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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.

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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.

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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.

Food Security

Food Security in the Lower Lempa

Last week, the United Nations World Food Program made the last of three food handouts to citizens of the Lower Lempa. Severe drought followed by flooding resulted in near 100% crop failure throughout the region last year, and families needed the donations to ensure their survival until the August 2008 harvest. The World Bank defines food security as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active and healthy life.” Last year’s crop loss and the need for food handouts highlight how far El Salvador is from achieving “food security.”

While it is easy to attribute the current food shortage in the Lower Lempa to last year’s sever weather, the region’s unstable position and the nation-wide food crisis are rooted in bad economic policy and the government’s failure to serve the interests of all Salvadorans.

Since before the civil war ended in 1992, the Salvadoran government and international community have weakened El Salvador’s food security by promoting a neo-liberal, open market system that prioritizes the industrial and service sectors over the agricultural sector. The new economic focus favors foreign investment that requires cheap labor, and permits food imports to replace domestic products. Between 1979 and 1981, which was a period of great civil unrest, El Salvador exported $552.6 million more in agricultural products than it imported. Between 1989 and 1991that number dropped to $92.6 million more in exports than imports. By 2004, however, El Salvador was importing in excess of $456 million more in agricultural products than it was exporting. While levels of agricultural exports grew between 1991 and 2004, El Salvador became more dependent on imports for their food consumption. Then President Alfredo Cristiani led the movement by lowering tariffs on imports, deregulating agricultural markets, and promoting foreign investment. At the same time that he was lowering tariffs on imports, President Cristiani also set up a agricultural import business.

Fifteen years into these reforms, agricultural production is limited to large corporate farms that produce coffee, shrimp, cereals, and sugarcane for export, and small sustenance farmers that grow enough beans, rice, and corn to sell at market and feed their family. Sustenance farmers, however, are paying 80% more to plant their crops than they did even four years ago – the result of higher prices for seeds and agrochemicals (an industry dominated by a company owned and run by ex-president Cristiani), and higher rates on the agricultural loans needed to purchase them. Many farmers that receive remittances from family members living and working in the United States have stopped planting, while others have moved to urban areas to work in the industrial or service sectors. Small farmers that still cultivate their land have to produce enough so they are able to pay off the loans they took to by seed and agrochemicals, while setting aside enough to feed their family. With exceedingly tight margins, a bad year can be devastating and jeopardize their very survival. So when the drought last year killed the first crop and floods drowned the second, families in the Lower Lempa had to turn to the World Food Program for assistance.

The decrease in domestic food production and the dependence on imports has weakened El Salvador’s food security. With almost no control over market prices, Salvadorans are now subject to the ups and downs of the international market, which has seen a lot more ups (in prices) than downs. The recent oil crisis, for example, has increased the cost to transport food imports to the Salvadoran marketplace, causing drastic increases of food prices, even those produced domestically. The high oil prices have also increased the demand for bio-fuel, resulting in increased market prices for corn, a staple in all Salvadoran diets, and the main ingredient in the national food (the famed Pupusa).

While El Salvador is wise to expand other sectors of their economy, they ought not do so at the expense of their agricultural markets and food security. Government agencies ought to take affirmative steps to strengthen food security by raising tariffs on cheap imports, subsidizing small farmers and giving them greater access to regional and national markets, lowering or suspending taxes on domestic food products, encouraging more sustainable forms of agriculture, and taking other such measures. While some solutions may be counter to the global movement towards open markets and free trade, El Salvador has to achieve a certain level of economic and social stability before it can participate in or realize the advantages of a global market.

Instead of considering some of these options or directly addressing food security, the central government has proposed a new Ley de Arrendamiento de Tierras (The Law on Renting Land). While proponents of the law claim it will increase domestic food production, many Salvadorans see it as another attempt by El Salvador’s wealthy to take their land from the poor. Their fears are well founded. Ever since land reforms of the 1980s limited the amount of land an individual could own to 245 hectors (605.4 acres), wealthy land owners have tried to retain or get back their land, while the poor have struggled hold on to the land they have.

If passed, the new law will require individuals and cooperatives to “rent” fallow or under-cultivated land to corporations or individuals so they may cultivate it. The tenants will pay the owners of the land a monthly rent or a percentage of the sale price of the crops. If the tenant makes improvements to or investments in the land, the owner of the property must compensate the tenant at the end of the lease agreement. For example, if a tenant plants lime trees and installs an irrigation system to produce export quality limes, at the end of the lease agreement the owner will have to compensate the tenant for the value of the trees and irrigation systems. If they are unable to do so, the tenant will have the right to continue farming the land indefinitely. While domestic food production is important, it is unlikely that tenants would plant the beans, corn, rice, and produce necessary to increase food security. They are more likely to plant crops for export, which will have a higher return, and require capital investments that the owners will be unlikely to compensate them for. 

Communities, organizations, and farmers in the Lower Lempa, however, are not waiting around for the Salvadoran government to alter its failed economic policies. Instead, they are organizing to promote food security within their micro-region, through communal gardens, alternative forms of agriculture, crop diversity, and improved infrastructure. In addition, they are initiating advocacy initiatives to influence policy-making at the regional and national regions.

In Community Otavio Ortiz (C.O.O.), for example, community leaders are organizing 50 families to each plant a plot of tomatoes, green peppers, cucumbers, radishes, and eggplant. With proven success in several pilot gardens around the community, this year C.O.O. is likely to meet their entire demand for vegetables and produce from their own local gardens. In doing so they are limiting the costs of production by eliminating all middlemen, transportation costs, and taxes, and significantly improving their level of food security. And though Salvadoran farmers generally do not plant in the dry season, C.O.O. will rotate four irrigation systems between dozens of plots of land, allowing farmers to continue growing corn and vegetables throughout the year and save crops they might otherwise loose during periods of drought. In addition, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. donated an 8-ton truck to the community so they are able to transport excess products to markets outside there region, freeing them from the high costs of outside transportation.

United Communities, a local grass roots organization, is helping C.O.O and other communities in the Lower Lempa, address the flooding issue that contributed to last year’s crop failure. They are organizing community members to clean and expand the drainage system (with the help of bulldozers and excavators) that will channel floodwaters into the Bay of Jiquilisco. In addition, they are experimenting with more flood resistant varieties of crops such as rice and sesame seed. United Communities also promotes organic and alternative agriculture to break the dependence on agricultural loans and expensive agrochemicals, as well as improve the health of the farmers and their environment. With assistance from Horizons of Friendship, Voices on the Border, and others, United Communities recently began offering women in the Lower Lempa low-interest loans to purchase cattle, one of the main agricultural products in the region.

Communities and organizations in the Lower Lempa are also joining together to fight the Ley de Arrendamiento de Tierras and to prevent large corporations from taking over their land. La Coordinadora del Bajo Lempa, United Communities, representatives from directivas and other local governments, Procaris, and many others have formed the Land and Agricultural Defense movement. The group came together after the government’s recent exclusion of communities in the Lower Lempa from a program that distributed agricultural packages (fertilizers and seed) to small farmers. As with many other government programs, the aid was distributed to benefit the ARENA party’s electoral interests. Communities further east in San Augustin have also joined the movement after surveyors with armed guards appeared and began taking notes on specific plots of land. The group will also address other land use issues that threaten their agricultural community, including corporate and transnational tourism agendas, the promotion of genetically modified seeds, and the need for a national policy to support local agriculture.

So while hundreds of families picked up their supplies from the World Food Program trucks in a somewhat festive atmosphere, community leaders and organizations throughout the Lower Lempa are working hard to eliminate the need for such aide. They are augmenting and diversifying local food production, addressing infrastructural needs, organizing and informing farming families, advocating for the rights of campesinos in their communities and all of El Salvador, and other important measures. In addressing their own food security needs, they are creating a model for other regions in the country.