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Gold or Water: The Fight Goes on in El Salvador

With the eyes of the world on mass protests against corporate control of governments, El Salvador debates a new ban on gold mining.
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El Salvador Mural by John Cavanagh

One of the anti-mining murals painted by youth in gold-country in northern El Salvador. (Cabanas, El Salvador)

Photo by John Cavanagh

This is the second of a two-part series about mining in El Salvador. You can read the first part here.

At this moment, unbeknownst to most of the world, the government of El Salvador is in the midst of a decision that could make it the first country in the world to ban gold mining. Corporate eyes are trained on this tiny nation, hoping it will decide that mining revenues are too lucrative to forgo. So too should those of us who believe that people and their ecosystems come first be doing our part to make sure that corporate interests do not determine what should be a democratic decision among Salvadorans.

Earlier this year, we traveled to El Salvador for The Nation to learn more about how the first progressive government (led by the FMLN party) in El Salvador in decades was deliberating over its choices. As part of its 2009 election promises, the government of Mauricio Funes had announced it would grant no new mining permits during its five-year term and that it was considering a permanent ban. Once elected, the Funes government initiated a major “strategic environmental review” to help set longer-term national policy on mining.

El Salvador is a country of deep poverty, with people desperately in need of jobs. How could it not be tempted by visions of earnings from gold exports?

So, we found ourselves at the Ministry of the Economy, which along with the Environment Ministry, is leading the review. (Can you imagine the U.S. Treasury Department and EPA joining forces to do a collaborative review of U.S. policy?) With us was the man overseeing the review process from the economy ministry: engineer Carlos Duarte. Duarte explained that the goal was to do a “scientific” analysis, with the help of a Spanish consulting firm.

We pushed further, trying to understand how a technical analysis could capture the two sides of such a high-stakes issue. On one hand, El Salvador is a country of deep poverty, with people desperately in need of jobs. How could it not be tempted by visions of earnings from gold exports, especially now that gold’s price had skyrocketed from under $300 an ounce a decade ago to over $1,500 an ounce at the time of our meeting with Duarte. This view is perhaps best epitomized by former Salvadoran finance minister and mining company economic adviser Manuel Hinds, who said that “renouncing gold mining would be unjustifiable and globally unprecedented.”

On the other hand, there is the environmental cost. Here we quoted to Duarte from Maria Silvia Guillen, the head of the Salvadoran human rights group FESPAD: “El Salvador is a small beach with a big river that runs through it. If the river dies, the entire country dies.”

El Salvador Greenhouse
Read Part 1:
Gold or Water? A Deadly Debate

To protect their water supply, Salvadorans are trying to ban corporate gold mining—and facing threats and violence as a result.

How, we asked Duarte, could the Salvadoran government conduct a “scientific” analysis of this? Did not the answer, at some point, necessitate a value judgment of what is the real “national interest”? Duarte explained that the Spanish firm, backed up by four technical experts from other countries, had carried out a lengthy study of the issues and held consultations with people affected by mining, ranging from mining firms to the groups in a national anti-mining “Roundtable” that came together in 2005. While hoping this process would produce a consensus, Duarte admitted that such a result was unlikely. More likely, he told us, the two ministries would have to lay out “the interests of the majority,” from which they would then make a policy recommendation either that mining be banned or that it be carried out under certain specific conditions.

We learn from others that the consultation meetings themselves were filled with tension and conflict. Indeed, the first group consultation in April 2011 in San Salvador had turned into a pitched debate between leaders of the anti-mining “Roundtable” and representatives of the mining companies. And, the conflict became even more intense—and deadly—when the consultations went to gold country in northern El Salvador. Indeed, grassroots water activist and student, Juan Francisco, was last seen publicly putting up posters in favor of a ban on the very day of the consultations in that town. His body, with two bullets in his head, was found in a mass grave some days later. (Other anti-mining activists were assassinated in 2009.)

Thus, the stakes are very high. In Sal Salvador, FMLN members of legislature’s Environment and Climate Change Committee are, at the request of the executive branch, waiting for the outcome of the strategic environmental review before taking action themselves. We visited the national legislature—its hallways a political cacophony of red posters bearing the photos of FMLN leaders (and the ever-present martyr Archbishop Romero) competing with offices adorned with posters of the leading opposition party, ARENA—to meet with members of the committee.

El Salvador Banner by Robin Broad

Banner of the Roundtable, hanging in northern El Salvador's  gold country, (Cabanas, El Salvador).

 Photo by Robin Broad

Congressman Gilberto Rivera from the FMLN stronghold of Chalatenango expressed impatience at how long that review was taking and his conviction that “economic and political powers” were “putting pressure on non-FMLN legislators.” However, the FMLN does not have an absolute majority in the legislature; still, those we met expressed confidence that the bill they have drafted to ban metals mining could pass if the executive branch recommended such a ban.

In the meantime, Salvadorans—and we—wait for what we hope will be a precedent.

As we wait, we are struck by how this Salvador debate mirrors other struggles around the world. Even the repressive government of Burma recently announced the suspension of a Chinese-financed dam across the Irrawaddy River, given the environmental concerns being voiced by Burmese. In the United States, Nebraska is holding similar conversations related to the 1,700 mile tar sands pipeline proposed to link Canada to the Gulf Coast; many there are worried the pipeline could destroy their aquifer. In our own state of Maryland, the government made a decision three years ago to value social and environmental measures as well as economic ones—and is now in the midst of measuring 26 indicators of “genuine progress.” Too much of this is, unfortunately, off the mainstream media’s radar screens.

Back in El Salvador, the government continues its deliberations. Grassroots activists, linked with the national Roundtable, continue their brave fight to ban gold mining. And we wait, hopeful that democracy will prevail.


John Cavanagh and Robin Broad

John Cavanagh and Robin Broad wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Robin is a Professor of International Development at American University in Washington, D.C. and has worked as an international economist in the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Congress. John is director of the Institute for Policy Studies, and is co-chair (with David Korten) of the New Economy Working Group. They are co-authors of three books on the global economy, and are currently traveling the country and the world to write a book entitled Local Dreams: Finding Rootedness in the Age of Vulnerability. Over the decades, this husband and wife team has worked in a number of countries, including the Philippines, where Robin first lived in 1977-78.

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