Marina Bonneti

Successful referendum puts Municipality of Arcatao among the few official Mining-Free Territories in El Salvador

On Sunday, November 8th Arcatao became the fourth Municipality in the Department of Chalatenango to be declared a Mining-Free territory. A public referendum revealed that the large majority of the population rejects the idea of exploration and exploitation projects in its area.

Eight voting centres were set up in the different cantons of the Municipality of Arcatao, in order to make it easier for citizens living in remote locations to express their vote. 

José Avelar, mayor of Arcatao, was proud to announce that 1027 votes were cast, meaning that the turnout was around 67% of the active voting population. Out of these votes, only 3 were “yes” (thus in favor of mining activities), one was a null vote, and the remaining 1023 formed a strong “no” voice. Thus the final result showed that an overwhelming 99% of the population that expressed their opinion is opposed to mining.

The next step to be taken by the Municipal Council is the creation and implementation of a Municipal Ordinance that will ban mining from Arcatao.

The planning of the referendum was a joint effort of different social organizations, who worked intensely for months to guarantee the success of the process: CRIPDES, CORDES, and CCR were the main actors involved. U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities was in charge of coordinating the presence of a delegation of international observers, who had the task of overseeing the process and guaranteeing its transparency and fairness. Around fifteen observers arrived in Arcatao from the United States, Canada, and Europe. Their final judgment on the process was a very positive one: they were particularly struck by the active involvement of young citizens – the J.R.V. (polling stations staff) were mainly composed of young people – and by the diversity and engagement of the voters: there were elderly men and women casting their votes supported by bamboo canes and family members next to middle aged mothers and young people just old enough to vote.

This consultation was a great exercise of direct democracy, as many of the international observers also commented: they were impressed by the strong willingness of this community to get organized and act. The success of this referendum is even more remarkable if one thinks about the environment in which it developed: El Salvador is known to possess a very weak institutional framework, and referenda are usually quite rare.

The happenings in Arcatao were the last part of a pilot project – funded by Canadian Salvaide – that comprised a total of four consultations in the Department of Chalatenango. In order to assure the complete coverage of the whole region, other six referenda of the sort should be set up in neighboring municipalities. The hope is that, following the success of this project, other international organizations will decide to step in and help fund El Salvador in this important process of civil empowerment against mining activities that would have a terrible impact on the country.