El Salvador made history last week by becoming the first country to ban metal mining, ever. The success of this decades long struggle is proof that people can take on corporate interests and win. This is the story of how the people of El Salvador took on mining giants.
Mining in El Salvador has a dark history.
Years of unregulated, pro-investor policies coupled with rapid industrialisation has led to the widespread contamination of rivers and surface water, poisoning people and destroying farm lands. Even boiling or filtering the water does not always make it safe to drink. An environmental study showed that the proposed Pacific Rim mine would use 10.4 litres per second, enough to provide water for thousands people.
Mining was imposed on the Salvadoran people as a dream industry that would aid development, create jobs and taxes to pay for much needed school and hospitals. The government developed a range of mining friendly policies together with the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) between Central American countries and the US. Signed by El Salvador in 2004, the agreement allowed transnational corporations such as Holcim, Monsanto and Pacific Rim to intensify their operations in the country.
Supported by local ruling elites, these companies began extracting El Salvador’s natural resources for export. Foreign investment increased from US$30 million in 1992 to US$5.9 billion in 2008. Much of this investment was in mining, despite fierce opposition from communities.
El Salvador is a small and densely populated country. Yet by 2012 the government had 22 requests for gold exploration, allowing gold mines to monopolize 4.23 % of the land. The appropriation of land for mining often takes the form of land grabbing, with no proper consultation or compensation.
From the start local communities resisted through protests, court cases, meetings and land occupation. A number of communities marched across the country to the presidential palace to demand their rights.
Friends of the Earth El Salvador/CESTA supported community resistance.
In 2008 alone, 60 community leaders learned about the impacts of mining and strategies for resistance at CESTA’s Political Ecology School. People started challenging corporate power.
Tragically companies responded with violence. The President of Friends of San Isidro Cabañas (ASIC), a hub of anti mining resistance, was murdered, followed by 3 more anti-mining activists, and many more were threatened and harassed. Their families are still demanding justice today.
“Water is more precious than gold” became a powerful unifying slogan as the struggle continued.
Grassroots coalitions such as the Movement of People affected by Climate Change and Corporations (MOVIAC) and the National Roundtable Against Metallic Mining raised the issue of mining to a national level. Solidarity and shared learnings from movements in Costa Rica, Argentina and Colombia, where partial mining bans have been implemented, were crucial. Friends of the Earth took the El Salvador mining case to the United Nations, in the call for an international treaty on corporations and human rights.
In 2008 the president, Antonio Saca rejected the Pacific Rim mining project. The project would have led to the use of toxic chemicals including cyanide within 65km of the capital.
Pacific Rim’s response was to sue the government of El Salvador US$301m in a secret trade tribunal. The Investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism enabled Pacific Rim to do this, on the basis that they felt their profits were negatively affected by the rejection of their mining application.
Yet in this instance, corporate bullying backfired. It garnered wide support against the mining industry. Even politicians with little environmental interest were outraged by this extortionate figure in a country struggling with poverty. El Salvador received a favorable judgment in the case, yet it still had to pay millions in legal fees.
The Catholic Church, an important institution in El Salvador, began actively advocating for a ban on mining. At Sunday masses across the country priests preached the need to protect the natural world and collected signatures petitioning the government.
When the vote came to parliament last week, except for a few abstentions the vote was unanimous; El Salvador voted for a total ban metal mining to protect its people and environment.
As El Salvador celebrates, the fight for a more just and sustainable world is not over. But we can move forwards with hope, in the knowledge that ordinary people working together can change the world.