By P. Cabezas
As the morning sun rises on the town of San Jose las Flores, members of the community prepare for the annual pilgrimage to the Urbina Hills, the site that once was the main exploration point for a gold mining project. Even though mining activity has been idle in over a decade, residents of Las Flores and surrounding communities make a religious journey through the mountains every September 14th, the eve of Independence Day in El Salvador, to commemorate the day the company was expelled.
Residents of San Jose Las Flores are perhaps the most seasoned veterans of the Salvadorean anti-mining struggle. In 2005 workers of Canadian mineral exploration company Au-Martinique set up exploration sites through various municipalities in the region licensed under the Ministry of Economy of El Salvador.
“When we refused to accept the mining project in our community they threatened with military repression," reminisces Lisandro Monje, a retired community organiser who spoke about the battle his community waged against Au Martinique.
“I can tell you that we almost started an insurrection. We placed barricades on the streets and did not let their trucks bring equipment to the exploration sites, and when they threatened to bring the army, we answered that we had experienced twelve years of war and we were not afraid.” He said.
The presence of Au Martinique led local governments affected by the project to join with local community, social and environmental organizations, the Catholic Church and other institutions to seek information about impacts of mining in the region.
“We visited sites such as the Marlin mine in the Syria Valley in Honduras and others in Guatemala to learn about the negative impacts of mining” explains Tobias Orellana, a current member of the municipal council who was active in the resistance against the mine.
"We found that mining is one of the most contaminating industries that exists, it had destroyed rivers, it contaminated the soil, it had created conditions unfit for human living; and we met people full of skin sores who told us about their suffering. All that information helped us raise awareness among our population to stop the mine.”
To make it more difficult for the company to ever enter their territory, religious members of the mostly Catholic community built, in 2006, a 1500 pound effigy of the Virgin Mary and carried it in pilgrimage through more than 10 Kilometres of steep mountainous paths to build a temple at the Urbina Hills, located right at the center of Au Martinique's exploration concession. They named it "the temple of the Virgin of Resistance”.
"Every 14th of September we organise pilgrimages to this shrine to honour the lives of those massacred in this hills during the civil war, and to symbolise our resistance to mining companies," said Mr. Orellana.
"For the right to this land, we have paid with our blood and the blood of hundreds of our relatives that were massacred here, and we will defend this land with our blood, if necessary, from mining companies" he continued.
Au Martinique was not able to set up its operations in Chalatenango but an exploration license to explore remains active within the ministry of economy; and members of the community are aware of it. “We are troubled by the lack of action from the national government to implement a national mining ban. That is the reason why on September 2014, we became first municipality to ban mining through local referendum in El Salvador.” Said Felipe Tobar, mayor of San Jose Las Flores, during the ceremony.
67% of local community members listed in the official National Electoral Registry cast their vote during the referendum; of those, 99% voted to ban mining in the municipality. “With the referendum, we went beyond our moral obligation and acquired a legal compromise with our citizens to defend our territories from mining” Tobar said.