Like Water for Gold in El Salvador | The Nation


Like Water for Gold in El Salvador

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Environmental Martyrs

As the anti-mining coalition strengthened with support from leaders in the Catholic Church, small businesses and the general public (a 2007 national poll showed that 62.4 percent opposed mining), tensions within Cabañas grew. These emerged in the context of other challenges, including the increasing use of Cabañas as an international drug trans-shipment route, with the attendant problems of corruption and violence. While questions remain, many activists believe that pro-mining forces—including local politicians who stood to benefit if Pacific Rim started mining—are ultimately responsible for the 2009 murder of Miguel’s brother, Marcelo Rivera. Marcelo, a cultural worker and popular educator from the Cabañas town of San Isidro, was an early and vibrant public face of the anti-mining movement.

About the Author

John Cavanagh
John Cavanagh is the director of the Institute for Policy Studies and author, most recently, of Development Redefined:...
Robin Broad
Robin Broad is a professor at American University's School of International Service. Her most recent book, co-authored...

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In San Isidro, Rina Navarrete, director of the Friends of San Isidro Association (ASIC), whose founders included Marcelo, stressed that his work lives on through the focus of local groups on cultural work and youth leadership development. Members of another citizens group, MUFRAS-32, led us on a walking tour of this small farming town. At the renamed Marcelo Rivera Community Center, a yellow and red mural with Marcelo’s face above a line of dancing children covers the front wall.

Four other murals painted by youths, on the outside walls of houses owned by sympathetic residents, make it impossible to forget Marcelo’s mission or his assassination. One, for example, offers a dramatic contrast between two alternative paths of development: On the mural’s right side, dark and gloomy “monster” projects, including gold mines, dump waste into a river that bisects the wall. On the other side of the mural’s river, sunlight bathes healthy agricultural land and trees.

ASIC, MUFRAS-32 and other groups continue to organize theater and artistic festivals. Jaime Sánchez, a former theater student of Marcelo’s now in his mid-20s, told us more: “We use theater, songs, murals and other cultural forms to show resistance. We use laughter.” Jaime described ADES’s creation of a radio station, Radio Victoria, which teaches young people to become deejays, production engineers and the other roles of running a station. These young people also took courses on mining, and spread what they learned over the airwaves.

Over a six-day period in late 2009, two other local activists were killed, one a woman who was eight months pregnant; the 2-year-old in her arms was wounded. ADES’s Nelson Ventura barely escaped an attack. Hector Berrios and Zenayda Serrano, lawyers and leaders of MUFRAS-32, had their home broken into while they and their daughter slept, and documents related to their work were stolen. As Hector lamented, “Clandestine organizations still operate with impunity in this country.”

Many of the people we interviewed, including youths at Radio Victoria, have received death threats. One person told us he turned down a $30-a-week offer to meet with representatives of Pacific Rim to inform on anti-mining activists. Mourned another: “Now in our communities, you don’t trust people you’ve trusted your entire life. That’s one of the things the mining companies have done.”

Democratic Spaces

We traveled from mining country to San Salvador, visiting the sprawling Cuscatlán Park. Along one wall is the Salvadoran version of the US Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in this case etched with the names of about 30,000 of the roughly 75,000 killed in the civil war. Thousands of them, including the dozens killed in the Lempa River massacre of 1981, were victims of massacres perpetrated by the US-backed—often US-trained—government forces and the death squads associated with them.

Peace accords were signed in 1992, and successive elections delivered the presidency to the conservative and pro–free trade ARENA party until 2009, when the progressive Farabundo Martí Liberation Front (FMLN) won the largest bloc in the Congress and, two months later, the presidency. Anti-mining sentiment was already so strong in 2009 that both the reigning ARENA president and the successful FMLN candidate, Mauricio Funes, came out against mining during the campaign.

Much of the credit for this goes to the National Roundtable on Mining, formed in 2005 as leaders in Cabañas began meeting with groups from other departments where mining companies were seeking permits, as well as with research, development, legal aid and human rights groups in San Salvador. Roundtable facilitator Rodolfo Calles enumerated the goals they collectively agreed upon after arduous deliberations: to help resistance at the community level; to win a national law banning metals mining; to link with anti-mining struggles in Honduras and Guatemala, since the Lempa River also winds through those two countries; and to take on the international tribunal in which Pacific Rim is suing El Salvador. Part of what moved the Roundtable to the “complete ban” position, Francisco Pineda explained, “was the realization that the government lacked the ability to regulate the mining activities of giant global firms.”

We were eager to understand how the still relatively young FMLN-led government was deciding whether to ban metals mining. Roundtable members told us the Funes government had announced it would grant no new permits during his five-year term and that it was considering a permanent ban. They also told us the government had initiated a major “strategic environmental review” to help set longer-term policy on mining.

We visited the ministry of the economy, which, along with the environment ministry, is leading the review. The man overseeing it, an engineer named Carlos Duarte, explained that the goal was to do a “scientific” analysis, with the help of a Spanish consulting firm (with Spanish funding). We pushed further, trying to understand how a technical analysis could decide a matter with such high stakes. On the one hand, we posed to Duarte, gold’s price has skyrocketed from less than $300 an ounce a decade ago to more than $1,500 an ounce today, increasing the temptation in a nation of deep poverty to consider mining. We quoted former Salvadoran finance minister and Pacific Rim economic adviser Manuel Hinds, who said, “Renouncing gold mining would be unjustifiable and globally unprecedented.” On the other hand, we quoted the head of the human rights group and Roundtable member FESPAD, Maria Silvia Guillen: “El Salvador is a small beach with a big river that runs through it. If the river dies, the entire country dies.”

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