Salvadoran Anti-Mining Activists Risk Their Lives by Taking On ‘Free Trade’

For residents of El Salvador’s northern department of Cabañas, 2009 was a year fraught with political high drama that reached a tragic climax in December with the assassination of two anti-mining activists. A public commemoration of their work, which marked the start of 2010, was as much a statement of solidarity as one of mourning.

February 1, 2010

For residents of El Salvador’s northern department of Cabañas, 2009 was a year fraught with political high drama that reached a tragic climax in December with the assassination of two anti-mining activists. A public commemoration of their work, which marked the start of 2010, was as much a statement of solidarity as one of mourning.

On December 20, heavily armed gunmen evaded police protection and murdered the vice president of an anti-mining environmental organization, Ramiro Rivera Gómez. Six days later, Dora “Alicia” Recinos Sorto, a prominent member of the same organization, was shot and killed while returning home after washing clothes in a nearby stream. She was pregnant and carrying her two-year-old son when she was killed.

Rivera Gómez and Recinos Sorto were both residents of Nueva Trinidad, where they worked with the Cabañas Environment Committee to protest the opening of a new mining project by Vancouver-based Pacific Rim Mining Corporation. The company has faced growing opposition from residents of El Salvador’s northern departments, most notably against the granting of exploitation concessions for the company’s El Dorado gold mine, located in the community of San Isidro.

It was in San Isidro in June that anti-mining activist, community leader, and FMLN member Gustavo Marcelo Rivera was kidnapped and brutally murdered in June. The attorney general’s office blamed the crime on gang violence, though friends and family of the victim point to the body’s clear signs of torture as evidence of political motivation.

In the months since Rivera’s death, activists, journalists, and clergy members have been threatened for their involvement in opposition to mining activities. Sporadic, small-scale mining has taken place in the region for centuries, and U.S.-based companies have conducted mining operations since as early as the 1940s. Pacific Rim acquired its flagship El Dorado mine in 2002 through a merger with another U.S. corporation.

In 2002, under the neoliberal policies of President Francisco Flores’s ARENA administration, exploration permits were issued to Pacific Rim. High gold prices in the early 2000s encouraged the corporation to expand in the region, and multiple sites were identified as potentially lucrative investments. Pacific Rim’s website lists two other established projects in addition to the El Dorado mine, and a recent article by Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF) claims that Pacific Rim has identified 25 sites for gold extraction and invested almost $80 million dollars thus far.

Vocal opposition to the project has existed since its inception. Gold mining involves the use of cyanide to separate the precious metal from rocks; soil and water contamination is therefore common. According to the FPIF article, all of the proposed sites are located along El Salvador’s longest river, the Rio Lempa. Among Latin American nations, only Haiti is ranked higher in water scarcity than El Salvador, and much of the country relies on this river alone for access to clean water.

As required by Salvadoran law, Pacific Rim submitted its first environmental impact assessment (EIA) to the Salvadoran Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources in 2004. Though the corporation vehemently contended that it fully upheld Salvadoran law, activists called the assessment a sham. An independent, nonpartisan review of the environmental assessment, conducted in 2005 by hydro-geologist Robert Moran, legitimized activist concerns. The prologue stated that Moran’s review “highlights the near complete lack of baseline water quality and quantity data in the El Dorado Gold and Silver Mining project EIA, the lack of transparency in the public consultation process that is required under Salvadoran Law, the failure to consider the costs to the community of ‘free water use’ by the mining company, and concludes that the EIA would not be acceptable in countries such as Canada or the United States.” Public unrest further crystallized in 2008, when small-scale exploratory drilling on private land drained local wells. Since then, the Salvadoran government has done little to facilitate any movement in the permit process, essentially ignoring Pacific Rim’s requests.

Though mining supporters are traditionally aligned with the neoliberal policies of the ARENA and PCN parties (interestingly, the department of Cabañas is still largely controlled by ARENA party members), public outrage over the environmental assessment and exploratory drilling proved to be game changers. When incumbent ARENA president Antonio Saca faced an unexpectedly powerful challenge from FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes, Saca broke with tradition and announced one week before the election that he would grant no new exploitation concessions to Pacific Rim. The gamble did not pay off, and Funes, who did not support mining either, was elected anyway. (See “The 2009 El Salvador Elections: Between Crisis and Change.”)

While much of the region looks to Funes to mitigate the harmful social impacts of neoliberal economic policies of previous decades, the ongoing confrontation between Pacific Rim and El Salvador has become another framework from which to scrutinize the new administration.

On April 30, Pacific Rim initiated arbitration proceedings under the rules of the Dominican Republic/Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA), which El Salvador implemented in 2006. In 2007, Pacific Rim acquired a U.S.-based subsidiary, and it is through this backdoor route that the Canadian company has been able to file suit with the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, an affiliate of the World Bank. Pacific Rim claims that due to El Salvador’s failure to complete the permitting process, the corporation has lost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Pacific Rim contends that the mining project would ultimately benefit Salvadoran citizens, becoming the country’s greatest source of tax revenue and generating thousands of jobs. In a phone conference, the company’s CEO, Tom Shrake, claimed that only 25% of El Salvador’s population opposed the mining, and accused the opposition of a misinformation campaign. According to Shrake, “The idea that this type of mining is catastrophic to the environment is pure fiction invented by politically-minded international NGO’s who hide behind environmental protection in their anti-development activities.”

News of the arbitration proceedings has met with mixed speculations about how Funes will move forward and whether his administration will be able to mark a true break from El Salvador’s economic past. Skeptics point to the potentially astronomical cost of arbitration and settlement if El Salvador chooses to fight instead of compromising with Pacific Rim. However, members of environmental organizations and the FMLN have sponsored legislation to outlaw all forms of metal mining in the country, which would be the first of its kind in the world if passed.

Furthermore, Funes made headlines on January 12 while speaking at a ceremony celebrating the start of a new school year, when he stated explicitly, “There can be no misunderstanding: my government will not authorize any mining extraction projects. . . . No one has convinced us that there are ways to extract minerals and metals, especially metals, without contaminating the environment and affecting public health.”

He went on to praise the work of recently murdered activists, who “sacrificed their lives in pursuit of a better environment and a better quality of life for Salvadorans,” and he assured the crowd that the murders would be fully investigated. Though it may be long before Salvadorans see any resolution to the DR-CAFTA proceedings and murder investigations, residents of Cabañas may take some comfort in the knowledge that their protests have been successful in at least limiting, if not eliminating, international corporate access to El Salvador’s natural resources.

Lisa Skeen is a NACLA Research Associate.


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