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El Salvador’s Metal Mining Debate

Versión Español

In 2002, the Canadian corporation Pacific Rim registered in El Salvador. It was invited by the Salvadoran government to exploit the potential of the country in terms of gold and silver. Pacific Rim identified at least 25 favorable sites for the extraction of gold, in the beginning of its explorations. One of these sites is known as El Dorado, in the department of Cabañas. In December 2004, the company formally requested permission to operate the El Dorado mine, but the government denied permission for inconsistencies in the environmental impact study, and because the company did not have the authorization of the owners of the land where the exploitation of gold and silver would be carried out.

In response to the Salvadoran government’s refusal to grant the El Dorado project exploitation permit, in July 2008, Pacific Rim filed a lawsuit against the Salvadoran government through the World Bank’s International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID).

The company demanded El Salvador pay them $77 million for the amount invested before they were denied the authorization permit. Later this requirement was increased to $301 million and finally reduced to $250 million. At the end of 2013, Pacific Rim filed for bankruptcy and sold its shares to the Australian transnational company Oceana Gold, which continued the lawsuit process.

After a long litigation, on October 14, 2016, the international court ruled in favor of the Salvadoran government and against the mining company. The verdict also determined that the company must compensate with $8 million to the Salvadoran government to cover the procedural costs of the litigation.

Following this ruling, on November 24, 2016, the Movement of Victims Affected by Climate Change and Corporations (MOVIAC), submitted a letter to the Legislative Assembly requesting a ban on all metal mining in the country. This request opened an intense debate that is increasingly gaining strength. On February 6, the Central American University José Simeón Cañas (UCA) and the Catholic Church presented a proposal for a law to ban metal mining.

The request for a ban is justified by the serious social and ecological impacts caused by the mining industry and by the high degree of pollution and environmental deterioration that the country is currently suffering. According to international experts, El Salvador is the country with the most environmental deterioration in the continent, after Haiti. The United Nations has described El Salvador as the country with the least amount of water available throughout the continent, while the Ministry of the Environment has reported that more than 90% of surface water is seriously contaminated and only 10% are suitable for use as potable.

This water crisis could become much more serious if gold and silver mining projects are located in the basin of the river Lempa, which is the most important river in the country. Its basin makes up 50% of the national territory, and houses 70% of the country’s population.

El Salvador is the only country in Central America that does not have mineral exploitation and in an opinion poll conducted by the UCA in June 2015, 76% of the population is against the opening of mining projects. Despite this opposition, there is great pressure from transnational companies to initiate gold and silver mining projects. This of course is due to the findings from Pacific Rim that discovered approximatly 1.2 million ounces of high-purity gold and more than 7.5 million ounces of silver in the subsoil of the northern part of the country. In addition to another 558 thousand ounces of gold and 1.2 million silver of lower quality.

Apparently this is a good thing; however, experience in neighboring countries such as Guatemala and Honduras demonstrates how harmful the mining industry is to people and the environment. Especially when it comes to water resources. According to a recent UCA publication, the Marlin mine in Guatemala uses about 6 million liters of water per day; and nearby communities have reported 40 dry communal wells in the eight years of the mine’s operations. Likewise in the region of Valle de Siria in Honduras, the San Martín mine has dried 19 of the original 23 rivers in the area throughout its’ nine years of operation.

These effects could be worse in El Salvador, due to the fragility of its ecosystems and the population density of around 300 inhabitants per square kilometer. In these circumstances the human rights of the population would be seriously affected. In this regard, the Attorney for the Defense of Human Rights (PDDH), in a recent statement said: “The harmful effects of mining activity constitute serious violations of the human rights of the population. Among them is the right to life, health, water and food. The concern persists because the mining industry still has an interest in developing its projects in the country and there is no legislation or institutional mechanisms to guarantee the protection of the environment against mining activity.”

The interest of the mining industry to which the PDDH refers to is manifested in a series of actions carried out by the mining company Oceana Gold, which MOVIAC has repeatedly denounced. For instance, in a letter delivered to the Legislative Assembly on November 24, 2016, MOVIAC states: “We know that in all the impoverished countries of the world, transnational mining companies use the same strategies: division of communities, murder of environmentalists, bribing corrupt officials and false media campaigns such as the promises of job creation and social development. The truth is that mining does not generate more jobs than it destroys. Where there is mining there is no agriculture, there is no livestock, there is no tourism, there is no health, there are no peaceful or free communities.”

For all these reasons at the moment, in El Salvador there is a strong debate about the need to pass a law that definitively prohibits metal mining.


El Salvador Debate la Prohibición de la Minería Metálica

En el año 2002 la corporación canadiense Pacific Rim se registró en El Salvador, invitada por el gobierno, para explotar el potencial del país en cuanto a oro y  plata. Desde el inicio en sus exploraciones, la minera identificó al menos 25 sitios propicios para la extracción de oro, uno de estos es el lugar conocido como  El Dorado, en el departamento de Cabañas. En Diciembre de 2004 la empresa solicitó formalmente el permiso de explotación de la mina El Dorado, el gobierno negó el permiso por inconsistencias en el estudio de impacto ambiental y porque la empresa no contaba con la autorización de los propietarios de las tierras en donde se realizaría la explotación del oro y la plata.

Ante la negativa del gobierno salvadoreño de no conceder el permiso de explotación del proyecto El Dorado,  en julio de 2008Pacific Rim inicia una demanda contra el Estado salvadoreño, en El Centro Internacional de Arreglo de Diferencias Relativas a Inversiones (CIADI) del Banco Mundial.

La petición pedía que el Estado salvadoreño le pagara $77 millones de dólares, por el monto invertido antes de que se le negara la autorización de explotación, más tarde esta exigencia fue incrementada a $ 301 millones y finalmente se redujo a $ 250 millones. A finales de  2013, Pacific Rim se declaró en quiebra y vendió sus acciones a la transnacional Australiana Oceana Gold, quien continuó el proceso de demanda.

Después de un largo litigio, el 14 de octubre de 2016, el tribunal internacional falló a favor del Estado salvadoreño y en contra de la empresa minera. El veredicto también determinó que la empresa deberá indemnizar con 8 millones de dólares al gobierno salvadoreño para cubrir los costos procesales del litigio.

A raíz de este fallo, el 24 de noviembre de 2016 el Movimiento de Víctimas y Afectados por el Cambio Climático y Corporaciones MOVIAC, presentó un escrito a la Asamblea Legislativa solicitando la prohibición de la minería metálica en el país. Está petición abrió un intenso debate que cada vez está cobrando más fuerza. El 6 de febrero la Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas, UCA y la Iglesia Católica presentaron una propuesta de ley de prohibición de la minería metálica.

La solicitud de prohibición se justifica por los graves impactos sociales y ecológicos que ocasiona la industria minera y por el alto grado de contaminación y deterioro ambiental que ya sufre el país. Según expertos internacionales El Salvador es el país del continente con mayor deterioro ambiental, después de Haití. Las Naciones Unidas ha calificado a El Salvador como el país con menos disponibilidad de agua de todo el continente, y el Ministerio de Medio Ambiente ha informado que más del 90% de las agua superficiales están seriamente contaminadas y que sólo el 10%  son aptas para potabilizar por medios convencionales.

Esta situación de crisis hídrica podría ser mucho más grave si se concretan proyectos de explotación de oro y plata ubicados en la cuenca del río Lempa, que es el río más importante del país, su cuenca comprende el 50% del territorio nacional, en donde habita el 70% de la población del país.

El Salvador es el único país de Centroamérica que no posee explotación de minerales y en una encuesta de opinión realizada por la Universidad Centroamericana UCA,  en junio de 2015, el 76% de la población está en contra de la apertura de proyectos mineros; no obstante se tiene gran presión de empresas transnacionales para iniciar proyectos de extracción de oro y plata, ya que según la exploraciones realizada por la empresa Pacific Rim, en el subsuelo de la zona norte del país existe un aproximado de 1.2 millones de onzas de oro de alta pureza y más de  7.5 millones de onzas de plata. Además de otras 558 mil onzas de oro y 1.2 millones de plata de menor calidad.

En apariencia esto es algo bueno; sin embargo, la experiencia en países vecinos como Guatemala y Honduras demuestra lo dañina que es la industria minera para las personas y para el medio ambiente, especialmente en el recurso hídrico. Según una publicación de la Universidad Centroamericana, UCA la mina Marlín, en Guatemala utiliza unos 6 millones de litros de agua por día, las comunidades que viven cerca reportan 40 pozos comunales secos en los ocho años de operaciones de la mina; así mismo en la región Valle de Siria en Honduras la mina San Martín en nueve años de operaciones ha secado 19 de los 23 ríos originales de la zona.

Estas afectaciones podrían ser peores en El Salvador, por la fragilidad de sus ecosistemas y por la densidad poblacional cercana a los 300 habitantes por kilómetro cuadrado, en estas circunstancias los derechos humanos de la población serían gravemente afectados. Al respecto la Procuraduría para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos, en un comunicado reciente expresó que: “los efectos nocivos de la actividad minera constituyen graves violaciones a los derechos humanos de la población; entre estos al derecho a la vida, a la salud, al agua y a la alimentación. La preocupación persiste porque aún concurre el interés de la industria minera de desarrollar sus proyectos en el país y no se cuenta con una legislación  ni mecanismos institucionales que garanticen la protección del medio ambiente ante la actividad minera”

El interés de la industria minera al que hace referencia la PDDH se manifiesta en una serie de acciones que lleva a cabo la empresa minera Oceana Gold, las cuales el Movimiento de Víctimas y Afectados por e Cambio Climático y as Corporaciones, MOVIAC ha denunciado en reiterada ocasiones, por ejemplo en una carta entregada a la Asamblea Legislativa el 24 de noviembre de 2016, el MOVIAC expone: “Conocemos que en todos los países empobrecidos del mundo, las transnacionales mineras emplean las mismas estrategias: división de las comunidades, asesinato de ambientalistas, compra de funcionarios corruptos y campañas mediáticas mentirosas como lo son las promesas de generación de empleo y de desarrollo social. La verdad es que la minería no genera más empleo que el que destruye, donde hay minería no hay agricultura, no hay ganadería, no hay turismo, no hay salud, no hay comunidades pacíficas ni libres”.

Por todas estas razones en el momento actual, en El  Salvador se debate fuertemente la necesidad de aprobar una ley que prohíba definitivamente la minería metálica.

Climate Change, Disasters

May’s Storm Surges Disrupt Coastal Water Tables

Since May 2-3, Salvadoran coastal communities have experienced a series of large waves, or storm surges, that roar over the shoreline and inland. La Libertad, Majahual, and other communities have suffered significant loss, including at least one death. The surges have been reported from Mexico to Chile and are believed to be the result of storms far out in the Pacific Ocean.

Dramatic videos show large waves flooding houses, swimming pools, restaurants, and seaside villages, but they don’t show the long-term affect on water tables in coastal communities.

MontecristoMontecristo in the Bajo Lempa region of Jiquilisco, Usulután reports that since the surges began earlier in the month, their well water has been contaminated with seawater. There is no freshwater available in the community. This would be a serious issue in any community, but for Montecristo it is especially serious because the community is located in dense mangrove forests and is only accessible by foot or boat. There is no way that a water truck could get to Montecristo and supply them with fresh water.

Voices on the Border met with the community leaders and the Bajo Lempa Water Cooperative and have begun the process of getting them tapped into the region’s water system, but this will take time and a relatively large financial investment. And the community wants to be sure that they do not disturb the mangrove forests they are charged with protecting. In the meantime, the community has to bring in 5-gallon jugs of water by boat – an expense that no one can afford. Voices will meet with the community again next week to continue planning how to best address the issue.

There are reports that many small communities along the coast are reporting the same issue – salinization of their well water.

Storm surges are not random occurrences. They are a product of hurricanes and cyclones, and can travel for thousands of miles, affecting regions far from the storm. Scientists predict that as ambient and ocean temperatures rise with climate change, and cause larger more powerful storms, coastal regions will be subject to larger and more devastating surges. The National Center for Atmospheric Research predicts that “the greatest threats from sea level rise and future storm-surge effects will likely occur along the Pacific Coast,” which is where the latest storm surges landed.

In 2009, the Center for Global Development published a paper titled, “Climate Change and the Future of Storm-Surge Disasters in Developing Countries.” It identifies El Salvador as among the top five low-income countries vulnerable to storm surges. They estimate that more than 50% of El Salvador’s coastal agricultural economy and nearly 100% of wetlands are at risk of flooding caused by storm surges. “For the majority of indicators used in this research, we observe the most consistently-severe exposure to risks for El Salvador, Yemen, Djibouti, Mozambique, and Togo.”

Even more specific, however, in a paper published in 2007 titled “Vulnerability and Adaption to Climate Change of Rural Populations in the Coastal Plain of El Salvador,” experts predicted that water tables in the Bajo Lempa would be salinized by 2020. The report says there is a medium to high level of threat that by 2020 there will be “salinization of aquifers due to the combined effects of floods and tides in the coastal fringe.”

This month’s storm surges are just another reminder that climate change is a reality and is happening now, and it is the impoverished communities around the world are suffering the consequences. Even if we are able to get Montecristo tapped into the Bajo Lempa water system, it won’t decrease the emissions of green house gases or decrease the risks of future storm surges, hurricanes, floods, and other disasters.

Climate Change, Disasters

Earthquake Update: The waves in Isla de Mendez

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Map of the area hit on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula, about 5 miles from Octavio Ortiz

Last night two people were injured in the Lower Lempa of Usulután and are currently in the hospital.  The injuries were caused by very high waves that struck them as they were guarding the sea turtle egg hatchery on the beach of Isla de Mendez.  Two other people were also swept away by the waves, but were able to swim back to safety.

Community members reported that waves reached heights of 8 meters (26 feet) and that the water came inland about 350 meters (383 yards) which crossed the barrier peninsula and reached fresh water land.

Other nearby communities were on alert until 1:00 in the morning.  Communities such as Octavio Ortiz and Amando López were kept on full alert by the emergency speaker that blared warnings throughout the night.

Disasters

Earthquake off the Coast of El Salvador

An earthquake shook parts of El Salvador last night around 10:30. The USGS and media at first reported a magnitude of 7.4 located just off the coast of Usulután, roughly the same location of the January 2001 earthquake that caused so much damage and loss of life.

This morning, the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN) is reporting that the earthquake was more like a magnitude 6.7 and that the epicenter was about 250 km (155 miles) south of the coast of Usulután. There were supposedly several aftershocks and earthquakes that finally ended around 2:00 am.

We are hearing that communities along the coast felt the earthquake but that it wasn’t strong. La Prensa Grafica said that others around the country didn’t feel it at all. Similarly, we have not heard any reports of damage.

Immediately after the earthquakes, the Tsunami Alert Center in Hawaii issued a tsunami warning, but it was called off around midnight. There was a report of a small wave, around 4 inches high, reaching the coast, but no damage was reported. During a conference call last night, Jorge Meléndez, the Director of Civil Protection, denied the threat of a Tsunami and said that it was the result of a miscalculation.

El Salvador is located on the Ring of Fire; a fault line circles much of the Pacific region. As a result, Salvadorans experience earthquakes on a regular basis. Every now and then there strong quakes that cause real damage. Some of the most notable are the January and February 2001 earthquakes that killed more than a thousand people and destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure. In most recent history, there were significant quakes in 1986, 1982, 1965, and 1951.

If quakes weren’t enough to worry about, El Salvador is entering the most dangerous time of year for flooding. The most serious flooding events in recent history have all occurred between the end of August and early November – the last half of hurricane season. It’s been raining pretty heavily lately and this morning there are reports from around the country of landslides blocking roads and causing problems.

Climate Change, Disasters, El Salvador Government, U.S. Relations

Climate Change Education in the Schools: El Salvador and the U.S.

The climate change debate has made its way into U.S. classrooms, as school boards and legislators try to force teachers to present “both sides of the issue.” In El Salvador, however, schools are taking a different approach. Government officials and educators have moved way beyond questioning the reality of climate change and are implementing a curriculum that teaches the science behind the resulting extreme weather patterns and how to mitigate the associated risks.

In January, a writer for the Wall Street Journal Law Blog posted about “a new battle brewing in America’s classrooms” – climate change. As U.S. schools have begun teaching climate change to their students, state legislatures and school boards have reacted by requiring teachers to also present the other side of the debate.

In Texas and Louisiana, state boards of education now require classrooms to teach climate change denial as a valid scientific position. In Tennessee, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Kentucky, state legislators have proposed bills that would require teachers to dedicate equal time teaching climate change and climate change skepticism.

In El Salvador, however, schools have adopted a climate change curriculum that goes beyond an academic discussion about whether or not it’s a reality. Salvadoran teachers, instead, are now tasked with the more serious task of preparing their students for future extreme weather events caused by climate change.

According to an article posted on Alertnet, the government now mandates that all public and private schools in El Salvador teach the science behind climate change as well as how students can deal with the increased risks caused the extreme weather.

In October 2011, Tropical Storm 12-E dumped 55 inches of rain on El Salvador in 10 days, causing the worst flooding in the country’s history. The storm and its aftermath were a wakeup call for many Salvadorans. Communities along the coast, especially those in the Lower Lempa region of Usulután and San Vicente, have experienced regular flooding for the past several years. Tropical Storm 12-E, however, was the first storm since Hurricane Mitch in 1998 that affected multiple regions throughout the country. In the days after the storm, government officials, including the Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources, attributed the storm to climate change and warned that because of it, these weather events are the new norm.

The Salvadoran schools system is responding by joining the effort to teach more than the science of climate change. Government officials are using the schools to teach environmental safety. According to the Alertnet article, “in math, biology, and physics, students will undertake exercises that estimate potential damage from climate-linked extreme weather, and explore how to counteract and reduce its effects.”

The article quotes a 12-year-old student who believes “the teaching approach will be well-received in the classroom, particularly as so many families in El Salvador have had first-hand struggles with the country’s recent extreme weather.”

Since Hurricane Mitch, government agencies and civil society have prepared communities to deal with extreme weather events. Since President Funes took office in June 2009, the government has strengthened the Civil Protection network, which they elevated to a government Ministry. Their success over the past few years are measurable. Hurricane Mitch, the previous high-water mark, claimed over 240 deaths. Tropical Storm 12-E produced more rain and more severe flooding, destroyed more crops, and affected many more communities, but the loss of life was limited to 34 people.

If predictions are accurate, El Salvador will see more storms like Tropical Storm 12-E, and efforts to prepare the population is a matter of life and death. In theory, there is still time to reverse or decrease the impacts of climate change over the long-term, but that would require principal polluters such as the U.S. and China to reduce their emissions of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Its hard to imagine how the U.S. will ever cut emissions voluntarily, considering that the teachers can’t even talk about climate change without interference from politicians.

Arts, Disasters

Calle 13 en El Salvador for Flood Relief!

Calle 13 is performing in San Salvador on Saturday to benefit those impacted by the  October flooding. Tickets went on sale this week – the price was a donation of rice, beans or other grains that will be distributed to flood victims.

The grammy-award winning group, which is comprised of René Pérez Joglar (aka Residente), his stepbrother Eduardo José Cabra Martínez (aka Visitante), and their sister lleana (aka PG-13), is from San Juan, Puerto Rico but has become well-known throughout Latin America for their social and political commentary.

Yesterday, people of all ages waited five and six hours in line carrying bags of grains for the chance to get tickets to Saturday’s show. Event organizers set up several ticket distribution sites around San Salvador, including Apopa, Mejicanos, Soyapango, in front of the FMLN’s office in San Salvador.

According to one news report, general admission tickets cost 2 pounds of beans, while five pounds of beans and five pounds of rice will buy VIP tickets.

The show will be at the Estadio Mágico González at 2:00 on Saturday, and event organizers expect a sold out crowd of 30,000 people – that’s a lot of rice and beans! The show is being hosted by the Mayor’s office of Soyapango in cooperation with the National Institute of Sports and the National Administration of Aquaducts and Drains (ANDA).

Here’s a recent Calle 13 video:

Climate Change, Disasters

Update from the Lower Lempa

A couple updates from the Lower Lempa this morning. Three weeks after floods devastated the region, communities have organized the first demonstration against the CEL (the corporation that manages the hydroelectric dam upstream from the communities). While the demonstration is going on, the CEL and Salvadoran Military have set up a health brigade in the community of La Canoa (Comunidad Octavio Ortiz). Information is still coming in, but here’s what we know so far.

Residents from Nuevo Amanecer, one of the communities most devastated in the October floods, have taken over the Highway 2 bridge that crosses the Lempa River just north of the communities in the Lower Lempa. The highway is one of the main roads through the southern region of the country and the bridge is the only way to get over the river without driving more than an hour north to the Pan American Highway.

Bridge over the Lempa River, currently held by residents of Nuevo Amanecer. This photo was taking during the October floods, when the river was flooding communities downriver.

People on the ground say the Nuevo Amanecer residents are protesting the CEL and their management of the dam before and during Tropical Storm 12-E, which dumped 55 inches of rain on El Salvador. Locals throughout the region, not just Nuevo Amanecer, believe that the CEL manager failed to release enough water in the early part of the storm forcing them to release at extremely high levels during the later part of the storm, resulting in the extreme flooding.

Communities in the region are traumatized and have held a few open meetings to discuss the best way to respond to the CEL and advocate for reconstruction. Today’s protest doesn’t appear to have been planned at any of these region-wide meetings, but surely other communities are supportive of their efforts. And surely this is only the first of such demonstrations.

While protesters block the bridge, the CEL is engaged in their own public relations activity in La Canoa (Comunidad Octavio Ortiz). Yesterday afternoon, residents of La Canoa were surprised to see military trucks and the CEL at their small medical clinic setting up tents for a health brigade. This morning, the CEL and military are offering free medical services and medicines to locals. Though a lot of people are sick and in need of medicines following the flood, only a handful of people have taken advantage of the services.

According to a local health promoter, the president of the community board in La Canoa approved the clinic, but most residents do not want to be a part of what they perceive to be public relations campaign.

There are a couple things that are a little odd about the health brigade. One is that the military is present. Military units were deployed to the region to help with evacuations, so they do have an interest in the region, but according to locals their presence seems more intended to intimidate would-be CEL protestors than to help flood victims. And, if the CEL and Military really wanted to help flood victims they should be in Nueva Esperanza, Nuevo Amanecer, Ciudad Romero, or Zamorano – all five miles up the road from La Canoa. Perhaps the CEL asked these communities to host the event and they declined?

We will provide more information on the medical clinic and protests later in the day.