*Oliver Ristau: Frankfurter Rundschau / Translation: Marina Bonetti

“No to mining. Yes to life”: after the mass, the priest stands above an anti-mining mural together with church servants and believers, waving. 


El Salvador is worried about environmental damages, and therefore bans the mining of raw materials. A Canadian company files a lawsuit before an international court of arbitration in Washington due to lost profits

Water is not supposed to be orange, not even in El Salvador. But, in the town of San Sebastian, in the Eastern part of the small Central American country, it is. Gustavo Blanco uses a stick to stir the water up the stream that has dyed in red the originally gray pebbles. It splashes idyllically, and that is all of nature's romance. The stream flows from an old gold mine, where Blanco’s father once worked – uphill, a few meters beyond the stream grow dense rows of corn.

The mine has been idle since the company failed to provide an environmental remediation plan in 2006, but water and oxygen, still active within the empty tunnels, release metals such as Cadmium, Lead, Copper, and Iron from the rocks, and then leak them out into the river. Scientists call the red mine-sauce “acid drainage”. It contaminates the water in the rivers, and kills fish and other aquatic life. Studies conducted by the government of El Salvador have detected toxins and heavy metals in the soil around it. “Companies here have extracted gold for decades worth millions of dollars”, the 58-year-old man says. “The only things that they left for us are poverty and contamination”.

People here live in simple houses under roofs of corrugated iron. Paved roads are non-existing, and so are schools and hospitals. Instead, another time bomb is ticking above the mountain. A steep path covered in gravel and clay leads up to the plateau where the mine entrance used to be, and from where open tunnels still lead into the mountain. Artisanal miners have built shelters out of wooden posts, under shady aluminum roofs: with hammocks for the short breaks, between which they crawl into the furnace-hot passages – hoping to squeeze precious metals out of the mountain.

Also two large, yellow steel containers burn in the midday heat, half covered by plants. Blanco knocks on them with a finger. The dull sound that follows shows that they are not empty. He says that they contain cyanide. Allegedly, the US mining company simply abandoned the containers with the highly toxic chemicals when it fled the country head over heels in 2006.

The use of cyanide is part of an established industrial procedure to extract gold from ore. Whether it is actually stored in the containers, no one really knows. “We have often asked authorities in the capital [San Salvador] to carry out a waste disposal – without success.”

“We fear that one day the container will start leaking and cyanide will spill into the environment”, Blanco says. Just like it happened a few weeks ago in a goldmine in northwestern Argentina, where the dam of a tailing pond belonging to Barrick Gold Corporation burst, releasing a poisonous wave of one million liters of cyanide into the environment.

 Anti-mine activists often tortured and killed

“In principle, we are not against mining gold, if it brought us any sustainable prosperity”, the municipal representative says. However, people in San Sebastian are against large scale gold mining because they know that the greed for gold in El Salvador has had even worse consequences than red, contaminated water. In the Department of Cabañas, about 120 kilometers to the West, it has brought violent death.

El Salvador is not bigger than the German State of Hesse. However, under the mountains of the Central American Cordillera, ranging from Mexico to Panama, lay large amounts of natural resources, which have been targeted by international mining companies. Since 2008, however, there has been no more digging in the country. The reason: the government in San Salvador has announced a moratorium, based on environmental concerns, which freezes all mining activities.

This is a thorny issue for the industry that still holds a foot in El Salvador and waits for a key case before an international court of arbitration, based at the World Bank in Washington, to be decided in its favor. It is a case led by Canadian-Australian mining group OceanaGold. It sued the government of El Salvador for 320 million euros, for compensation and damages. The legal framework and jurisdiction of this arbitral tribunal is provided by free trade agreements, like the ones that are currently being negotiated in Europe. The sum demanded amounts to half the yearly health budget of the country in which a third of the population lives below the poverty line – for a mine for which the company has never obtained an exploitation permit, and yet has managed to take away people’s lives.

Like in San Isidro in 2009: “We had imagined something different for our Municipality, we wanted to implement green tourism”, Miguel Angel Rivera said. The strong man with collapsed shoulders talks about the cruelest days in the life of his family. His brother Marcelo “was one of the most known faces of the protest movement against the mine”. One day, six years ago, the teacher did not return home from school. Miguel Angel and a group of friends launched a search operation. For twelve days they scoured fields and forests, waded across streams, turning stones over. With eyes that stare in the distance and a toneless voice, Rivera continues to speak – creating a distance, in order to bear re-telling the experience. “In a water well we found the corpse that had been tortured, the fingernails had been ripped out by force. I wondered how I would explain that to our mother”.

Marcelo Rivera was not the only local anti-mining activist who was murdered in Cabañas between 2009 and 2013. Four more were murdered, all of who had protested against the planned mining project of Oceana Gold – at that time the company was still called Pacific Rim. In the early 2000s it had begun to discover the gold deposit. Everything was peaceful, until the government dismissed an Environmental Impact Evaluation presented by the company due to blatant defects, and then after feeling social pressure, it finally adopted the moratorium.

The company has always denied any involvement in the attacks and murders, blaming criminal gangs; however, it has never shown any sympathy with the victims. The murder of his brother was never prosecuted, neither legally nor investigated by the police. There was also “no reaction by the firm”, Rivera says. Showing compassion would have been the least the corporation could have done. But instead, Pacific Rim seems only to be interested in the lawsuit and the compensation for damages. In 2013 the company was taken over by its competitor OceanaGold, who has continued with the law suit since then. The tragic murders do not concern Ericka Colindres, representative of the firm. While she remains silent about the killings, she notes in a written statement regarding the lawsuit: “The process initiated by Pacific Rim is an independent and internationally respected mechanism to address the issue (of compensation for damages, editor’s note)”.

In the capital San Salvador, this view is not shared. “The fact that a trade oriented arbitration tribunal decides on a case in which human rights violations play a role is unacceptable”, lawyer David Morales says. He studies his documents, the blue-white-blue national flag hanging behind him. Morales is the head of the national office for the defense of human rights. “In the end, they became deadly conflicts after the company failed to receive the permit to mine precious metals”. Even if the authorship is not clear, the arbitration tribunal can not easily limit the case purely to economic matters. 

More than a callow protest

It is about a lot of money. Company representative Colindres speaks of about 1.3 million ounces of gold – for a market value of more than a billion dollars. And OceanaGold continues to advertise the project. Disguised behind different names, the company advertises in social networks, organizes parties and – according to national opponents to mining - donating gifts like “here a bag of rice, there the pay for the doctor’s visit”.

Company representative Colindres promises that in case of the approval of gold exploitation, they will “establish the highest standards in environmental management”. However, the Vice Minister of Environment in the capital San Salvador shakes his head. “A healthy environment is an important pillar on which future generations can base a livelihood”, Dr. Angel Ibarra says. “This strategy of a good living collides with the idea of mining”. At his desk, overflowing with books, the former honorary professor of Environmental Risk at the Universities of Barcelona and Girona explains his vision of a modern state, which follows a sustainable development path. From outside, the sound of birds singing pours into the room. Then he breaks out of silence: “It is a scandal, when private companies sabotage the politics of a democratically elected government”.

He therefore welcomes it when Salvadorans take a stand against gold mining and foreign tribunals. Just as in Arcatao, in the northern Department of Chalatenango, by the border with Honduras. In the 2000 people town, the protest against mining is palpable. Slogans and murals decorate the walls. “No to mining, Yes to life”, says one of the slogans on the white wall just outside the Catholic Church. Another drawing shows a picture of Death stretching its arm to touch unspoiled nature, accompanied by the request: “Get out of El Salvador, mining companies”.

But this is not just a callow protest. In Arcatao a vote was held, an official referendum to know whether people agree with “projects for the development and mining of metal raw materials” in their territory – as stated on the ballot.

On the day of the vote, there is intense activity in the small town. Old men with machetes under their arms, young women with small children – starting from very early in the morning, they line up in front of the city hall, by the registration stands and the tables with the ballot boxes. Election officials explain the voting process to those who cannot read and write. Even the Catholic Church takes a stand: after the mass, the priest stands on top of the wall with an anti-mining mural together with church servants and believers, waving. From another wall in the church square, a drawing of Oscar Romero looks at the scenery; he was the former Archbishop of San Salvador, who had spoken out against the oppression of the poor and was murdered in 1980.

It is about the mountain that towers up behind the small town and on which the blue sky bends. No gold has been mined there yet. “But the companies are just waiting for it”, Nicolas Rivera says. He grew up in a farm at the feet of one of these hills that the corporations would like to tear down. It takes a 10-minute bumpy ride on a pick-up truck to reach the elevation. The final climb is only by foot. The view wanders on green mountains in the distance into neighboring Honduras. It teems with dragonflies and butterflies. The hill is called Cerro Patacon, named after a bloodsucking insect. “We do not want new bloodsuckers to come here and plunder this landscape”. People here live of farming beans and corn, cattle ranching and clean water. “The mine would destroy the basis of our life”. And most of all, it would push young people into migrating.

Rivera’s opinion is shared by almost all those who cast a vote. 99% say no – this is documented by a team of international observers, among which is also Anna Backmann, a German delegate from the NGO Christian Initiative Romero. “In Europe we rarely have in mind what the consequences of the exploitation of resources for the local people are”. She is impressed by “how unanimous the rejection is”. Already on the same evening, the mayor announces a legislative initiative to ban gold mining in Arcatao. Though it is doubtful whether this expression of democratic will is going make an impression on the arbitration tribunal in Washington or not. The last hearing was held in September 2014, a decision can be expected any day. Surely the outcome will be closely tracked not only in El Salvador, but also in Europe. 

* This article was translated and republished from its original publication in the Frankfurter: