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…

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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.

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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.

Economy, Environment

Environmental, Cultural, and Economic Costs of Sugarcane Cultivation too High for Amando Lopez Community

Residents of Amando Lopez, a Canton of Jiquilisco, Usulután, and local civil society organizations, want to stop large-scale cultivation of sugarcane in their community. On one level, theirs is an environmental struggle. On another, it’s a struggle against globalization and the imposition of neoliberal economic policies of private investment and consumerism.

A 2013 report published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture projected that “higher yielding sugarcane varieties, diversification of the industry into the production of energy and alcohol/ethanol, investment in milling equipment to improve sugar yields, and additional access to the U.S. market due to CAFTA-DR will all benefit El Salvador’s sugar industry over the next 3 to 5 years.” What investors want and need is more land.

In the final months of 2014, more than 10% of the population of Amando Lopez fled the community, many overnight, to escape death threats from violent gangs. They left behind their possessions, homes, businesses, and farmland. Some relocated to other regions of El Salvador. Others fled north to the United States and were detained on the border (a topic for another post). When they left, sugarcane producers wasted no time acquiring abandoned farmland. Families that would have never considered leasing land to sugarcane farmers were all of a sudden unable to say no because they needed the income to rebuild their lives.

Those who fled did so because they were in serious danger. Political scientists identify a nexus between globalization and the violence Amando Lopez and other communities are experiencing (good reads here and here). They argue that economically impoverished communities exposed to market forces and consumerism are unable to participate in the globalized economy in a meaningful, healthy, or satisfying way. This produces strong feelings of inequality, and a breakdown in family structures and social networks that allow for gangs and violence. Residents of Amando Lopez have largely protected themselves from market forces and consumerism, but last year gangs from other regions moved in and recruited local youth with phones, clothing, shoes, and money. As the threats and violence commenced, the community became even more vulnerable to globalized interests seeking land for sugarcane production.

Sugarcane is not new to Amando Lopez; farmers have grown small, organic crops for years to feed livestock and make sugar for local consumption. While these small crops are ok, the community is opposed to large-scale production that negatively affect their environment and public health, and further expose them to market forces. Their main concern is the use of toxic agrochemicals – insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers, and ripeners. When sprayed these agrochemicals drift to nearby farms, forests, water resources, homes, and schools. Post-application they leach into the soil and water.

For example, the community is concerned about is Glyphosate (Monsanto’s Round Up), which is used as an herbicide and a ripener (ensures that a crop is ripe and ready to harvest all at once). In March, the World Health Organization released a report concluding that Glyphosate is a “likely carcinogenic” and associated with spontaneous abortions, birth defects, skin defects, respiratory illness, and neurological disease. Russia, Mexico, and the Netherlands have banned the use of Glyphosate, and last month 30,000 doctors and health professionals in Argentina demanded that their government also ban it. Colombia recently prohibited the use of Glyphosate in national parks, citing environmental impacts.

In addition to the use of agrochemicals, residents oppose the practice of burning fields before harvesting a crop – growers do so to remove foliage, making cane easier and less expensive to cut, load, and transport. Burning, however, sends chemical-laden smoke and ash throughout the region, contaminating soil, farmland, water, and communities, causing high rates of respiratory illness.

Residents of Amando Lopez are also concerned that once one sugarcane producer starts growing and contaminates neighboring farmland, other farmers will be forced to lease their land just to survive. Others might be tempted by short-term financial gains. Once exposure to these market forces and investors begins, it will disrupt the entire economic and social structure that community leaders have tried to preserve.

Amando Lopez is not the first community in the Bajo Lempa to be faced with large-scale sugarcane production. Jose “Mario” Santos Guevara, the President of ACUDESBAL, a local organization recently said, “Sugarcane cultivation is growing at an exponential rate in the Bajo Lempa. It is being planted all the way up to the yards of houses, and the damage caused is serious. We have to put an end to these abuses. We are poor people, but we have dignity and we are not going to permit these types of violations of our right to live in a healthy environment.”

Last October/November the community of La Tirana, a small coastal community to the south of Amando Lopez, stood up to an investor who wanted to plant several hundred acres of sugarcane in a field adjacent to fragile mangrove forests. La Tirana residents, accompanied by civil society organizations, were successful, at least for the short term, and continue working to prevent future efforts to plant sugarcane.

La Tirana, Amando Lopez and civil society organizations are trying to get the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN, in Spanish) and the municipal government to intervene. Lic. Lina Pohl, Minster of the Environment, acknowledges that the law prohibits actions that harm mangroves. She also said that MARN will approve a plan that, in part, will reduce the use of agrochemicals and burning sugarcane in and around those protected regions. That is positive for La Tirana, but offers little protection for Amando Lopez.

Min. Pohl recognizes that there are lands subject to change of use, indicating that they would be appropriate for sugarcane production. She also indicated that MARN would have to approve changes, perhaps meaning that new sugarcane crops would be subject to environmental permitting. The law requires a permit for new agricultural projects, but MARN has never enforced it. Sugarcane growers in Amando Lopez have already begun plowing and clearing trees, and are likely to plant later this month when the rainy season begins in earnest. But there is no indication that the grower has applied for or received an environmental permit, or that MARN officials will require them to do so.

La Tirana and civil society organizations have also been pressuring the municipal government of Jiquilisco to stop destructive large-scale sugarcane production. The municipal council is considering a new ordinance that would regulate the use of agrochemicals and prohibit new sugarcane projects. The ordinance has not passed yet, and would do little to stop the new project in Amando Lopez.

Residents of Amando Lopez have worked hard for many years to protect their environment and natural resources in order to provide their youth a healthy place to grow up. Even though the community has been struggling and lost 10% of its population, they are not going to stand by and allow private investors to contaminate their land and water, and make their children sick with agrochemicals, just so they can make money. And they are not going to allow globalization and market forces to deconstruct the campesino culture and local economy.

agriculture, Environment, Tourism

Sugarcane Production Threatens Mangrove Forests in La Tirana

For the past few years, residents of the small, coastal community of La Tirana have spoken out against plans to develop large-scale tourism in and around the region’s mangrove forests. Tourism remains a serious threat, especially with the recent signing of the Millennium Challenge Corporation grant, but as of last week the most immediate concern is sugarcane.

Residents learned a couple weeks ago that don Angel Velasquez, a wealthy landowner on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula, is leasing 400 manzanas (989 acres) in La Tirana to a sugarcane producer, who has been out preparing the land for planting. A contact in the neighboring town of San Juan del Gozo confirmed that don Angel, as he is known, is leasing the land out for 15 years.

The estuary, somewhere between La Tirana and Monte Cristo
Estuary, somewhere between La Tirana and Monte Cristo

The 400 manzanas they want to plant is adjacent to one of El Salvador’s most pristine mangrove forests. Locals who live in and take care of the forest say it would be impossible to grow sugarcane in the region without destroying the fragile ecosystem. The estuary that flows through the forest comes very close the fields where they want to plant. Any agrochemicals applied to the area would certainly leach into the estuary and quickly contaminate large sections of the forests. One of the biggest threats would be Glyphosate, or Roundup, which growers spray on sugarcane to ensure that all the plants are ripe or ready to harvest at the same time. Roundup is a very effective herbicide (the sugarcane is genetically modified to be “Roundup Ready”) and would kill the plants and animals exposed.

The land don Angel is leasing should be zoned a buffer zone due to its proximity to the mangrove forests. That means that it should be illegal to use the land in a way that would harm the mangroves, which are a protected natural area. For many years don Angel has used the land for grazing a few head of cattle, but mostly it has lain fallow. Before civil war broke out in 1980 the stretch of land was used for growing cotton. But the environmental laws and regulations passed since the end of the war should protect the region. Recognizing the destructive practices associated with sugarcane production, Lina Pohl, the Minister of the Environment said during a July visit to the neighboring Bajo Lempa region of Jiquilisco, that she would not permit any new growing operations.

(In the Satellite image above, the fields visible along the coast are those planned for sugarcane production, all the way up to the mangrove forests, which are the dark green sections)

On Wednesday of this week community leaders from La Tirana and Monte Cristo, another community in the mangrove forests, met to discuss the sugarcane issue. The discussion focused not on whether they should oppose the plan – the consensus was that sugarcane production would be catastrophic – but how to stop it.

Recalling Environmental Minister Pohl’s statement during a July meeting that the Ministry would not allow for expansion of sugarcane production, leaders from Monte Cristo and La Tirana decided to write a letter asking her to intervene. Voices’ Field Director was at the meeting on Wednesday and on the spot he helped them type up a letter, which they printed and signed. Actually, it was a little more complicated than that. Our field director just happened to have a laptop and small printer with him. Typing the letter was easy but the community is not connected to the power grid, so they had to go to the one house in the community with electricity, which is generated by a small solar panel.

Residents of La Tirana and Monte Cristo are also organizing a watchdog group that will monitor Mr. Velasquez’s property. At the first sign that sugarcane growers are arriving with their tractors and machinery to plow, the communities will block the only road in and out of the region. They are also planning a to ensure everyone in the region knows they will do anything necessary to protect the mangrove forests.

While La Tirana, Monte Cristo, and Voices were the only communities and organizations at the meeting, community leaders will also tap into a much larger network for support. In May, fourteen communities along the peninsula created the Association of Mangrove Communities in Defense of Land (ACOMADET) to ensure proper management of their forests and defend against threats such as tourism, sugarcane, and other development activities. ACOMADET also has the backing of civil society organizations like CESTA, ACUDESBAL, ADIBAL, Voices on the Border, and others. So they have support in taking on this issue.

One other action proposed on Wednesday was that local leaders should go talk to don Angel about how destructive his leasing the land to sugarcane growers would be. Meeting participants pointed out that in addition to contaminating the mangroves in and around La Tirana and Monte Cristo, it would affect a lagoon in San Juan del Gozo, of which he owns a large section. The idea of talking to don Angel was dismissed, however. Residents believe that El Salvador’s wealthy landowners are only interested in money, and that they don’t care about the environment or the impact of their actions on other people. They decided that negotiating with him would be fruitless.

One meeting participant pointed out that pressure to grow sugarcane in El Salvador is one of the many negative products of the 2005 Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Under the agreement, the United States has increased the amount of sugarcane it will buy from El Salvador making it one of the only ways to make money in agriculture. Small Salvadoran farmers cannot compete with large US farms that produce large quantities of beans, rice, corn and other products, but they can make money selling or leasing their land to sugarcane growers.

After the meeting on Wednesday, Voices field director took the letter signed by community members and will hand deliver it to the Minister of the Environment this morning. Community leaders hope she meant what she said in July about no new sugarcane operations. But they also know that money has a way of trumping regulations and that La Tirana, Monte Cristo, ACOMADET, and others will find other ways to protect the mangroves.

Tourism

El Chile: Land Rights, Environmental Conservation, and Tourism on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula

TESAK propertyTension over tourism development  in the Bay of Jiquilisco, specifically in the Bajo Lempa and San Juan del Gozo Peninsula, is rising. Over the past few months Voices on the Border has partnered with communities in the region to identify threats related to tourism and document how development plans are starting to affect specific communities.

In December 2013 we finished a report called Tourism Plans for the Jiquilisco Bay, which outlines the general plans to promote tourism in the region and their potential impacts on El Salvador. This week we finished a report on El Chile, a small community that is fighting to keep their land and protect their local environment. Here are links to both articles in Spanish and English:

Tourism Report Cover spaTourism Report Cover eng

 

 

 

 

El Chile Cover spaEl Chile Cover EngDuring  numerous conversations and meetings about development plans, residents of the Bajo Lempa and San Juan del Gozo Peninsula made it clear that they oppose the kind of large-scale tourism outlined in the 2016 and 2020 National Tourism Plans. They fear that golf courses, hotels, resorts, condominiums, marinas and wharfs, shopping centers, and other development will destroy local mangrove forests, beaches, and farmland. Residents also fear that thousands of people will be displaced as the demand for real estate grows. On a more macro level, environmentalists argue that an influx of 20 million tourists from the U.S. and Europe, a goal identified in the 2020 National Tourism Plan, will completely drain El Salvador’s already scarce water supply.

Communities insist that they are not anti-tourism. They just oppose the large-scale projects that are currently planned. In La Tirana, Voices on the Border staff is accompanying the community board as they plan their own tourism initiative that will consist of a few small huts in the center of town, a community-run restaurant, and a few canoes for giving tours through the forests. Community members appreciate the beauty and importance of the mangrove forests in their community and they want to be able to share it with others, but in an appropriate manner.

La Tirana 11 At the moment developers and investors seem to be waiting on the release of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) funds to move forward on their projects. Last year the MCC approved a second compact with the Salvadoran government worth $277 million. The U.S. Congress and State Department are holding the funds until the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly reforms the Public-Private Partnership Law (P3 Law) passed last May. U.S. officials say the reforms are necessary to ensure investors have access to all Salvadoran assets and resources, including water, education, and health. The U.S. also doesn’t want the Legislative Assembly to have a role in approving or overseeing public-private partnership contracts. In the days after being certified as the winner of the March 9th presidential elections, President-elect Sanchez Cerén (FMLN) said that when he is sworn in on June 1, his administration would work to make sure the MCC funds are released.

The MCC funds are not specifically earmarked for tourism. They will be available to encourage private investment along El Salvador’s coast. The majority of projects proposed so far are related to tourism in the Jiquilisco Bay and other coastal areas.

Even though the MCC funds are stalled, speculators have continued to acquire land for tourism projects. The most recent acquisitions occurred earlier this year in El Chile. Residents of the community have lived on and worked their land for more than 22 years, but their ongoing efforts to secure legal titles to their land have been unsuccessful. As a result, when Salvadoran investors came to acquire land along the community’s beach, they were powerless to stop them. And government agencies seem unwilling or unable to step in to help.

Developing mega-tourism projects in La Tirana, Montecristo, Las Mesas, San Juan del Gozo, Isla de Mendez, El Chile, El Retiro, Corral de Mulas, and many other communities in the Bajo Lempa and San Juan del Gozo Peninsula would be as disastrous as allowing Pacific Rim to mine gold and silver in Cabañas. The mangroves are El Salvador’s defense against climate change. The beaches are nesting ground for at least four species of sea turtle, including the Hawksbill, which is a critically endangered species. Golf courses and 20 million visitors would diminish El Salvador’s water supply very quickly.

Please take a few minutes and read our Overview on Tourism and the Report on El Chile (see links above), and stay tuned… local organizations and communities will be organizing ways for you to become involved in the struggle against mega-tourism in the Bajo Lempa and San Juan del Gozo Peninsula.

 

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.

Cabanas, Mining, U.S. Relations

Oxfam Petition on El Salvador and Mining

Word on the street is that the ICSID (International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes) tribunal hearing Pacific Rim Mining Company’s lawsuit against El Salvador will hand down a decision on the second round of preliminary objections before the end of the month. (Here is an article and a webpage with good information on the case).  Pacific Rim, a Canadian firm based out of Vancouver, filed suit against El Salvador over three years ago for not granting them the permits necessary to extract gold from their Cabañas properties. Between 2002 and 2008, Pacific Rim allegedly invested $77 million in exploring properties in Cabañas and other parts of El Salvador. When the government and people of El Salvador said the mining company could not mine, Pacific Rim sued to recover their investment, lost profits, and damages. If Pacific Rim wins, they could receive a judgment worth more than $100 million.

El Salvador responded to the lawsuit by filing two rounds of preliminary objections, asking the court to dismiss Pacific Rim’s claim on procedural grounds. The first round of objections was unsuccessful, and we should hear about the second round in the next week or so. If the Tribunal finds in favor of El Salvador, they could dismiss part or all of Pacific Rim’s case. If they find for Pacific Rim, the mining company’s suit lives to see another day.

Oxfam is currently organizing a petition asking U.S. citizens to demand that the U.S. end their support for Pacific Rim and their claim against El Salvador. The petition reads:

Act Now: Speak up for El Salvador’s Right to Decide

In El Salvador, communities are fighting for their right to decide how companies can use their lands. Many of them have made a decision: they don’t want the metal mining industry to continue to destroy the environment they live and farm in. And they’re paying the price – each day, community leaders and activists face threats of violence and death because they’re standing up to metal mining companies.

What’s making this fight even harder? Right now, Canadian mining company Pacific Rim is trying to force El Salvador to keep metal mines in business by suing El Salvador for $77 million under the US-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). This case could not only cost El Salvador a significant portion of its GDP, but it could prevent citizens from deciding which industries develop in their country.

A win for El Salvador in this case means that El Salvador could choose to stop metal mining – for good. The US government’s support for El Salvador over Pacific Rim in this case has been crucial. That’s where you come in. Will you help us make sure the US supports El Salvador in this case?

Tell Secretary of State Clinton: Support the people of El Salvador.

Please visit the Oxfam site and sign the petition!

The petition is important because some within the US State Department associate anti-mining with being anti-development. They argue that if El Salvador passes a law that bans mining, it means the country is hostile to foreign investment. In 2009, Former Chargé d’Affairs Robert Blau wrote a cable to the U.S. Secretary of State with the Subject line: “New Environment Ministry Moves to Ban Mining, Sends “Anti-Development” Signals.” A ban on mining is not anti-development, it is respecting the wishes of the people who would be most affected by its disastrous environmental impacts.

The cable is worth a read. We recognize that Robert Blau has a pretty extreme view of U.S. foreign policy and that his view may not represent everyone within the Embassy (Blau is no longer at the Salvadoran Embassy). His view, however, exemplifies how neoliberalism affects policies in countries like El Salvador. The same people who want to gut the EPA and remove the environmental regulations that protect air, soil, and water in the U.S., also want to remove any barriers that might prevent them from pillaging resources around the world. Any efforts to protect the environment and the communities where people live are called anti-development.

The petition is important because we have to make sure the State Department understands that Salvadoran communities said no to mining because they want to protect their very limited natural resources. They are not anti-development, rather they don’t want their vision of development trumped by an international corporation that is only interested in profit. The U.S. should not support Pacific Rim and other corporations, but ought to respect the wishes of the affected communities.

Oxfam’s petition is not the only anti-mining news to report. Yesterday the MESA (Roundtable Against Metallic Mining in El Salvador) released a statement expressing their frustrations with the Salvadoran government’s inaction on mining. , the government commissioned a Strategic Evaluation of the Mining Sector to determine whether mining was feasible in El Salvador. The report was supposed to inform the Legislative Assembly and government ministries on how to manage mining, and whether they ought to pass an all out ban on mining, which is what the MESA has been advocating.

The MESA is frustrated with the lack of transparency in completing the study and the release of its findings. They recently filed a request for information about the report under El Salvador’s relatively new Law on Access to Public Information. They also requested information about what mining companies have applied for or hold mining permits. Lina Pohl, the Vice-Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources recently said the only possible scenarios are the suspension of mining permits (so far for just exploration, no mining company currently has an exploitation permit), and not granting new ones. The MESA believes this to be insufficient and that the study fails to take on the most important issues concerning the impact that mining would have on the country. They call on the government to be more proactive in defending Salvadorans and banning mining altogether. The MESA has posted several interviews on Youtube detailing these issues. If you speak Spanish, they are worth watching.

Please sign the petition today!