An inspiring story of how a people and a nation stood up against the lies and destruction of the international mining companies and threw them out of their country…
Esty Dinur* | The Progressive | April 1, 2018
In March 2017, El Salvador, a country with deposits of gold and silver, became the first and only country in the world to ban all metallic mining.
The process took twelve years, according to Pedro Cabezas, who runs the mining and human rights program of CRIPDES, the largest rural organization in the country and a leader in the Salvadoran social movement. It is a story of popular organizing, which American and other activists might want to pay attention to and learn from. It is also a tale of collaborations across causes, sectors, geographic areas, and national borders.
El Salvador has a history of small artisanal mines, including a small mine in San Sebastián which was started some 100 years ago by local people. However, mining wasn’t an important part of the economy until the 1970s, when Commerce Group Corp. of Waukesha, Wisconsin, started operating the mine, turning the San Sebastián River waters orange from the chemicals, including cyanide, arsenic, and mercury, that seeped into it. Local people can’t use the water for drinking, washing, or watering their crops, and there are numerous cases of cancer and respiratory diseases in the area. Most mining stopped during the civil war that raged from 1980 to 1992.
After the war ended, Cabezas says, the rightwing ARENA government, in collaboration with international mining concerns, drafted an economic plan for the northern part of the country, with thirty-three areas of mining interests, a highway, and twelve hydroelectric dams. It started building the highway and granted twenty-eight exploration licenses to ten companies from the United States, Canada, and Australia, without consultation with the residents. These developments faced immediate popular resistance.
Two of the most affected areas were the departments of Chalatenango and Cabañas, highly organized communities where land had been granted to the residents after the civil war. The first confrontation happened in Chalatenango where the Canadian Au Martinique Silver corporation started prospecting in 2005. The corporation promised jobs, economic growth, schools, community centers, and clinics. Excitement turned to irritation when staff started entering private land, cutting fences, and exploring.
Community leaders, highly politicized from the war years, traveled to mining communities in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras, where gold had been exploited for ten years. They saw destroyed forests, contaminated water, and dried streams. The communities they met were poor and people were left without jobs, many of them suffering from cancer and respiratory diseases.
That, Cabezas says, was a wake-up call for the Salvadoran leaders:
“They stopped the workers from coming, did a lot of education, blocked the streets. They simply didn’t allow the company to come in.”
Some community leaders continued to promote the mine but most people had made up their minds against it.
Marc Rosenthal, a founding member of the Madison Arcatao Sister City Project, an organization based in Madison, Wisconsin, was in Guarjila, Chalatenango, at the time. There he attended a meeting where local people came with surveying stakes they had found on their properties. U.S. activists proposed a campaign to send the stakes back to the company by mail. Militant campesinosstarted blockading the sites and challenging Au Martinique staff.
“They were forced to stop the project,” Rosenthal says. “It was a very real victory.”
In Cabañas, the Canadian company Pacific Rim in 2002 acquired the El Dorado gold mine near the rural town of San Isidro, and started exploring. El Dorado was located in the Lempa River basin, whose watershed covers almost half the country and is the water source for about three million people.
The mine would have used large amounts of water, mixed with cyanide to separate gold from ore. Activists and a community radio station led the resistance against the mine and its potentially disastrous use of the chemical.
Marixela Ramos has worked for the Radio Victoria news team in Santa Marta for more than ten years. When Pacific Rim started exploring, she says, the company’s staff told local residents, who were not familiar with mining, that El Dorado would bring great advancements. The news team didn’t buy it. They consulted with environmental organizations and took courses, then broadcast what they learned, using simple language. They invited people impacted by mines onto the radio to discuss their experiences.
In response, the company conducted a “green mining” campaign and started sowing divisions in the community by offering gifts to the mayor and other people in power. A gang known as the Extermination Group started sending threats to Radio Victoria staff. “We’d get the emails and didn’t know who they came from,” says Ramos, “but the language was so vulgar we knew it came from the gangs. And they wouldn’t be doing this unless they were paid.”
The community continued resisting the mine, and the threats increased. Three activists were murdered, including a pregnant woman. One activist was brutally tortured. The murders prompted an international outcry and a resolution from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, but the intimidation continued. Ramos spent a few months in Ecuador due to the threats on her family, including her three-year-old daughter’s life. But the radio station continued its campaign.
“It was such a hard time,” she says, “but instead of people shutting up in fear, they raised their voices in opposition.”
Cristina Starr (left) and Marixela Ramos of Radio Victoria.
Cristina Starr, one of the station’s founders, remembers a day when the entire community was away for a soccer game. María Isabel Gámez, the news director at the time, was alone at the station when she received a phone call from a man who said, “So you’re alone, baby. I’m coming to kill you.” She called community members as well as the police, who told her they couldn’t come right away. By the time law enforcement arrived, residents were standing guard in front of the station, machetes in hand. They then created twelve groups which protected the radio each night for many months.
“We created a communication of resistance, an activist communication,” Ramos says. “The company never imagined that a community radio would have the power to go against them and stop them.”
In 2005, the various local anti-mining groups formed the National Roundtable Against Metallic Mining. They were joined by a mix of other national organizations and eventually came to a consensus that mining is not acceptable for El Salvador, the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America, where the majority of people live in the countryside, where active volcanoes generate a lot of seismic activity.
They presented draft legislation to the government to prohibit mining. Other powerful institutions joined in, including the Catholic Church, which counts about 60 percent of the country’s citizens among its ranks. In 2007, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of El Salvador asked the government to prohibit mining. The leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party, which was then in the opposition, adopted the same position. The draft legislation was a binding resolution, forcing the government to respond.
In the lead up to the next presidential election, El Salvador’s rightwing, pro-business president, Antonio Saca, succumbed to popular pressure and declared that he wouldn’t issue any additional mining exploitation permits. The FMLN candidate, Mauricio Funes, promised that if he came to power, he would prohibit mining. The FMLN won in March 2009, and Funes issued a moratorium on mining while the government conducted a strategic evaluation.
In response, a pair of international mining companies, Pacific Rim and the Commerce Group, sued the government of El Salvador for $400 million in unrealized profits. The cases were heard by the World Bank’s International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes, an international arbitration organization.
Al Gedicks, emeritus professor of environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse and a founder of the Midwest Coalition Against Lethal Mining (MCALM), had previously worked with Native American tribes in Wisconsin against proposed mines. He was invited to Arcatao, which was one of several communities targeted for potential gold mining projects.
Upon returning to the United States, Gedicks and other members of MCALM met with directors of the Commerce Group and asked them to withdraw their lawsuit. When they refused, MCALM organized a letter-writing and phone campaign to pressure the company to withdraw from the lawsuit.
A delegation from El Salvador participated in a demonstration outside the Commerce Group’s corporate offices in Milwaukee, where they spilled orange salad dressing, symbolizing the mine’s acid drainage. The company, says Gedicks, was financially shaky and the campaign put additional strains on its resources.
“It may have been a minor cost in terms of dollar amounts, but it was an additional burden that they weren’t able to deal with,” he says.
Pacific Rim was acquired in 2013 by the Australian OceanaGold for just $10 million. The International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes dismissed the company’s lawsuit and ordered it to pay $8 million to the Salvadoran government to cover its legal costs.
The ruling, says Cabezas, “was a great surprise for all of us. It was over a technicality—the government put up a good defense and the company made a lot of mistakes—but for us it was an issue of democracy.”
These developments added momentum to the national movement to pressure the government to prohibit mining. The legislative assembly was ruled by two rightwing parties with no interest in passing a ban. However, following much popular pressure, the archbishop of San Salvador, in an unprecedented move, went to the assembly and presented a proposal to prohibit mining.
Two weeks later, in March 2017, more than 30,000 people from all over the country, including many clergy, participated in a massive march led by the archbishop. The ban passed unanimously on March 29, 2017. “Many of us still don’t believe it happened,” Cabezas says. “We were ready for a long battle and a lot of pressure from multinational corporations not to pass this.”
What lessons can international activists learn from this stunning development? Cabezas lists a few.
While there were differences between the many organizations involved in this long struggle, “we maintained one unified message: that mining wasn’t feasible for El Salvador. No one strayed from it.” The Catholic Church, cattle ranchers, and the traditional oligarchy joined campesinos in this message.
The Roundtable developed a strategy of local referenda: Villages and towns voted against mining in their area and the debate eventually reached the national level. International solidarity played an important role, too, with the message that corporations are impacting people throughout the world. “We’re fighting the same system,” Cabezas says. “We need to work collectively to be able to counteract the power of these companies.”
Aurora Conley, vice-chair of the Anishinaabe Environmental Protection Alliance and a litigation support specialist for the Bad River tribe in northern Wisconsin, joined a delegation to El Salvador in 2014. There she witnessed the devastation that the San Sebastián mine wreaked on the people and environment, and participated as an international observer in the first local mining referendum, in San José Las Flores. An overwhelming majority voted against a proposed mine.
Being there, she says, “was like stepping into a larger indigenous world. I can’t even explain the overwhelming sense that it was a great movement. It felt like a victory and showed that there are foundations to fight. It felt almost like they were in war—in a different one than the civil war, but still fighting for their lives. Their resiliency was so amazing, to have to deal with these environmental issues and effects after the civil war was more than inspiring.”
Marc Rosenthal envisions this same sort of mobilization taking place in the United States. “Imagine Bad River coming to support Planned Parenthood and vice versa,” he says. Imagine teachers, farmers, environmentalists, health workers, all working together. “That’s how they got the ban. There’s a lot of gold in El Salvador, so there’s a lot of pressure to mine but the social movement brought everybody together and it started with popular education.”
* Esty Dinur writes about issues that matter and hosts the Friday A Public A air call-in show on WORT, 89.9 FM in Madison, Wisconsin.