By Andrés McKinley
On March 29th, 2017, the small country of El Salvador became the first nation in the world to exercise its sovereign right to say “no” to metallic mining after carefully analyzing the costs and benefits of this industry. This historic decision was the result of a persistent 12-year struggle (the length of the civil war in the 80s and early 90s) on the part of threatened communities accompanied by the Catholic Church, environmentalists, academic institutions, broad-based social movements and a variety of other actors.
Bills to prohibit metallic mining in El Salvador had been presented in 2006 and 2013, but had been largely ignored by legislators. In 2016, experts on water and mining from the Jesuit-run Central American University, José Simeón Cañas (UCA) teamed up with lawyers from the university´s Department of Juridical Sciences to develop a new proposal. The bill was presented to the Legislative Assembly on February 6 of 2017 by an alliance of the UCA, the Archdiocese of San Salvador and Caritas. On March 9th of that same year, Church and university authorities, accompanied by over 6000 priests, nuns and lay activists concerned with the devastating impact that mining would have on El Salvador´s scarce freshwater resources, took to the streets and marched to the to the Legislative Assembly in support of the bill; and policy decision-makers looked up and listened.
Archbishop Escobar Alas and Monsignor (now Cardinal) Rosa Chavez lead the march to the Legislative Assembly to demand approval of the UCA/Church-sponsored bill on prohibition of metallic mining (March 9, 2017).
The dimension of this victory can only be appreciated by recalling the enormous challenges facing anti-mining activists in the early years of the struggle. By 2002, right wing pro-business governments had approved 29 permits to explore for gold and silver in the strategic watershed of the Lempa River, El Salvador´s most important source of freshwater providing 50% of the country´s potable water, 50% of hydro electrical power and irrigation for agriculture in over half of the country. The government in power at the time prioritized foreign investment in its economic growth strategies and was on the threshold of opening the country, without reserve, to transnational mining corporations.
Rural communities threatened by metallic mining had little knowledge of the potential impact of this industry on El Salvador´s vulnerable environment, which has the highest levels of deforestation in Latin America (FAO); the lowest availability of freshwater per capita in Central America (CEPAL); over 90% of its surface waters contaminated by pesticides, untreated sewage and toxic industrial waste (Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources); and is on the verge of water stress (Global Water Partnership). Adding to these challenges, mining companies from Canada and the United States were campaigning aggressively to persuade public opinion, communities and legislators of the benefits of metallic mining with unfounded promises of employment, economic “boom” and new environmentally friendly technologies they referred to as “Green Mining”.
It took over a decade of organizing and educating at local and national levels; lobbying of government and legislators; informing public opinion through communication and media work; building of strategic alliances at the national and international levels and the persistent mobilization of affected communities to finally build a sufficient level of consensus and political will on the part of legislators to approve unanimously the prohibition of metallic mining in the country.
The mining industry has not given up on El Salvador, however. OceanaGold (formerly Pacific Rim), which lost its legal suit for $250 million against El Salvador in 2016, remains in the country through its El Dorado Foundation, hoping to win hearts and minds through philanthropic gestures. A new campaign in support of “Green Mining” is now circulating from an unidentified source in Facebook, and presidential hopeful of the powerful Arena party in the 2019 elections, Carlos Calleja, has received important backing from transnational mining interests. Finally, small-scale artisanal miners in the department of la Unión, given – as part of the mining ban – a two-year grace period to continue mining activities while searching for alternative economic options, are mobilizing in attempts to reform the current law to allow artisanal mining on a permanent basis.
The UCA and the Catholic Church continue to work with communities and broad-based coalitions in defense of the ban on mining, and water continues to be at the center of our struggle. A 2016 study by the Human Rights Ombudsperson´s Office in El Salvador concluded that the country has a life expectancy of approximately 80 years if it does not improve its management of water. Currently, the country lacks adequate legislation and the institutional structures to assure effective, equitable and sustainable access to this strategic resource. In August of 2017, the UCA and the Catholic Church presented to the Legislative Assembly a new proposal for water governance with citizen participation. The proposal is currently being debated in the Assembly´s Commission on Environment and Climate Change.
The victory against metallic mining in El Salvador has generated a more favorable atmosphere for advancing our policy agenda on water governance. It helped sensitize policy decision-makers and the citizenry as a whole on the importance of the environment, now perceived by most as a life or death issue for El Salvador. It raised the level of awareness of water as a public good and a basic human right, essential for all forms of life in an increasingly thirsty world. Finally, it empowered threatened communities, inspired hope and demonstrated that, even in highly polarized nations like El Salvador, people can come together and build consensus on strategic issues, such as the environment, when the common good is prioritized.
Andrés McKinley is a specialist on water and mining at the Jesuit-run Central American University, José Simeón Cañas (UCA), in San Salvador. He was born in the United States, but has lived in Central America for the past 40 years, working on issues of social justice, human rights and sustainable development.