Gene Palumbo and Elisabeth Malkin | New York Times | March 29, 2017
Lawmakers in El Salvador voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to prohibit all mining for gold and other metals, making the country the first in the world to impose a nationwide ban on metal mining, environmental activists said.
Declaring that El Salvador’s fragile environment could not sustain metal mining operations, legislators across the political spectrum approved the ban, which had broad support, particularly from the influential Roman Catholic Church.
Supporters said the law was needed to protect the country’s dwindling supply of clean water.
“Today in El Salvador, water won out over gold,” Johnny Wright Sol, a legislator from the center-right Arena party, wrote on Twitter.
The vote in the Legislative Assembly turned a decade-old moratorium on mining into law, halting efforts by international companies to tap the gold belt running across the northern provinces of El Salvador.
“It’s a wonderful moment for the first country to evaluate the costs and benefits of metallic mining and say no,” said Andrés McKinley, a mining and water specialist at Central American University in San Salvador.
The law does not apply to quarrying or the mining of coal, salt and other nonmetallic substances.
Other countries are unlikely to follow El Salvador’s national ban, mining watchdog groups say. But the law sets a powerful example to communities that oppose large mining projects and bolsters the case against mining in environmentally delicate areas.
“Globally there is a growing questioning of mining as an economic development engine,” said Keith Slack, the global program director for extractive industries at Oxfam America in Washington. “I think it definitely strengthens the voice of communities that are raising the questions.”
Around the world, scattered bans on the use of cyanide to extract gold from low-grade ore, commonly used in open-pit mining, are in place, including in Montana, according to Jamie Kneen, a spokesman for Mining Watch Canada. Costa Rica has a national ban on open-pit gold mining.
Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Turkey and several Argentine provinces have cyanide bans. In the Philippines, the government ordered more than half the mines to shut down or be suspended.
The risks of mining in El Salvador, however, are especially acute. The tiny country is densely populated and the second-most environmentally degraded country in the Americas, after Haiti, according to the United Nations.
“Mining is an industry whose primary and first victim is water,” said Mr. McKinley, who added that El Salvador faced a significant scarcity. “We are talking about an issue that is a life-or-death issue for the country.”
Mr. Wright, the legislator who worked to persuade his business-friendly party to support the law, said that climate change was already having an impact on El Salvador. “More than a theory or an uncertain science that it might have been 10 years ago, today for Salvadorans, it is a reality,” he said.
Unlike mining in neighboring Central American countries, mining in El Salvador has been limited to small-scale operations. The civil war of the 1980s deterred efforts to develop large-scale mines. International mining companies did not begin exploring until the 2000s.
Opposition to one of those companies eventually grew into a social movement against mining. The company, Pac Rim Cayman, sought a license to open a mine in the impoverished northern province of Cabañas but was rejected in 2005 because it had not met all the legal requirements.
As opposition mounted, clashes around the proposed mine led to the deaths of several anti-mining activists.
The de facto moratorium on permits that began under a government led by the Arena Party continued under the two successive governments led by the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front.
Last October, El Salvador won an international dispute that had been filed by Pac Rim and continued by the Canadian-Australian company, OceanaGold, that acquired it. An international arbitration panel rejected OceanaGold’s claims for compensation.