 survey by the Central American University’s Public Opinion Institute (IUDOP) of people from the 23 municipalities that could potentially be affected by mining activities, 62.5% considered mining inappropriate for El Salvador and 67.6% said mining projects contribute little or nothing to the country’s economic development. A second IUDOP survey done eight years later showed that those percentages had increased to 79% and 76%, respectively, with 77% of those polled saying the Salvadoran State should ban metal mining in the entire country.

International lawsuit against El Salvador


In practice, Pacific Rim had stopped its operations in 2008 due to the pressure and struggles of the local, national and international organizations, not to mention the fact that the Antonio Saca government (2004-2009) refused to grant them a gold exploitation permit. Saca’s de facto moratorium was in part because the debate around mining came up during the 2009 election campaign. But it was also due to the fracturing of the National Republican Alliance (ARENA), which crystallized after FMLN presidential candidate Mauricio Funes defeated ARENA’s candidate Rodrigo Avila that year. This split caused Saca’s expulsion from ARENA, an unheard of act followed by a number of ARENA congresspeople resigning the party and forming a new party and legislative bench called the Great National Alliance Unity (GANA).

Funes’ victory prolonged the de facto mining moratorium. Seeing the exploitation permit recede from its grasp, Pacific Rim decided that same year to sue the Salvadoran State in the World Bank’s International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID). Initially, the company calculated it would lose over US$300 million in profits by being denied the exploitation permit. The allegations of the Salvadoran State’s defense team in the ICSID trial led Pacific Rim to decrease the amount to US$250 million.

Pacific Rim’s main argument in ICSID was that the government representatives had led them to understand on several occasions that the exploration permit also gave them the right to an exploitation license. It was an easily refuted argument because the company had not complied with the established prerequisites in the mining law valid back then, among which was the presentation of an environmental impact study and a technical viability study. The international financial crisis during those years also affected the Canadian company.

In 2013 Pacific Rim was bought by Oceana Gold, an Australian mining company that pursued the ICSID lawsuit against the Salvadoran State. Oceana Gold argued that it had the support of most of the people in Cabañas and that only a small group of activists opposed its activities. This argument was seriously undercut by the second survey IUDOP did in 2015, sharing its results.

The lawsuit in the ICSID took seven years. During them the Salvadoran State maintained the moratorium and had to pay over US$13 million for its defense in the international court. Finally, on October 16, 2016, the ICSID ruled in El Salvador’s favor and against Oceana Gold, which was ordered to pay US$8 million to El Salvador in compensation for its trial expenses. As of March of this year it has not yet paid any of that compensation.

The bishops speak up


The struggle against mining in the Salvadoran communities also had pastoral support, many times silent, from priests, religious persons and Catholic laypersons over the years.

The clamor had quickly made its way to El Salvador’s Episcopal Conference and on May 3, 2007, the Catholic bishops issued a statement joining the rejection of metal mining in the country. The document categorically concluded: “With the lives of human beings in danger, even if some economic benefits could be obtained, the mining for precious metals should not be allowed in El Salvador. No material advantage can be compared to the value of human life.” From that moment on, the Catholic Church’s position has been unchanging, even if through the years the emphasis has at times decreased or seemed to weaken.

The support from the archbishop of San Salvador, José Luis Escobar Alas, was determinant during the homestretch of the struggle. Riding on that major success, he together with Central American University authorities presented a bill to the Legislative Assembly this past February 7 to eliminate all mining in the country. It had been drafted by university experts and specialists with input from other organizations and the communities affected by mining.

On March 29 a delegation again headed by Archbishop Escobar, delivered 30,000 signatures in support of the bill that had been collected in only a week. The packet of sugbatyres was receuved t representatives of all political sectors, who not only pledged their support for the law, but approved it that very day.

A testimony of solidarity from the Philippines


While the threat of mining that was directly affecting the communities of Cabañas got joint international solidarity from individual, institutions and platforms in defense of the environment, Pacific Rim’s lawsuit in the ICSID against the Salvadoran State was cause for different international organizations to come together in a movement called “International Allies Against Mining in El Salvador.” They focused their efforts in support of the organized communities by spreading their complaints against Pacific Rim worldwide and backing the efforts to write a law that would ban the all metal mining.

The solidarity of Carlos Padilla as governor of the province of New Biscay, Philippines, where Oceana Gold was also exploring gold deposits, deserves special mention. In the midst of a huge campaign launched by the Australian mining company in almost all Salvadoran media despite an ICSID ruling, presenting itself as a promoter of “responsible mining” and thus unlike other mining companies, the Filipino government canceled its exploration permit in New Biscay due to the environmental damage it was causing and its lack of respect for the labor rights of their workers. Governor Padilla’s testimony both in the Salvadoran media and before the Legislative Assembly’s Environment and Climate Change Commission and the National Council for Environmental Sustainability and Vulnerability was determinant in silencing the fallacies Oceana Gold was shamelessly propagating in our country’s major media.

Everyone’s victory though just one step


Many factors came together to achieve this goal that at first seemed farfetched, or at least very far away. Demonstrating that the contemporary mining industry still contaminates and doesn’t produce economic development or even significant numbers of decent jobs, was the frame upon which the struggle was woven. victory was achieved by exposing the lies and revealing the truth about the mining industry, .

The evidence also won the support of sectors of the country that had previously defended the mining industry. The convincing nature of the evidence and the massive support the opposition to mining gained closed the mouths of those who defended it. Even the ARENA congresspeople who didn’t sneak out of the legislative chamber voted in favor of the law, thanks to the work of a young legislator from that party who dedicated titanic efforts to convincing them.

The Law to Prohibit Metal Mining in El Salvador is a victory of the communities and organizations that never gave up and of the murdered environmentalists, whose blood fertilized that struggle. And it’s a victory of the organized international solidarity that sided with the national efforts. It is a victory shared by the professionals and academics who put their skills and knowledge at the service of such a noble cause and of the government officials and congresspeople who gave their vote.

Most importantly, it’s a victory for the Salvadoran people, but though it’s huge, it’s only one step in the struggle to recover and protect our environment. While this other more comprehensive struggle continues to be a marginal issue in the main media, there’s no need more urgent and strategic in El Salvador than to deal with the environmental degradation we are suffering, because no political, economic or any other kind of project will be viable without guaranteeing environmental sustainability.

The clamor was heard


March 29, 2017, will remain engraved in the mind and heart of all those who struggled convinced that banning mining was best for our country. President Salvador Sánchez Cerén approved the law six days later, recording such an important achievement into official history.

The clamor for life by the people of Santa Rosa de Lima was finally heard 105 years after their letter and it defeated “the dazzle of gold.”


Omar Serrano is the vice rector of social projection of El Salvador’s José Simeón Cañas Central American University (UCA).

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