The cry of “water is life” has spread from farmers in El Salvador, over a decade ago, to families in Flint, Michigan, to the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota, and now to lawmakers in El Salvador.
On March 29, this small Central American country’s national legislature stood up to enormous pressure from global mining corporations and passed the world’s first comprehensive ban on metals mining, a toxic industry that threatens El Salvador’s water supply.
This historic vote would have been unthinkable until very recently. On a trip to El Salvador last summer, we asked a wide range of people, including the chair of the Legislative Committee on the Environment and Climate Change, if they could imagine El Salvador ever passing a legislative ban on industrial mining, given its devastating environmental costs. Everyone told us versions of “no.”
Yet on Tuesday, March 28, one of us stood with that very same legislative chair, Dr. Guillermo Mata, an hour before he rallied his committee to a unanimous vote for just such a ban. The next day, the full legislature voted in the ban, with all members present from all parties voting in favor.
To understand the extraordinary nature of this victory, you need to understand the tens of millions of dollars that mining companies have been dangling in the faces of Salvadoran farmers and politicians alike for over a decade.
As The Nation has chronicled in a series of articles, mining companies rushed into the country in the early 2000s as gold and other mineral prices skyrocketed, in part due to the rapid growth of the Chinese economy. Skeptical farmers from the gold-rich north of the country visited gold-mining communities in nearby Honduras and came home with stories of environmental havoc unleashed by the toxic cyanide used to separate the gold from the surrounding rock.
These groups formed the National Roundtable Against Metallic Mining in 2005, beginning a massive campaign to raise the alarm about the threats mining posed to the Lempa River watershed, which runs through gold country and supplies water for over half the country’s population. They quickly pulled the Catholic Church to their side, and pushed for an end to mining. By 2007, a University of Central America poll showed that close to two-thirds of the public opposed mining. The pressure became so strong that the president at the time, who represented the right-wing ARENA party, announced he would stop issuing mining licenses until there was a comprehensive economic and environmental review.