Statement signals the posibility of achieving a mining prohibition during the tenure of incoming president Salvador Sanchez Ceren

by P. Cabezas

Incoming minister of the environment and natural resources Lina Pohl, announced at an international forum at the Central American University that her ministry will continue to support the mining moratorium that has taken place in El Salvador since 2008.   The announcement was made at a regional gathering of anti-mining activists in San Salvador organized by the Research Center on Investment and Commerce, a member organization of the National Roundtable against Metallic Mining, La Mesa.

During her speech Pohl acknowledged concerns often raised to oppose metal mining in El Salvador (population density, size of the territory and the precarious ecological balance of the country) to publicly state that she would honor a campaign promise made by president elect Salvador Sanchez Ceren to "maintain the current mining moratorium and to seek solutions to the environmental threats posed by over 48 mining projects located in the border with Honduras and Guatemala” during her term.

Pohl, who takes the reins of the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources - MARN, on June 1st, is the current Vice Minister of the Environment and is known for her previous work with the Heinrich Boll Foundation in El Salvador. During her tenure as Vice Minister she commissioned a national water quality study that found 98% of the surface water in El Salvador has some level of contamination and needs to be treated for human consumption. She also commissioned a water quality study of the San Sebastian River which found high levels of contamination with Cyanide, 11 times above the norm, and Iron 1000 times above the norm. These studies have been used by environmentalists to raise public awareness and added to the mounting body of scientific evidence suggesting that El Salvador could be heading towards a water crisis in the near future.

When asked about the current policy of the Ministry of the Environment which focuses only on the suspension of administrative processes related to mining, she stated that after the release, in 2012, of the Strategic Environmental Evaluation of the mining sector commissioned by the Ministry of Economy, “the government made an strategic decision to opt for a suspension on administrative processes on mining to avoid potential law suits arising from an outright ban on mining.”

Given two active law suits in 2012 by Canadian company Pacific Rim and US based Commerce Group demanding hundreds of millions of dollars from El Salvador, “government authorities were concerned about generating conditions for further law suits stemming from the 29 exploration licenses active in El Salvador at the time” she continued.

She suggested, however, that the incoming administration of Sanchez Ceren may have better conditions to support and promote a mining prohibition in the near future provided a positive ruling on the law suit Pacific Rim mining has launched against El Salvador and the disposition of the legislative assembly to enact a prohibition.

This is not simple as the FMLN only counts with 31 seats at the legislative assembly and needs to negotiate with one of the right wing parties, ARENA or GANA to make up the 43 votes required to pass legislation. The closely contested results of the March 09 presidential elections, which the FMLN won by narrow margin of only 6500 votes, do not suggest the party’s fortunes will improve at the upcoming legislative elections in March 2015.

The National Roundtable against Mining, a diverse coalition of organizations that has led the movement to prohibit mining in El Salvador, has maintained a cool relationship with MARN since the development of Strategic Environmental Study on Mining in 2011.

Members of La Mesa argue that the results of the study provide enough evidence to justify a mining ban and that legislation proposed by the ministry, in July 2012, to suspend administrative processes is simply a cop out as it is neither a moratorium, nor a ban.

The proposed law suspending mining processes presented by the executive “can only be understood as an evasion of the responsibility by the central government to fulfill a campaign promise of not approving metallic mining projects during its administration” stated a press release of La Mesa in October 2012.

According to La Mesa, the moratorium proposal sponsored by the executive and presented by the ministry of Economy and MARN simply lays out the conditions for an eventual authorization of mining.

In October 2013, La Mesa presented its own special law to prohibit mining in El Salvador modelled after the government’s proposed legislation, but calling for a full prohibition of metal mining rather than a suspension of administrative processes.

Both pieces of legislation, and a third proposal presented by the National Conciliation Party in 2008 on behalf of Pacific Rim, remain shelved at the Environment and Climate Change commission of the Legislative assembly.