Anti mining activists poised to organize at least ten more consultations in the Chalatenango region by the end of 2015.
September 21st, marked another historic day for San Jose Las Flores, a sleepy town nestled among the hills of the department of Chalatenango, as it voted to protect its natural resources against the effects of the metal mining industry and to become the first territory free of mining of El Salvador.
On September 22nd, a delegation led by Mayor José Felipe Tobar announced at a press conference in San Salvador that 67% of those community members listed in the official National Electoral Registry cast their vote; of those, 99 percent voted to ban mining in their territory.
The municipality followed little known, and never tested, provisions under articles 115, 116 and 117 of the Municipal Code of El Salvador which outline the process for community consultations to be legally binding.
Under these regulations, municipalities are obliged to hold a poll on issues of local concern provided that “40% of eligible voters in the municipality request in writing that a popular consultation is called”
Speaking to the press, Mr. Tobar explained that members of the community presented a letter requesting a consultation on mining on August 28th. “As our tradition is to respect the will of the community, the municipal council acted promptly to set up an electoral process in motion to determine whether mining projects can be established in our territory,” he continued.
A history of struggle
The communities of San Jose Las Flores are not newcomers to the anti-mining struggle, in 2005 workers of Canadian owned, mineral exploration company Au Martinique began to set up exploration sites in the municipality with a license issued by the Ministry of Economy of El Salvador.
But social opposition from the communities surrounding San Jose Las Flores quickly grew and intensified between 2006 and 2007, despite of the company’s offers of employment and community social projects.
“When we refused to accept the mining project in our community they threatened with military repression," reminisces Lisandro Monje, a retired community organizer who spoke about the battle his community waged against Au Martinique.
“I can tell you that we almost started an insurrection. We placed barricades on the streets and did not let their trucks bring equipment to the exploration sites, and when they threatened to bring the army, we answered that we had experienced twelve years of war and we were not afraid.”
The presence of Au Martinique led local governments affected by the project to join with community, social and environmental organizations, the Catholic Church and other institutions to seek information about impacts of mining in the region.
“We visited sites such as the Syria Valley in Honduras and others in Guatemala to learn about the negative impacts of mining” explains Tobias Orellana, a current member of the community council who was active in the resistance against the mine.
"We found that mining is one of the most contaminating industries that exists, it had destroyed rivers, it had created conditions unfit for human living and we met people full of skin sores who told us about their suffering. All that information helped us raise awareness among our population to stop the mine.”
To make it even more difficult to for the company to enter their territory, religious members of the mostly Catholic community built, in 2006, a 900 pound effigy of the Virgin Mary and carried it in pilgrimage through more than five Kilometres of steep mountainous paths to build a temple at the Urbina Hills, located right at the centre of Au Martinique's exploration concession.
"Every 14th of September we organize pilgrimages to this shrine which honours the lives of those massacred in this hills during the civil war and symbolises our resistance to mining companies," said Mr. Arellana at the end of a pilgrimage organized by the community this past September 14th. "For the right to this land, we have paid with our blood and the blood of hundreds of our relatives that were massacred here, and we will defend this land with our blood, if necessary, from mining companies" he continued.
Au Martinique was not able to set up its operations in Chalatenango but an exploration license remains active within the ministry of economy. Local community development organizations that have operate in the area since the 80s, such as CRIPDES, CORDES and CCR, have since remained active members of the National Round Table Against Metallic Mining - La Mesa, a national coalition that has permanently advocated for a national prohibition on mining.
National government's inaction
But nine years after Au Martinique's project in San Jose Las Flores made national and international headlines and six years after the national government introduced a suspension on administrative processes related to mining, communities remain uncertain as proposed legislation to ensure the permanent prohibition of mining remains shelved at the Environment and Climate Change Commission of the legislative assembly.
“We are concerned that the national government and the legislative assembly have failed to take effective measures the ensure the long term health of our communities and the sustainability of our environment, that is why we are starting to work with local governments to help them exercise their constitutional mandate to enhance democratic decision making mechanisms on issues of local concern” explained Marcos Galvez president of CRIPDES and member of La Mesa.
San Jose las Flores will not be the only municipality to hold a consultation on mining, according to Galvez, at least ten municipalities in the department of Chalatenango are been targeted to hold similar consultations. “We are working with community and social organizations in the region that are poised to lead local campaigns between now and 2015” he stated.
“I want to encourage other municipal governments the ban mining in their territories,” stated Mayor Felipe Tobar in his closing statement, “and also encourage members of the legislative assembly to approve legislation to ban mining to ensure the long term sustainability of our environment.”
National and international recognition
La Mesa was not the only organization present during the process of consultation led by San Jose Las Flores, over 60 observers from national and international civil society organizations, and a high level commission of the office of the Ombudsman for the Defence Human Rights in El Salvador, PDDH, actively monitored the vote and endorsed the results of the elections.
Human Rights Ombudsman David Morales hailed the process as a ground breaking event for the continued development of democracy in El Salvador and recommended in a press release, dated Sept. 22nd, that “national government authorities recognize the will of the inhabitants of San Jose Las Flores when making decisions related to mining.”
An international observer delegation composed of 16 representatives from six different countries also endorsed the results of the vote and praised, in a written statement, the efforts by the local community council and other community leaders whose “contributions are reflected in the success of this highly-democratic process.”