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El Salvador: building movements against mining and mega-projects

El Salvador signed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with other Central American countries and the US in 2004. This allowed transnational corporations such as Holcim, Monsanto and Pacific Rim to intensify their operations in the country. With the support of local ruling elites, they have been able to secure the necessary infrastructure to extract the countries’ natural resources to export to markets with stronger currencies.

el salvador caminata por La Vida-1

El Salvador's previous conservative government consistently promoted the expansion of extractive industries and international trade, as well as mega-infrastructure projects. The subsequent left-wing government elected in 2009 also set off down the same path, neglecting the demands of communities affected by industries and related foreign direct investments. 

 

Until recently there was little public debate in El Salvador about the role and interests of transnational corporations, and the negative impacts that their projects can have on biodiversity and people. Little information was available to the public, and few organizations were capable of fostering and facilitating relevant discussions. 

 

what happened

To reverse this trend, Friends of the Earth El Salvador / CESTA has been working with others to improve awareness and strengthen collective leadership in grassroots organizations representing the people most affected by neoliberalism. These include the Global Movement of Victims and Peoples Affected by Climate Change (MOVIAC), which was initiated in El Salvador in 2007; the El Salvador National Network of People Threatened and Affected by Dams and Canals; and the El Salvador Movement of People Affected by Lead. 

 

In 2009, Friends of the Earth El Salvador, along with 16 groups from communities affected by megaprojects, prepared a legal proposal called El Grito de las Víctimas (The Scream of the Victims) that summarizes community demands concerning mega-projects, investments and international trade. The initiative contains proposals for reforms to El Salvador’s Environmental Law, Public Health Code, and Municipal Code. It was presented to the Ministry of Environment and Strategic Affairs in a public forum with the Minister of the Environment and around 100 community leaders and NGOs (see video here)

 

Also in 2009, communities in northern El Salvador, worried about the environmental impacts of proposed mining projects, continued to campaign vigorously alongside environmental, religious and human rights organizations, to halt what would have been El Salvador's first large-scale mine in 70 years. The inhabitants of Cabañas have been trying to stop the proposed El Dorado gold mine, which would have used water-intensive cyanide processing. They are concerned that the mine will contaminate the nearby river, use excessive amounts of water, and endanger farming.

 

what changed

These collaborative grassroots campaigns have notched up a number of successes in the last two to three years. With respect to mining they were even successful in convincing then President Antonio Saca (of the Conservative ARENA party) to rethink the issuing of gold mining. In March 2008, Saca announced that he would not grant mining permits until an in-depth study of the environmental impacts of gold mining had been undertaken. President Mauricio Funes, elected in 2009, is also opposed to gold mining and supports a similar study being undertaken.

 

However, the Canadian mining company Pacific Rim Corp responded to these grassroots efforts by filing an investor suit against the Salvadoran government, under the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) (but through a recently formed US Nevada-based subsidiary, Pac Rim Cayman LLC, since Canada is not a party to CAFTA).

 

Disturbingly, however, these successes have also been accompanied by increasing repression in El Salvador, including the systematic assassination of mining activists associated with protests against Pacific Rim (including the much missed Marcelo Rivera, Ramiro Rivera Gómez, Felicita Echeverría, and Dora Santos Sorto Rodríguez).

 

what next?

Friends of the Earth El Salvador will continue to collaborate with other members of civil society to galvanize community opposition to mining and megaprojects that have serious social and environmental consequences. 

 

Pacific Rim’s CAFTA case against El Salvador will be heard at the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) in 2010, and Friends of the Earth El Salvador will focus much of its efforts on ensuring that companies such as Pacific Rim are not able to start gold mining in El Salvador.

 

with thanks to our funders: the dutch ministry of foreign affairs (dgis)

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