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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.

El Salvador Greenhouse

Photo by John Cavanagh

We are inside a greenhouse, gazing at row after row of hydroponic tomatoes and green peppers, learning why people in this community in northern El Salvador are receiving death threats. We have been sent by The Nation magazine to chronicle the struggle by people here to protect their river from the toxic chemicals of global mining firms intent on realizing massive profits from El Salvador’s rich veins of gold.

Before going to the greenhouse, we spend the morning at the home of Carlos Bonilla, a farmer in his sixties whose handsome face is creased with the wisdom, suffering, and joy of decades of struggles for justice. Over a delicious meal of local tortillas, vegetables, and chicken, Carlos and a group of eight young people tell us their stories.

“We reject the image of us just as anti-mining. We are for water and a positive future. We want alternatives to feed us, to clothe us.”

These young people run a radio station, Radio Victoria, where they broadcast to a growing audience across this mountainous terrain. They tell us about giving air time to local leaders who, beginning seven years ago, found themselves facing a new threat: Mining firms, granted permits to explore for gold in the watershed of the great Lempa River (which supplies water to over half the country’s 6.2 million people), entered these communities with promises of jobs and prosperity.

Gold is now selling for more than $1500 an ounce. Local organizer Vidalina Morales tells us: “Initially, we thought mining was good and it was going to help us out of poverty…through jobs and development.”

But, then, a strange thing happened. A stream dried up near the exploration wells that a Canadian firm, Pacific Rim, was digging. Concerned, Vidalina and other activists traveled to nearby Honduras to meet with members of communities where large mining projects were already underway. They returned with grisly stories of cyanide poisoning the soil and water (cyanide is used to separate the gold from the surrounding rock), and people in mining areas suffering skin diseases and other ailments.

This wasn't what they wanted, especially near the Lempa River. Local people in northern El Salvador began to organize against the mining firms. First, they linked up with other groups across this province of Cabañas to coordinate opposition. Next, they found allies in other provinces and in the capital San Salvador, and they formed a National Roundtable on Mining. After discussion and debate, the Roundtable decided that the only way to save their vital water source was to organize for a national ban on gold and other metals mining. 

Then, they tell us, the death threats began. Some came as anonymous phone calls, some as untraceable text messages, some as people were stopped by men in cars. In June 2009, a dynamic local cultural leader, Marcelo Rivera, disappeared; his body was found in the bottom of a well, with signs of torture reminiscent of the bloody civil war that convulsed this region in the 1980s. 

Half a year later, two other people opposed to mining were gunned down. One was eight-months pregnant and held her two-year old in her arms when she was murdered. Then, two months ago, a college student volunteer with the Environmental Committee of Cabañas, Juan Francisco Duran, was found dead, two bullet holes to his head. He was last seen in Cabañas putting up anti-mining posters.

In this poor country, where mining firms have spread around a great deal of money and promises, people are getting threatened and killed.

As we travel the remote roads of Cabañas with Vidalina and others here, we are struck by how their aspirations are not unlike those of people we have met in the Philippines, Trinidad, and even the United States. They want healthy food and safe drinking water for their kids. They want a vibrant local economy that provides good jobs and livelihoods. They do not want giant firms, unaccountable to them, determining their futures.

Yet in this poor country, where mining firms have spread around a great deal of money and promises, people are getting threatened and killed. 

Carlos, Vidalina, Marcelo, Juan Francisco… ordinary people taking extraordinary actions as they protect their water and their democracy. And, in this case, there are simple things that people elsewhere can do to support this struggle for water over gold. To share just one: The Committee in Support of the People of El Salvador (CISPES) is asking people to write the Attorney General of El Salvador to demand a thorough investigation into the killings to find not only the killers but also the “intellectual authors”—the masterminds—behind their actions.    

Our next blog will offer another chapter in this story, the fight to get the national Salvadoran government to support the proposed mining ban. And, a subsequent blog will move to the global level of this fight, as U.S. and Canadian mining firms use “free trade” agreements to bring legal cases against El Salvador in international courts. 

As we leave Carlos’s house that day and visit the greenhouse and communal farm lands, Vidalina entreats us not to write about their struggle as simply a defensive one: “We reject the image of us just as anti-mining. We are for water and a positive future. We want alternatives to feed us, to clothe us.”


John Cavanagh and Robin BroadJohn 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 on leave from directing theInstitute 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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