Like Water for Gold in El Salvador
Thirty years ago, several thousand civilians in the northern Salvadoran community of Santa Marta quickly gathered a few belongings and fled the US-funded Salvadoran military as it burned their houses and fields in an early stage of the country’s twelve-year civil war. Dozens were killed as they crossed the Lempa River into refugee camps in Honduras.
Today, residents of this area, some born in those Honduran refugee camps, are fighting US and Canadian mining companies eager to extract the rich veins of gold buried near the Lempa River, the water source for more than half of El Salvador’s 6.2 million people. Once again, civilians have been killed or are receiving death threats.
The communities’ goal: to make El Salvador the first nation to ban gold mining. We traveled to El Salvador in April to find out if this struggle to keep gold in the ground can be won. Our investigation led us from rural communities in the country’s gold belt to ministries of the new progressive government in San Salvador and ultimately to free trade agreements and a tribunal tucked away inside the World Bank in Washington, DC.
We were greeted at the airport by Miguel Rivera, a quiet man in his early 30s whose face is dominated by dark, sad eyes. Miguel is the brother of anti-mining community leader Marcelo Rivera, who was disappeared—tortured and assassinated—in June 2009 in a manner reminiscent of the death squads of the 1980s civil war. We had first met Miguel in October 2009, when he and four others active in El Salvador’s National Roundtable on Mining traveled to Washington to receive the Institute for Policy Studies’ Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award, a prize that brought international recognition to this struggle.
As we drove on the mountainous roads that lead to Santa Marta and other towns in the northern department of Cabañas, we commented on the starkly eroded parched hills that look like landslides waiting to happen. “We are the second most environmentally degraded country in the Americas after Haiti,” Miguel explained through an interpreter. “How did you come to oppose mining?” we asked. Miguel pointed to our water bottle and said simply: “Just like you, water is our priority.” Over the next days, we would hear testimonies from dozens of people in Cabañas, many of whom are risking their lives in the struggle against mining. Almost all started or ended their stories with some variation of Miguel’s answer: “Water for life,” for drinking, for fishing, for farming—and not just for Cabañas but for the whole country.
Miguel drove us to the office of his employer, ADES (the Social and Economic Development Association), where local people talked with us late into the night about how they had come to oppose mining. ADES organizer Vidalina Morales acknowledged that “initially, we thought mining was good and it was going to help us out of poverty…through jobs and development.”
The mining corporation that had come to Cabañas was the Vancouver-based Pacific Rim, one of several dozen companies interested in obtaining mining “exploitation” permits in the Lempa River watershed. In 2002 Pacific Rim acquired a firm that already had an exploration license for a Cabañas site bearing the promising name El Dorado. That license gave Pacific Rim the right to use such techniques as sinking exploratory wells to determine just how lucrative the site would be.
Francisco Pineda, a corn farmer and charismatic organizer with the Environmental Committee of Cabañas, invited us to spend an afternoon with eighteen of his fellow committee members, some of whom had walked or been driven a long way to join us. One after another, each stood up to tell his or her story. Francisco, who received the 2011 Goldman Environmental Award (which some call the Environmental Nobel Prize), kicked off what became a five-hour session. He talked about watching the river near his farm dry up: “This was very strange, as it had never done this before. So we walked up the river to see why…. And then I found a pump from Pacific Rim that was pumping water for exploratory wells. All of us began to wonder, if they are using this much water in the exploration stage, how much will they use if they actually start mining?”
Francisco, Marcelo, Miguel, Vidalina and others then set out to learn everything they could about gold mining. From experience, they already knew that Cabañas was prone to earthquakes potentially strong enough to crack open the containers that mining companies build to hold the cyanide-laced water used to separate gold from the surrounding rock. Community members traveled to mining communities in neighboring Honduras, Costa Rica and Guatemala, returning home with stories about the contamination of rivers and lands by cyanide and other toxic chemicals. They turned to water experts, university researchers and international groups like Oxfam. A number of people attended seminars on mining in San Salvador.
They also discovered that only a tiny share of Pacific Rim’s profits would stay in the country, and that the El Dorado mine was projected to have an operational life of only about six years, with many of the promised jobs requiring skills that few local people had. And, as a study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature pointed out, people in Cabañas “living near mining exploration activities began to notice environmental impacts from the mining exploration—reduced access to water, polluted waters, impacts to agriculture, and health issues.”
In community meetings, Pacific Rim officials claimed they would leave the water cleaner than they found it. (The Pacific Rim website is filled with promises about “social and environmental responsibility.”) But many local people were wary of the company’s intentions and honesty. Three people recounted how a Pacific Rim official boasted that cyanide was so safe that the official was willing to drink a glass of a favorite local beverage laced with the chemical. The official, we were told, backed down when community members insisted on authentication of the cyanide. “The company thought we’re just ignorant farmers with big hats who don’t know what we’re doing,” Miguel said. “But they’re the ones who are lying.”