El Salvador, the world’s first to pass a law to ban metals mining
El Salvador declares victory as the first country in the world in its 10-year legal battle to defeat a gold mining company, Pacific Rim Mining. It is a story of a group of El Salvadorian villagers, known as the “river guardians” or as published in a book titled ‘The Water Defender’. The book documents the extensive and protracted legal battle to ban metals mining in the area, which has adversely caused widespread harm to the environment and the well-being of the people in the community.
“The Water Defender” begins by relating the story whereby Pacific Rim Mining began gold mining in San Isidro, located in Cabanas province, a small town situated 40 miles from San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. At that time, there was no mining industry, and gold mining usually depended on the gold price cycles. In the past, gold prices were mostly in a downward trend, resulting in several gold mining companies in El Salvador stopping their businesses. However, in 2002, gold prices reached their lowest point. Demand began to pick up, partly from China’s demand for metal ores and the remaining from the growing demand for various electronic devices, which mostly rely on using gold as a medium charger. Gold prices began to soar, which in turn attracted interest from large mining companies based in Canada, Australia, and South Africa. Renewed interest was given to the closed mines in El Salvador and the Philippines, which were pressured by western countries and global institutions such as the World Bank to amend their mining laws to attract foreign investors.
Thomas Shrake, a geologist and chief executive of Pacific Rim Mining, traveled to San Isidro in Cabanas to explore the gold ore in the area. It was originally an area under the El Dorado exploration concession, which later merged with Pacific Rim Mining.
In 2002, with his skilled geological abilities, Thomas Shrake had informed Pacific Rim Mining that there was more gold than expected buried under San Isidro’s corn and grazing fields. The area formerly belonged to El Dorado’s exploration concession. So from 2002-2008, Pacific Rim Mining relied on El Dorado’s gold mining license, drilled a total of 670 pits to search for gold ore samples. They were then sent to the United States for testing. Eventually, Pacific Rim Mining discovered a high-quality gold reserve in San Isidro, in the Cabanas province.
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When Pacific Rim Mining began to mine gold in San Isidro, it attracted the attention of the so-called “river guardians”, which were headed by brothers Marcelo Rivera and Miguel Rivera. They were originally not interested in mining but were concerned about the impact on the river that originated from urban development policies in providing local landfills for more than 20 municipalities in Cabanas Province. The landfill was slated near the local river, which would merge with the largest river in El Salvador, the Lempa River. After establishing an understanding of the impact of landfills on the river, the river guardians started their protests against the landfill project and faced off with the town’s mayor, Jose Bautista, a member of the right-wing National Republican Alliance, the party leader of which is the former head of an influential hit squad.
Eventually, the river guardians’ campaign was able to put a stop to the landfill project. A member of the river guardians related to the author of The Water Defenders that; “while we were opposing the landfill project, we did not have much knowledge about the mining activities. However, after talking to a friend who worked at the Ministry of the Environment, he mentioned that we should take a closer look at the mining activities rather than the landfill. “Mining disposes more harmful chemicals that have an adverse effect on health and the environment, including illnesses from exposure to the ores, such as lead contamination which are heavy metals that the body cannot metabolize. Concerns should also be raised regarding the contamination of cyanide, a chemical commonly used by gold mines around the world which is capable of infiltrating natural water sources, the environment, and accumulating in the food chain, causing serious health effects and even death when it accumulates in a large amount in the body.
The Brothers Rivera, Marcelo and Miguel, who were key members of the fight against the landfill project, eventually set up a San Isidro cultural center and library and requested the people to donate books from the city. They were among the first to become aware of the gold mines’ adverse effects, which became evident when the subterranean water source dried up. In 2004 and 2005, the two traveled to mines in Honduras and witnessed widespread deforestation. The river had also dried up, and there were widespread skin diseases among the local population. This was caused by the effects of cyanide that was
used extensively by the mines. Their experience renewed their determination in fighting against the gold mines in El Salvador.
In 2005, El Salvador officials came up with a proposal to amend the mining law to allow less documentation required for mining concessions. However, in 2008, Parliament rejected the proposal. Later, in 2009 Pacific Rim Mining filed a petition to the international arbitration institute accusing El Salvador’s mining ban as a violation of the existing mining laws and claimed US$314 million in damages. Eventually, the international arbitrator rejected Pacific Rim Mining’s claims and instructed the company to pay US$8 million out of the total US$13 million legal fees to El Salvador.
The struggle in El Salvador is a clear reflection that natural resources are an essential element to the environment. Natural drinkable water and clean, breathable air are basic factors that each individual is entitled to. In their fight to protect their water source, El Salvadorans face a number of obstacles, including their leader, Marcelo Rivera, who was mysteriously abducted and murdered. The fact that they have democratic principles and steadfast in their ideology, not succumbing to oppression, contributed successfully to their decade-long battle with their anti-mining campaign. Eventually, El Salvador’s Parliament unanimously passed a law banning all mining activities. It is the world’s first country to issue such a ban.
Source : https://thaipublica.org/2021/04/pridi242/