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EL SALVADOR
Ban on metal mining, a first step in a broader struggle
Edgardo Ayala
4/17/2017
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Law closes the door on underground and open-pit mining extraction, and also prohibits the use of cyanide and other chemical compounds used to process gold ore.

Environmentalist, academia, the Catholic Church and communities in resistance against metal mining obtained a historic victory by getting the Salvadoran Congress to prohibit this industry by law, but the threat remains latent and the struggle continues, the activists said.

On Mar. 29, backed by 69 of the 84 Legislative Assembly members, El Salvador became the first country in the world to ban, through a law, that industry, a demand that had been raised by the social movement for years.

At its core, the law closes all doors to open-pit and underground metal mining, and also prohibits the use of cyanide and other chemical compounds used to process gold ore.

The lawmakers approved the law after leaders of the Catholic Church led a march on Mar. 9 demanding the signing into law of a bill prepared by the Central American University José Simeón Cañas (UCA), which they presented to the deputies.

“The passing of the law was an unprecedented victory, but it is just the first step in a broader struggle that we have to continue, and now all the effort is set against transnational and regional mining,” said to Latinamerica Press activist Luis González, from the National Working Group Against Metallic Mining, which brings together some 20 environmental organizations from across the country.

The decision to ban this sector was a triumphant victory for civil society in El Salvador, who had opposed this industry for over a decade. It was also a hard blow to Oceana Gold, the Australian-Canadian transnational.

In 2013, this consortium acquired PacificRim, the Canadian company that sued the Salvadoran state before the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), part of the World Bank, for US$250 million for having been denied the permit to exploit the El Dorado mine, located in the central department of Cabañas, in 2009.

ICSID, based in Washington, settled the dispute and ruled this past October in favor of El Salvador, which is now waiting for a payment of $8 million for legal expenses, plus interests. On Mar. 30, the company declared in a statement that “the El Dorado Project and any opportunity in El Salvador are not part of the business strategy at this time.”

Risk comes from outside
While it is true that other nations have banned consortium activities in specific mines, or have declared moratoriums against that industry due to the damage it causes to the environment, El Salvador, the smallest country in Central America, with a population of 6.3 million, has been the only one to completely ban the metallic mining. Despite this, the shadow of mining still casts over the country, especially because of the projects already in place in Guatemala and Honduras that will end up causing environmental harm to the already contaminated Lempa River, whose course is shared between these two nations and El Salvador.

“We have counted eight mining projects on the Guatemalan side and 40 on the Honduran side that will end up affecting the country through the course of the Lempa River,” González stated.

The Cerro Blanco mine, located in the municipality of Asunción Mita, in the department of Jutiapa, Guatemala, is now the mine that represents the highest risk because of its location in a region bordering the western department of Santa Ana, in El Salvador.

Although the deposit owned by the Canadian conglomerate Gold Corp is still in the exploration phase, it is already discharging waters with high levels of arsenic into the Ostúa River, which flows into Lake Güija, shared by El Salvador and Guatemala, and from there, it follows its course into the Lempa River on the Salvadoran side.

The Lempa — one of the longest rivers in Central America, that flows through Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador —, “is the aorta of El Salvador,” the activist said, because its basin covers 45 percent of the national territory, and represents 60 percent of the water consumed in this country and 30 percent of the water consumed in its capital, San Salvador.

“This is why it is of a strategic importance,” González stated.

For Oswaldo Samayoa, a researcher at the Guatemala Studies Center (CEG), the achievement obtained in this Central American country is the start of a lifelong struggle, because human rights issues never end, especially now that the threat is latent at the regional level.

“All of us here will not be around then [to give battle], and others will have to maintain these victories,” Samayoa pointed out during a forum on metal mining in Central America, held in El Salvador on Mar. 30.

The struggle continues
Bernardo Belloso, executive director of the Association for the Development of El Salvador, told Latinamerica Press that the achievement reached by the legislation against metal mining would be overshadowed if regardless of it, the country continues to be affected by deposits in the neighboring countries. For this reason he sees as crucial to push for a coordinated effort with environmental groups from these countries and others from the region to create an instrument for the strengthening of this joint effort.

“We have to make an effort in creating a mechanism that allows us to strengthen this coordinated work in order to expel the mining companies from Central America,” he said.

Most of the mining companies doing business in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are Canadian, states the report “La minería metálica en Centroamérica; una valoración sobre impactos, transparencia y fiscalidad” (Metallic mining in Central America: an assessment on impacts, transparency and taxation) published in February 2017 by Oxfam and the CEG. The report also states that 75 percent of the mining companies in the world are based in Canada.

Although the region is in the so called Cinturón de Oro (Gold Belt), which extends from Mexico to Panama, this metal is present in a very small concentration, of between 1 and 14 grams of gold per ton of rock, and it requires the crushing and milling of large quantities of rocks, and the use of vast amounts of water and cyanide to process the ore, the report details.

Mining and quarrying activities represent less than 1 percent of the gross domestic product of those three countries, and its contribution to employment is also minimal: they account for less than 0.5 percent of all the people covered under the social security systems in those countries, the document states.

Belloso pointed out that there have been closer relationships established in the past with environmental organizations in Guatemala and Honduras. Activists in this topic will hold a forum on Apr. 24-29 in Managua, Nicaragua, to define the strategies of how to deal with the regional mining issue.

“There is much work to do, we need to continue organizing and empowering the population to defend their natural resources; the struggle continues,” he said. Latinamerica Press.


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Julio Castillo, 89, celebrates the approval of the law that bans metal mining in front of the Legislative National Assembly. / Edgardo Ayala
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