By Sebastian Rosemont - Photo: Genia Yatsenko
Pressure continues to mount on Salvadoran legislators to ban metal mining in El Salvador. On February 7th, mayors from the Department of Chalatenango, accompanied by leaders of the Association for the Development of El Salvador (CRIPDES), arrived in the capital to deliver a letter to the Legislative Assembly calling for lawmakers to pass a comprehensive ban on metal mining in the country. Their trip to Assembly reflects the growing grassroots support for a national law banning metal mining in El Salvador.
Bernardo Belloso, the president of CRIPDES (a Salvadoran NGO that is part of the National Roundtable Against Mining in El Salvador) said, “For the past several years, CRIPDES has accompanied Salvadoran communities that have taken the initiative to organize municipal referendums to ban metal mining.”
The mayors from Chalatenango, from San José Las Flores, Arcatao, and Nueva Trinidad respectively, have all passed municipal ordinances prohibiting mining in their communities. San Isidro de Labrador, Chalatenango Department, has also banned mining. These actions followed the results of community referendums showing an overwhelming opposition to mining operations due to the threat they pose to the environment and human well-being.
The trend is spreading across the country. Cinquera, in the neighboring Department of Cabañas, is holding a referendum on February 26th to become the first municipality in its department to ban mining, three more are scheduled to occur for this year.
The mayors’ letter comes on the heels of the February 6th visit to the Legislative Assembly by the Archbishop of San Salvador, Jose Luis Escobar Alas, and representatives from the Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas (UCA) to present a bill to prohibit mining. The archbishop said, in no uncertain terms, that in order to protect lives and the environment in El Salvador, the Legislative Assembly must prohibit all mining operations.
FMLN Representative Guillermo Mata, president of the Legislative Assembly’s Environment and Climate Change Commission, echoed the sentiments of the Archbishop.
“It is an issue that has to do with life, that has to do with health, it is an issue that has to do with the deterioration of the environment, the deterioration of ecosystems, biodiversity, water contamination… We are talking about nothing less than the life and dignity of the people,” he stated.
Another visit by the MOVIAC (Movement of Victims of Climate Change and Corporations)in the afternoon, following the mayors of Chalatenango, to present another piece of legislation to ban mining, adds to the pressure on the Legislative Assembly to respond to civil society’s demand.
The struggle for a mining ban is not new to El Salvador, with communities and civil society organizations first raising the issue in 2004. Due to the fragile state of El Salvador’s water systems and environment in general there has been a moratorium on mining since 2008. President Antonio Saca, from the right-wing ARENA party, was the first to impose the moratorium which has been maintained by the subsequent left-wing, FMLN-led governments. The moratorium led to a seven year long legal battle between the state and Australian/Canadian mining giant OceanaGold/PacRim. Although an International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) ruling in October, 2016 was a major victory for El Salvador, the company has still not paid the court-ordered $8 million to the government and continues to operate by actively lobbing politicians, promoting responsible mining advertising campaigns though their subsidiary Minerales Torogoz, and funding a pro-mining foundation in the country.
Community and environmental leaders are concerned that the country remains vulnerable to the destructive practices of the mining industry unless the ban is enshrined in law. A bill was first introduced in 2006, and again in 2013, by the National Roundtable Against Metal Mining in El Salvador (a collection of environmental, labor, social justice, and human rights groups) but was never discussed or voted on.
Recently, FMLN officials have expressed their support for a mining ban. However, ARENA representatives, and members of smaller parties that hold the balance of power al the legislature, have so far been unwilling to even consider the proposed ban in the past - despite the subject being non-partisan. The Legislative Assembly is evenly split on the issue between the left-wing FMLN, the center-right GANA (Grande Alianza para la Unidad Nacional) and the right-wing Arena, PCN (Partido Concertacion Nacional), and PDC (Partido Democrata Cristiano). A successful bill would require multi-partisan support.
However, voices in the pro-business community are starting to respond to the prospect of a mining ban. One commentator, Paolo Luers, writing in ElSalvador.com, claims that with the proper regulation and technology, mining operations and investment should be allowed in El Salvador. Another editiorial from ElSalvador.com, says that for a poor country like El Salvador, investment and employment brought by mining companies is necessary for the country and that the risks to the environment and population can be managed through technology.
These pro-mining arguments are signs that the eventual debate in the Legislative Assembly will likely be sharply divided. The balance of power could come down to which side can generate the most popular shows of support.
If that is the case, the recent events show a concerted effort by a diverse group of local officials and civil society organizations to make lawmakers take up the issue of a mining ban after years of stalling. Beyond the local referendum to ban mining in Cinquera on the 26th , other actions will include joint press conferences, exchanges from elected officials from the Philippines who will visit El Salvador and talk about the impacts of mining, and a national march for the prohibition of mining on February 28th.
Following the actions of community, environmental organizations, and church leaders, legislators will be hard-pressed to ignore the popular demand.
“Until the national government responds to the call, communities will continue to take matters into their own hands to protect themselves and future generations from mining,” said Belloso.