Anna Backmann and Christian Wimberger: CIR

People taking part in the delegation from the United States, Canada, France, and Germany together with workers of the organization ADES.

 El Salvador, November 2nd to 10th, 2015

As we step into Bernardo Belloso’s office in San Salvador on November 3rd, the numbers on a whiteboard catch our attention: 99%, 98%, and 99,25%. They are the results of referenda against mining held in El Salvador. Three municipalities have already voted NO – and almost unanimously so. Therefore the expectations for the referendum in Arcatao are high from the beginning. “Of course this time we want to reach 100%”, president of CRIPDES Bernando Belloso says, as if it were obvious.

 CRIPDES has been a partner organization of CIR (Christian Initiative Romero) for a long time, and since the beginning of the 1980s it has worked hard for the rights of the rural population. “In the end we have put a lot of work in the sensitization of the population and the preparation of the referendum”, Bernardo says. CRIPDES has been carrying out referenda since September 2014, in order to put an early stop to potential mining projects in the region, and to convince the Members of the Legislative Assembly of the necessity of an anti-mining law.

The unanimity with which the people in the little farming towns in the mountains of the Department of Chalatenango resist the destructive gold mining has impressed us since the beginning of our international campaign “Stop Mad Mining”. We wanted to learn which motivations lay behind the resistance. Therefore we decided to take part in the international delegation of observers of the referendum to be held in the town of 2000 people, Arcatao. Together with the American NGO Sister Cities, CRIPDES organized the trip in which volunteers from Canada, the United States, France, Denmark, Italy, and Germany were involved. Invited by CIR, journalists Oliver Ristau and Charlotte Grieser, as well as documentary-maker Lisa Backmann, accompanied us.

Cyanide-containers and polluted water in San Sebastian

Before we get to meet the people of Arcatao, Pedro Cabezas and Alfredo Carias from CRIPDES take us for a tour across the small Central American country – as a preparation for the referendum on November 8th. We gain an impression of the consequences of past mining projects and on the current resistance.

November 5th – We travel with our delegation to an abandoned gold mine, 200 km to the East of San Salvador. In the mine of San Sebastian, in the Department of La Union, the US company Commerce Group mined gold until the outbreak of the armed conflict at the beginning of the 1980s and again through the 90s. We go up a steep gravel road with our minibus. Along the road there are little houses between the corn fields. A small but torrential river flows parallel to the street. On the banks women wash, and kids bath. Behind a bridge we get off the bus and meet Gustavo Blanco, a community leader. He demands from the state and the company remediation of damages caused by mining. “They extracted tons of gold from the ground, but the only things that were left for us were poverty and environmental destruction”, the farmer complains under the midday heat. We learn that both the river and the soil are contaminated by heavy metals, and we are therefore shocked when we are told that during the rainy seasons kids bath in the river. Six cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome have already occurred; this disease strongly attacks the nervous and immune systems. “The company has not provided the supply of clean water to the population. Instead, we have to buy the expensive water that comes in bottles”, the 58-year-old says, who used to be employed by the company. We go even higher up the mountain, until we reach a plateau where the operations of the mine used to be located. Behind a cordoned area we see two big containers.

We squeeze through holes in the fence and we enter the site. Gustavo is convinced that the big containers still store the highly-toxic cyanide solution that was used in industrial processes to extract the gold from the rocks. Up until now, no one from the municipality has dared to open the containers.

Neither the state nor the company seem to feel responsible for the waste disposal. The Mesa Nacional Frente la Minería Metálica (National Roundtable Against Metallic Mining), the anti-mining movement in El Salvador, always refers to San Sebastian to show which damages mining projects can leave behind, even after decades from their closing. Companies leave, as soon as the profits have been exhausted, and they do not worry about their toxic leftovers.

OceanaGold in Cabañas: terror and charity

At the moment there are no active mining projects in El Salvador. And most communities do not expect that under the left FMLN-government a mining concession will be awarded. But what if the right, economic liberal ARENA party comes to power again? Over many communities hangs a sword of Damocles. As in La Maraña, in the Department of Cabanas. For years the Australian company OceanaGold, previously Pacific Rim with headquarters in Canada, has exerted pressure on the people of the community. And on the government. OceanaGold tries by all means to obtain a license to mine. After the company failed to comply with environmental regulations, the government refused to grant a final exploitation license. As a result, in 2009 the firm sued El Salvador before the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes of the World Bank for 301 million dollars on damages and compensation for lost profits. Even though the final hearings took place last year, the tribunal still has not issued a verdict.

The local population is even more under OceanaGold’s pressure than the central government. We get an impression of this when we visit La Maraña, on November 6th. This is the place where the successor of Pacific Rim wants to mine. We meet with the representatives of the environmental movement on a covered terrace that has a view to a reservoir of the Lempa River. Activist Don Alejandro explains to us the strategy the company follows: “It is a Modus Operandi of the firm to go to the communities in which people do not know their rights. They take advantage of the ignorance of the population”.

Pacific Rim, or rather OceanaGold, has bought public officials and politicians, Alejandro tells us. In those places where resistance emerged, terror was the answer. “They killed three of our activists”. One of these is Marcelo Rivera, murdered in 2009. At the organization ADES we meet Miguel Rivera for an interview; he is the brother of the victim. Marcelo had stood up against mining projects in many different ways, through education projects and theatrical performances. His brother assures us that the perpetrators have been apprehended, but not the masterminds behind the murder: “The mining firms operate here, as in the rest of Latin America, like regular secret services. They are the theater directors, controlling their actors”.

Many in the anti-mining movement suspect Rodrigo Chávez, the ex-vice-president of Pacific Rim, to be behind the murders. Chávez is known in El Salvador as “the Ripper”. In September 2014 he personally killed a municipal employee, and then he dismembered his body. For the social movements, the fact that at the end of November the convicted murderer was released from custody is “a terrible sign of immunity from criminal prosecution”. In March 2015 Chávez was initially condemned to eleven years of imprisonment, after the charge and the sentence had been reduced. The early release of Rodrigo Chávez, only one year later, makes the already absurd case of the mining-related murders even more outrageous. 

After these accounts of terror we naturally expect the whole population to oppose the company. But we become convinced of the opposite. In Cabañas we regret to notice that the firm has managed to divide the population. OceanaGold has created the El Dorado foundation, through which it supposedly behaves as a benefactor and it buys the population with pseudo-CSR-measures. So the foundation distributes free “gifts” to the community, such as free doctor’s visits. Afterwards it forces families to pose for photographs with the foundation’s workers. But organizations like ADES do a good job in awareness raising efforts. Vidalina Morales from ADES has been coordinating for years the resistance in the region. Even young people participate in the movement, like Beatriz from La Maraña. She informs the population about the real intentions and interests of the company.

Referendum in Arcatao: 100% missed by a whisker!

In the neighbouring Department of Chalatenango the situation is completely different. There the population is almost unanimously against mining. This has been shown in an impressive way in the three previous referenda. In the region, local resistance in the form guerrilla-movements was very strong during the armed conflict of the 1980s. The population paid for their fight against the military dictatorship with many lives. In the Sumpul massacre alone, which happened near the village of Arcatao, the military and the paramilitary killed over 500 farmers. The political legacy of the resistance can be seen on murals all over the village. Even archbishop Oscar Romero, assassinated in 1980, appears is still present in the typical paintings, as elsewhere in El Salvador. The collective memory of the persecution of social movements, which represented a threat to “national security”, plays an important role for the anti-mining resistance.

“During the Civil War, people were closed off from any opportunity of political participation”, Rodolfo Rivera López explains to us. “Now the tool of the referendum has become a habit to resist mining”. Rodolfo shows us the wonderful landscape of Chalatenango. After a 30-minute-hike,  we have climbed the Patacón mountain, and we enjoy the view.

Here, the company Au Martinique wants to mine gold and other metals such as uranium. The government had given an exploration permit to the Canadian mining company, which today goes under the name of Aura Silver Resources, without consulting the population first.  “Life here would become very difficult, if mining projects were to happen”, Rodolfo says. Many families here live self-sufficiently off agriculture, some sell part of their production. Even some of the families who house delegation participants produce almost everything they need to sustain themselves: corn for the tortillas, beans for soup and millet for the animals. Maximiliana, one of the village inhabitants, cooks with her daughters even their own soap: they produce it from a fruit that her husband cultivates in the field. People are proud of their self-sufficient lives and they do not want to sell off their land to the company, no matter the price offer. They are glad to see us take part in the referendum process, and host us with pleasure in their homes.

The referendum day, November 8th, begins for us vote observers at five in the morning. After meticulous preparations of the young voting-helpers, the first village inhabitants can cast their vote in one of the nine different polling stations. And all this happens under the sizzling sunshine. Some voters, especially elders, need help to read the ballot paper. After the mass, people crowd in front of the ballot-boxes. During the sermon, the village priest has encouraged the citizens to vote NO. When the mass is over, he builds a human chain together with the village inhabitants. They stand on wall that was decorated by young artists with a mural against mining. In this very moment we took one of the most beautiful photos of our trip.

Back in front of the town hall we spot José Serrano even from far away, proudly holding his ballot paper in the air from behind the ballot box, as to clearly show the crossed NO on the paper. “I have held up my vote to show the world the community’s effort to keep transnational companies away”, he says afterwards. In the midday press conference, besides members of the Mesa Nacional Frente la Minería Metálica, El Salvador’s Ombudsman for Human Rights Yanira Cortez Estévez takes the floor too. In her opinion, the government has violated the right of the citizens, when it granted an exploration permit to the mining company Au Martinique without consulting the population first.

After the vote, still a long way to go

Soon after the closure of the polling stations, given the impressive outcome and a referendum without incidents, the mayor can declare his community a “Mining-Free Territory”: 99,6% of the voters said NO! However for CRIPDES the work is not over, even if the consultation is. “The local council now needs to adopt a bylaw against mining. Therefore we have to hold the commitment of the population straight”, Bernardo from CRIPDES says. The organization wants to carry out other referenda in the next years, in order to accomplish a coherent mining-free region. The fact that the company will not accept the population’s rejection so easily is made clear by a visit by the former US-president Bill Clinton to San Salvador, on the same day. He was accompanied for his lobby meeting by Frank Giustra, a Canadian mining tycoon who in the past has been linked to questionable mining deals in Colombia and Kazakhstan.