As gold mining corporations have lobbied to introduce a legal and logistical framework to set up industrial scale open pit mines through the northern region, they have found a highly organized opposition from communities, civil society and church organizations that have repeatedly raised concerns over the use of excessive amounts of water and environmental contamination and the public health impacts of mining, as well as the social division that these projects cause. These concerns have been reinforced by United Nations’ reports that name El Salvador as the most vulnerable country in terms of availability of potable water as well as the highest level of vulnerability to natural disasters.
In 2009, the Salvadoran government acceded to public pressure and stopped issuing mining exploration and exploitation permits pending an environmental impact assessment. As a result two mining corporations, one based in Wisconsin, US, and one based in British Columbia, Canada, are suing the government for over $200 million under the ICSID, an international trade tribunal housed by the World Bank. These law suits, allowed under “investor - state” clauses in the DR-CAFTA and El Salvador’s national investment laws, are not only a drain on the government’s limited resources, but also threaten the democratically elected government of El Salvador’s right to make policy decisions based on the public interest.
The presence of mining corporations in El Salvador has also led to localized conflicts and violations of human rights in communities where mining operations are located. Since 2009 four environmental activists who oppose mining have been murdered and death threats, intimidation and attacks continue to be a common occurrence among high profile community leaders who oppose mining.
The potential for cross border contamination is also brewing on the border with Honduras and Guatemala. New mining legislation in Honduras has opened the possibility for more than 40 mining projects to begin operating in the border region and 14 in Guatemala that have the potential for cross border contamination. Most notorious is Goldcorp’s Cerro Blanco gold mining project at the headwaters of El Salvador’s most important watershed on the Guatemala side of the border.
For the National Roundtable on Metallic Mining in El Salvador know as La Mesa, a diverse coalition of organized communities, NGOs, think tanks, and faith organizations opposing mining, the only way to protect El Salvador from the problems caused by metallic mining is to demand that the government of El Salvador legislate a permanent ban. So far, their success in halting mining operations and in building local and international alliances to support the right of Salvadorans to protect their natural resources has made La Mesa an inspiring force in the global resistance against the devastating impacts of resource extractive industries. However their struggle is far from over, as the fight to defend sovereignty and the right to self determination reaches a critical moment, more support and solidarity is required to achieve a successful outcome.