agriculture, Climate Change, Corruption, Disasters, Economy, El Salvador Government, Environment, Food Security, International Relations, Mining, Partnership for Growth, Public Health, transparency, Uncategorized, violence, Voices Developments

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.

Advocacy, annual report, education, Environment, Food Security, News Highlights, Voices Developments, Womens issues, Youth Development

Celebrating 30 years of Solidarity with the People of El Salvador – 2016 Annual Report

2016 was a dynamic year for Voices. We said goodbye to old friends and opened the door to new ones. We began an extensive education revitalization project in Bajo Lempa, started supporting women’s empowerment in Morazán and even joined in on environmental justice protests in the capital San Salvador.

This year is even more special because we turn 30! Since our inception in the refugee camps until now, we have never deserted our communities and are committed to being a critical source of support for them now, and in the future.

informeannual_17_1_jpgprintjpg

Read our report to find out what our partners have been up to, the large scales issues they are facing and how Voices has been working hard in collaboration with leaders to find solutions to issues and pathways to accomplishing goals.

Economy, Environment, Uncategorized

A New Agriculture is Possible, Without Toxic Agrochemicals or Monoculture

 The Joining Hands Network in El Salvador and Voices on the Border

Print

With great concern, we see that the large-scale production of sugarcane is seriously affecting the public health, access to water, the soil, biodiversity, and food security in the regions where it is grown. Contamination from agrochemicals is the main concern for those that live next to sugarcane fields. Toxic pesticides and fertilizers contaminate water and soil in the surrounding area, as well as the local fields and communities. Sugarcane growers apply fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides using crop-dusters, backpack sprayers, and spreaders pulled by tractors.

The heavy use of agrochemicals in sugarcane has profound impacts on the health of communities. Public health experts attribute the extremely high rates of chronic renal failure in coastal communities to the use of agrochemicals. The Ministry of Health conducted an investigation and found an epidemiological connection between the affected populations and farming practices that include high quantities of agrochemicals used in production. In a document published last August, the Ministry states “exposure to pesticides is the real trigger of the health tragedy that is affecting Salvadoran farming communities.”

THEREFORE, WE DEMAND:

  • The Legislative Assembly must immediately approve the pending Decree 473 that prohibits the importation and use of 11 toxic agrochemicals. Likewise, we insist that the Legislative Assembly ratify article 69 of the Constitution to establish access to water and food as a basic human right. We also demand the approval of the Law on Food Sovereignty.
  • The President of the Republic should sign Decree 473 and make every effort to accelerate the procedures for effectively prohibiting the toxic agrochemicals.
  • The Ministry of the Environment must dedicate more resources to protecting natural resources and stopping the serious impacts generated by the sugarcane industry. We demand a stop to the expansion of sugarcane fields and that the government do everything necessary to prohibit the harmful practices such as the application of toxic agrochemicals, heavy tilling of land, and the burning of sugarcane fields before harvest.
  • The Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock must review subsidy policies, and discourage the delivery of agricultural packages that contain hybrid seeds and synthetic fertilizers, and in place they should promote agro-ecology.
  • The Ministry of Health must launch a campaign to inform people and famers about the health impacts of agrochemicals; primarily related to chronic renal failure that infects the populations in agricultural regions.

WE RECOGNIZE the efforts of the Ombudsman for Human Rights to emphasize the serious impacts of agrochemicals in violation of human rights, and his tireless efforts to pressure get all state institutions to give this issue the attention it deserves.

San Salvador, September 20, 2016

 

rumes-jpeg                                           logo

Español:

La Red Uniendo Manos de El Salvador y Voces en la Frontera

Vemos con mucha preocupación que el cultivo de la caña de azúcar a gran escala está afectando gravemente, la salud pública, el acceso al agua, el suelo, la biodiversidad, la economía local y la seguridad alimentaria de las regiones donde se cultiva. La contaminación por agroquímicos es la preocupación principal de quienes viven cerca de los cañales. Los pesticidas tóxicos y los fertilizantes contaminan el agua de la región aledaña y los suelos, así como los campos y las comunidades locales. Los productores de la caña aplican fertilizantes, fungicidas, herbicidas y pesticidas utilizando aviones fumigadores, bombas rociadoras de mochila y pulverizadores halados por tractores.

Este uso intensivo de agroquímicos en la caña de azúcar tiene impactos profundos en la salud de las comunidades. Las tasas extremadamente altas de insuficiencia renal se atribuyen al uso de productos agroquímicos que contaminan la región costera. En los últimos años, cientos de personas a lo largo de la costa salvadoreña han muerto por insuficiencia renal. El Ministerio de Salud ha investigado y demostrado una relación epidemiológica entre las poblaciones afectadas y las prácticas agrícolas dominantes que incluyen el uso de altas cantidades de agroquímicos. Dicha institución, en un documento publicado el pasado mes de agosto, asegura que “la exposición a pesticidas constituye el verdadero elemento detonante de la tragedia sanitaria que está afectando a las comunidades agrícolas salvadoreñas.”

POR TANTO EXIGIMOS:

  • A la Asamblea Legislativa que de forma inmediata proceda a aprobar el decreto 473 para que de una vez por todas se prohíba la importación y uso de los 11 agroquímicos tóxicos aún pendientes. Así mismo le instamos a ratificar el artículo 69 de la Constitución que establece el agua y la alimentación como un derecho humano. Le demandamos también aprobar la Ley de Soberanía Alimentaria.
  • Al Presidente de la República que sancione el decreto 473, una vez aprobado por la Asamblea Legislativa, así mismo que ponga todo su empeño en acelerar los procedimientos para hacer efectiva la prohibición de los agroquímicos tóxicos.
  • Al Ministerio de Medio Ambiente ser más enérgico en la protección de los recursos naturales frente a los graves impactos que genera la producción de caña de azúcar. Le demandamos frenar la expansión de este cultivo y realizar todos los esfuerzos necesarios para prohibir prácticas nocivas como la aplicación de agro tóxicos, la labranza intensiva del suelo y la quema de los cañales antes de la cosecha.
  • Al Ministerio de Agricultura y Ganadería que revise la política de subsidios, y desalentar la entrega de paquetes agrícolas de semillas hibridas y fertilizantes sintéticos, y que en su lugar estimule la producción agroecológica.
  • Al Ministerio de Salud impulsar una campaña informativa sobre los impactos de los agro químicos en la salud, principalmente en lo relacionado con la insuficiencia renal crónica que padecen las poblaciones de las zonas agrícolas.

RECONOCEMOS

Los esfuerzos que hace la Procuraduría Para la Defensa de Los Derechos Humanos, con el propósito de enfatizar los graves impactos de los agroquímicos en la violación de derechos humanos, así como su incansable trabajo para que las diferentes instituciones del Estado asuman este tema con la preocupación y la urgencia que amerita.

San Salvador, 20 de septiembre de 2016

UNA NUEVA AGRICULTURA ES POSIBLE, SIN AGROTOXICOS NI MONOCULTIVOS

rumes-jpeg                               logo

Environment

Another Molasses Spill in El Salvador

El Salvador has had another molasses spill. This time as much as 2.5 million gallons has poured into the Cañas River. The spill occurred at the Salvadoran Distillery located at km 15.5 on the Troncal del Norte highway in Apopa, north of San Salvador. In the past, the Cabaña and Jiboa Sugarcane Mills leased the facility to make alcohol, though it is unclear if either facility was involved in this incident.

A representative of the Sugarcane Association reported the spill to authorities yesterday morning (Wednesday, June 1) at 11:30, claiming it had occurred just a couple hours earlier. Residents, however, report that there was a strange smell in the air and molasses in the river as early as Sunday. Mauricio Quinteros, the Director of Operations for the Sugarcane Association, told the Ministry of the Environment (MARN) that the molasses had been in the facility about a month and that the cause of the spill remains unknown.

The storage facility at the Distillery is close to the Cañas River. When the molasses leaked it ran straight into the river. Footage of the spill shows steaming hot molasses pouring out of an old, single story industrial building, and running towards the Cañas, while photos on the MARN website show the thick, black molasses actually entering the river.

One report from the  MARN says that even though the Apopa spill is larger, the damage is not as serious as the La Magdelena spill in May because the Cañas River is already so polluted that nothing can live in it – it’s a dead river. The Magdalena River was clean in comparison.

The Apopa spill comes less than a month after the Magdalena Mill in Santa Ana spilled more than 900,000 gallons of molasses into the Magdalena River. Following that spill, the El Salvador’s Environmental Court ordered the Ministry of the environment to inspect all the mills to determine what measures they have in place to prevent future disasters.

The Apopa facility, however, was unregistered and did not have an environmental permit, so the Ministry of the Environment did not know it was being used for storing molasses. The Minister of the Environment Lina Pohl said, “this is an illegal storage facility. We in the Ministry did not have any idea that it existed. This distillery is not open and has not been in operation since 2006. None of the of the mills (Jiboa and Las Cabaña) that leased the place have applied for a permit to use the facility to store molasses.”

So far there is little information about who is responsible for the spill or whether they will be held responsible for the disaster. Minister Pohl said that the MARN’s job is to collect information and evidence, and that it is the Attorney General’s responsibility to file charges when crimes are committed.

Last week Voices on the Border released a report on large-scale sugarcane production in El Salvador. The report details the affects that tilling, application of agrochemicals, burning of fields, and use of ground water for irrigation has on the environment and nearby communities. Though the report does not discuss contamination of rivers and communities with molasses, it is proving to be a serious issue as well – one the MARN and other law enforcement agencies should be regulating more carefully. Unfortunately, government agencies seem to lack the will or authority necessary to protect El Salvador’s remaining natural resources. People and corporations have every reason to keep polluting, knowing that at least for now they enjoy almost complete impunity.

The communities that depend on the Magdalena River report that life is back to normal for them – less than a month after the spill. They say the water is crystal clean and they are able to use it again for washing clothes, bathing, and other domestic purposes. The Magdalena Sugar mill says it spent $200,000 in labor to clean up the mess, and that they will soon repopulate the river with fish and plant trees in the areas affected by the spill. The Attorney General’s Office reported in May that they have opened an investigation to determine whether the Magdalena Mill will face criminal charges. We’ll see…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

During these molasses spills, the Minister of the Environment and other government officials have been quick to voice their outrage, giving dramatic interviews in front of rivers of steaming molasses. These spills are outrageous and their response is justified, but it seems somewhat disingenuous in a country where 90% of rivers and lakes are polluted, and spills like this are a fact of life.Factories, municipalities, and others regularly dump untreated industrial waste and sewage into rivers without attracting the kind of attention these spills are getting.

And other aspects of large-scale sugarcane production are arguably worse than the occasional molasses spill. Burning sugarcane fields, which is a violation of the Salvadoran Penal Code (large-scale sugarcane production should not fall into the strictly cultural exception), should also generate outrage because it destroys land and makes people sick. Using crop dusters to spray deadly agrochemicals on sugarcane should also generate outrage because most of it drifts and settles on nearby homes, schools, soccer fields, and farms, also making people sick. Destructive tilling practices used in sugarcane production are also outrageous and arguably a violation of the Law on the Environment. The unregulated use of El Salvador’s remaining groundwater to irrigate sugarcane fields during the dry season is also worthy of outrage, especially because parts of El Salvador are experiencing a water crisis – a situation that will only get worse.

The Magdalena and Apopa molasses spills are just another outrageous aspect of a destructive industry and the government’s inability or unwillingness to enforce its environmental laws. Maybe these spills and the attention they are getting will force people and government officials to start doing something… or maybe the attention will go away after a couple news cycles.

agriculture, Environment, Uncategorized

Large-Scale Sugarcane Production in El Salvador

TRH_6107
A field of sugarcane burning just before harvest

Residents of rural communities throughout El Salvador are concerned that large-scale sugarcane cultivation threatens their environment, public health, access to water, local economy, and food sovereignty. El Salvador has laws and procedures in place that should regulate sugarcane production, but government officials at the national and local levels have been unable or unwilling to enforce them. Salvadoran sugarcane production has grown in recent years due to the country’s embrace of neoliberal economic policies that emphasize, in part, free trade and unregulated markets. Unfortunately, the profits and wealth generated by the industry do not trickle down to the communities where it is grown.

Sugarcane Report Image Eng

Last year, Voices on the Border staff accompanied residents of the Bajo Lempa of Jiquilisco, Usulután as they stopped investors from planting sugarcane near local mangrove forests, wetlands, and community centers. Despite their success, the ad hoc protests failed to produce any long-term changes. During the process, however, residents, community leaders, and local civil society organizations articulated a need for more information about sugarcane production and how it affects the region.

Sugarcane Report image spa

Voices on the Border staff responded by researching the issue of sugarcane cultivation and producing this report (click on the images to see the report in English and Spanish). We did so with several audiences in mind. The first was our partner communities in the Bajo Lempa that suffer the effects of burning fields, contamination of agrochemicals, loss of biodiversity, and other impacts of large-scale sugarcane production. A second audience is the government officials that have the power to regulate the industry, to ensure they know how sugarcane is affecting the regions like the Bajo Lempa. A third audience is members of the international community who are concerned with issues related to El Salvador, climate change, food sovereignty, environmental justice, and other topics.

Over the next several months, Voices on the Border will organize events in the Bajo Lempa to disseminate our findings and hopefully start a larger conversation about the impacts of sugarcane and large-scale agriculture. We will support the region in any advocacy campaign the organize, and will post regular updates to this blog.

 

Environment, Uncategorized

Los Joveles Pig Farm and the Contamination of Rio Titihuapa

According to a group of concerned citizens and civil society organizations, the Joveles pig farm outside of Ilobasco, Cabañas is contaminating the Titihuapa River with urine, feces, blood and other waste. For nine years they have asked the Ministry of the Environment, municipal governments, the Police, and Attorney General to intervene, but the only thing officials have managed to do is to test the water and confirm that it is polluted.

The Titihuapa is a beautiful tributary of the Lempa River, cutting west to east through the middle of El Salvador, serving for a stretch as the border between Cabañas and San Vicente. In places, the river has carved out large canyons that are full of dense tropical undergrowth, caves, and petroglyphs from indigenous peoples that inhabited the region for thousands of years. According to Rhina Navarrete from ASIC (Friends of San Isidro), “the Titihuapa River is part of our identity and culture.”

Mario Guevara, a coordinator for the Movement of Victims Affected by Climate Change says, “many communities in rural areas depend on rivers [like the Titihuapa] for gathering water and to engage in activities such as fishing, as part of their economic subsistence. In addition, the rivers are ecosystems that permit abundant life and reproduction of a number of wildlife species.” He says, “it is inconceivable that businesses would dump their contaminated waste in the rivers with total impunity. Its not just the importance of the environment, but the life of the people.” Ms. Navarrete from ASIC also emphasizes that the Titihuapa is “the source of life for many families that fish and bring nourishment to their homes.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Waste from the Joveles farm affects more than more than 25,000 people in rural communities on both sides of the river (in Cabañas and San Vicente), and there is little question that the Titihuapa is contaminated with pig and chicken waste. Studies by the government and civil society organizations have shown as much. As early as 2008, the Ministry of Health and Pan American Health Organization identified Los Joveles as a major risk to the region’s water and environment because their waste treatment system is insufficient. Only representatives from the Joveles pig farm claim that nothing is wrong.

Los Joveles is located in Canton Santa Lucia on the main road between Ilobasco and San Isidro, just up the hill from the Titihuapa River. It is a large facility with more than 60,000 pigs and poultry, and several lagoons (see the photos above) that are supposed to hold the farm’s waste. According to locals, these ponds frequently spill over sending its contents straight into the Titihuapa.

Residents of Santa Lucia and other communities near the Titihuapa report that it smells of waste and its color has turned a putrid yellow-orange. There is a school nearby that is overrun with flies when the wind blows the wrong way. People first noticed there was a problem with the river in 2007 after rain washed waste from the lagoons into the river.

Pig farms are known to have significant environmental and public health impacts on their host communities. A literature review by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production concluded that “ammonia emissions from hog farms pose a serious public threat,” and that “air emissions from lagoons, sprayfields, and hog houses have been linked to neurological and respiratory problems.” The study also reports that communities have to be concerned about hydrogen sulfide emissions, and that “hog waste that is ending up in the river contains disease-causing pathogens and increases antibiotic resistance.”

ADES, ASIC, Mufras-32, CESTA, and other environmental groups have worked with residents Cabañas and San Vicente to report the issue to the Ministry of the Environment and other government agencies, but they have had little response. The Ministry of the Environment came and studied the river in 2015 and confirmed that the river is contaminated with waste, which is decreasing the amount of oxygen in the water and killing off fish and other species. After completing the study, the Ministry and other government agencies and officials held an assembly to discuss some of the findings and how they would follow up. One frustrated assembly participant responded that, “the officials make a lot of promises, but they do nothing at all.”

The communities and organizations challenging the Joveles pig farm are seasoned activists that stood up to Pacific Rim Mining Company and closed down the El Dorado mining project in San Isidro. Prior to that, these same activists stopped a group of powerful mayors from opening a garbage dump near the Titijuapa River. And just as Pacific Rim had its supporters in Cabañas, so does Joveles. The pig farm is popular with many in the region because it provides jobs, and some people are willing to sacrifice the river and their own well-being for the hope of more jobs.

But many others agree with Ms. Navarrete and Mr. Guevara, that the river provides life and should be protected. These activists did not back down when their fellow activists were killed taking on Pacific Rim, and it is unlikely they will back down now.

Civil society organizations cannot do it all, however. The Ministry of the Environment and other government agencies have to do their jobs, which means going beyond water tests, writing reports, and holding community assemblies. It means holding those who pollute El Salvador’s water supplies accountable.

Sadly, that seems unlikely anytime in the near future. The government’s shortcomings have been on full display in the past two weeks since the Magdalena Sugar Mill spilled 900,000 gallons of molasses into the Magdalena River in Santa Ana. There is no question that the Mill is responsible for the spill, and that the damage caused to the river and nearby communities is extensive, but all the Ministry of the Environment can do is order the mill to issue a public apology and design a cleanup plan.

The Titihuapa and Magdalena Rivers are just two examples of a big part of El Salvador’s water crisis – 90% of surface waters are polluted because government agencies like the Ministry of the Environment, Ministry of Agriculture, and others will not or cannot stop or punish polluters.That gets us back to Mr. Guevara’s point that pollution makes it difficult for rural families. This week, Léo Heller, the UN Special Rapporteur for Water reported data obtained from ANDA that at least 618,000 Salvadorans in rural communities do not have access to potable water. He recommended expanding the current state of emergency for San Salvador due to a great water shortage to rural areas as well.

While that would be a positive step, any real solution has to include government agencies doing their job in protecting the country’s natural resources, like the Titihuapa River. Until they do, Salvadorans will continue to live in crisis.

Environment, Uncategorized

MARN Weak in Wake of Molasses Spill

DSC_0723Last week the Magdalena Sugar Mill in Santa Ana spilled 900,00 gallons of hot molasses into the Magdalena River, causing an environmental disaster. The spill is a reminder of how impotent the Ministry of the Environment is in protecting El Salvador’s natural resources.

In August 2015, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Ministry of the Environment cannot to impose fines against persons or corporations that violate environmental laws. The Environmental Court can find someone guilty of polluting, engaging in harmful activities without an environmental permit, or any other violation, but they cannot impose a fine.

The problem is Article 89 of the Environmental Law. When the Environmental Court finds someone guilty of violating the law, Article 89 says the Ministry should impose fines based on the daily salary for urban workers in San Salvador. Day fines are a common tool in Latin American countries for measuring appropriate penalties. If a person or business cuts down a forest without permission, or spills molasses into a river, the court can (in theory) fine them the equivalent of 2-100 or 101-5,000 days salary depending on the severity of the crime. The dollar amount of the day salary is based on the minimum wage for urban workers in San Salvador. Unfortunately, the minimum wage decree does not have a category for urban workers in San Salvador, therefore the Constitutional Court said the Ministry cannot levee any fines.

Following the molasses spill, the Environmental court ordered the Magdalena Mill to issue a public apology by taking an ad out in El Salvador’s two largest newspapers. They also have to come up with a cleanup plan. But the Ministry cannot impose a fine or otherwise punish the Mill. Their only real loss is the revenue that selling 900,000 gallons of molasses would have brought in had they not spilled it. At $150/ton, that would be a $789,500 loss. That is definitely a hit to the Mill, but it is not punitive nor does it compensate locals or the State for the damage to an important common resource and the clean up. El Salvador is in water crisis and damage to a river like the Magdalena is more serious than ever, especially to the 450 families that depend on it for their survival.

In December 2015 and again this week Environmental Minister Lina Pohl asked the Legislative Assembly to fix Article 89 so the Ministry can levee fines. It seems like this would be an easy one – they just need to change a couple words so that fines are based on an actual minimum wage or some other measure.

Unfortunately, the Legislative Assembly has a bad record on doing the right thing when it comes to the environment, food, and water. The current arrangement is ideal for powerful business interests – there is an environmental law but no real consequences for ignoring it. They can skip environmental permitting processes and pollute with impunity. These businesses have a lot of influence over the Legislature and are likely to oppose any effort to change Article 89, just as they have opposed the General Law on Water proposed in 2005 and efforts to amend the Constitution to recognize food sovereignty and access to water as basic human rights.

Residents of the Bajo Lempa region of Usulután have seen the Ministry’s impotence in action (or inaction). In trying to stop sugarcane growers from planting crops near mangrove forests, community leaders asked Ministry officials to stop the project, arguing that the project did not have an environmental permit. The Ministry told the communities that they could only ask the growers to go through the permitting process but could not do anything to stop them.

The Ministry of the Environment is good at writing reports and declaring states of emergency, but their mandate is so much more than that. The Ministry is tasked with ensuring that Salvadorans enjoy their Constitutional right to a clean, healthy environment. The reports and states of emergency detail just how badly the Ministry has failed over the years.

This has to change if El Salvador is going to address the water crisis and other pending disasters. The Legislature must reform Article 89 to give the Ministry some teeth, but then the Ministry has to use those teeth to go after poluuters. Similarly, the Legislature has to pass the General Water Law as drafted by civil society organizations in 2005, and finally recognize that all Salvadorans have the right to food sovereignty and access to water.