Oliver Ristau*: Deutsche Welle / Translation: Marina Bonetti

El Salvador wants to protect its environment and therefore bans mining. The population supports the plan, on the other hand, a Canadian company files a lawsuit before an arbitration tribunal. From El Salvador, Oliver Ristau.

A vote could hardly be any clearer. 99% of the voters in Arcatao, a Municipality in northern El Salvador, said No. There cannot be a gold mine in their region. This is the 4th referendum within the last few months to take place in the smallest Central American country, through which its people have expressed their opposition to gold mining projects.


The resistance in the small town is tangible. Banners and slogans on the houses criticize the mine. In front of the catholic church, artists have painted anti-mining murals. After the mass, the priest sends an important signal by standing on this wall, together with church servants and believers.

"People here care deeply about this topic", Anna Backmann notes. She is part of the German NGO "CI Romero", and she is here to act as an international observer. "It is impressive to see how even senior citizens make a big effort to come to the voting booths, in order to exercise their right".


It takes a 15-minute bumpy ride on a pick-up truck to arrive at the feet of Cerro Patacon, one of the highest elevations in the hilly panorama. One can only reach the top by foot. During the 1980-1992 Civil War, this mountain - which is named after a blood-sucking insect - was an important strategic point. The view is stunning: green ridges and mountains fade in the distance - it is the Central American Cordillera, which stretches from Mexico to Panama, and under which lies much gold.

"We do not want any new blood-suckers to come here and destroy this landscape", says Nicolas Rivera Lopez; he grew up in a farm at the bottom of the mountain. He is referring to international mining companies, which look at El Salvador with great interest. However there will not be any digging for gold in Arcatao. Since 2009 this land is under a moratorium. The government in San Salvador has put a temporary halt to all mining projects, in order to protect the environment – especially water.

The damages caused by metallic mining can be observed in the Department of La Union, about 120 km to the East. In Santa Rosa de Lima lies the San Sebastian mine, which used to be the biggest in the country. It provided precious metals, which were extracted up to the beginning of the Civil War. Then the US companies fled hurriedly. Since then, the mine has been standing still. Only the sons of some former mine workers still extract some metals, on their own initiative.


The gold present in the region has not brought any wealth. People live in very simple houses, and paved roads are rare. Their main source of income is the cultivation of beans and corn. There are hardly any fish living in the river. The reason: the latter has been contaminated by toxic waste water coming out the mine.

Gustavo Blanco’s dad used to work in the mine: “Companies here have extracted gold for a value of about 25 million dollars”, the 58-year-old man calculates. “The only things that are left for us are poverty and contamination”. To this day, acid waste water still comes out of the mountain. Blanco points to a stream that runs by the corn fields. It shimmers with orange acid waste water from the mine, scientifically described as “acid mine drainage”.

When the river overflows, the fields get flooded with this poison, which leaves behind the heavy metals, Lead and Cadmium – this was recently shown in an environmental study conducted by the government.

Two yellow big steel containers also belong to the legacy; they are roasting in the heat. Blanco, the son of the miner, is sure they contain cyanide: a very toxic poison that was used in the gold extraction process. People fear that one day these containers will burst.


In any case, Blanco assures they are not against gold by principle; they would not be, “if it brought us any prosperity”. They are happy that the plan of a US company to revive the mine in 2006 failed due to some missing environmental requirements.

Indeed the firm took legal action against the State of El Salvador before the International Court of Arbitration. However two years ago the process was suspended, after the legal costs had risen significantly. 

Also another quoted mining company, the Australian-Canadian Oceanagold, sued the country before the same tribunal. The company demanded 301 million US dollars as a compensation for lost profits for a mine that was never operating. In 2013 the firm had took possession of the competitor Pacific Rim, which had discovered a gold mine in the Department of Cabañas in the years 2004-2008. The government never granted a mining authorization. At the same time, the project was met with a massive opposition of the population. Local environmental activists became victims of assassinations as a result of this. Pacific Rim has always denied any responsibility. Instead, in 2009 the company launched a lawsuit. The final decision is expected to be taken in the upcoming weeks.

In the capital, San Salvador, this lawsuit causes dismay. “It is a scandal, when a private firm sabotages the politics of a democratically elected government, which is trying to build a strategy for a sustainable development”, Angel Ibarra - Vice Minister of the Environment – said. For a poor country, a conviction would be fatal: not only because of the financial losses, but also because it would open the door to foreign mining also in Arcatao and other regions.

This article was translated from German and republished from its original publication in Deutsche Welle: http://www.dw.com/de/el-salvador-abstimmung-gegen-gold/a-18863856