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EL SALVADOR: “Life Is Worth More than Gold” Say Anti-Mining Activists

Raúl Gutiérrez

SAN ISIDRO, El Salvador, Feb 1 2008 (IPS) - Peasant farmers from the northern Salvadoran province of Cabañas fear that mining operations planned for the region will consume 30,000 litres of water a day, drawn from the same sources that currently provide local residents with water only once a week.

Environmentalists and experts have also warned that if the operations that are now awaiting legal permission actually begin, the cyanide that would be used by the Canadian mining company Pacific Rim to extract gold and silver could contaminate the area’s groundwater and soil.

Cabañas ranks second only to Morazán as the province with the highest rate of poverty in this country, where over 55 percent of the population officially lives under the poverty line. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), it has the worst score on the Human Development Index, a composite measure that takes into account school enrolment, life expectancy and per capita income.

Miguel Fuentes, a 43-year-old campesino (peasant farmer), has spent his whole life on a quarter-hectare plot of land where he grows corn and beans and lives with his wife and four children in a dirt-floor house made of sheet metal, adobe and wood.

Two years ago, he travelled to Valle de Siria, in neighbouring Honduras, where he saw for himself the pollution and respiratory and skin ailments suffered by the people living in the vicinity of the Entre Mares mine, 120 km from Tegucigalpa.

“Mining is not advisable in such a small and overpopulated area,” Fuentes told IPS, especially since “nobody takes responsibility afterwards for the damage it leaves behind.”

The El Dorado mine project that Pacific Rim plans to undertake near the community of San Isidro, 65 km from San Salvador, is just one of 25 potential mining sites currently under exploration along the northern fringe of the country, stretching along a volcanic chain rich in precious metals.

The mining permits granted by the Ministry of the Economy and the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources have been suspended due to opposition to the projects and because the Ministry of the Environment must carry out a strategic environmental study on mining as a prerequisite for the adoption of a new regulatory regime by parliament.

In El Salvador, a country of 20,000 square km with a population of 5.9 million, the data available show that mining activity has historically been sporadic.

Records show that in the late 19th century, a handful of projects were undertaken but had practically disappeared in later years. They were revived in 1940 but had almost all been abandoned by the 1950s.

Mining has never been a significant economic activity here, and according to figures from El Salvador’s Reserve Bank, in 2006 the mining industry contributed just 32.7 million dollars (including stone products) to the country’s total gross domestic product of over 18.6 billion dollars.

Between 1948 and 1953, the New York-El Salvador Mining Company worked the El Dorado mine but pulled out, according to environmentalists, because the technology available at the time did not allow for the extraction of the gold and silver that have now been located by Pacific Rim.

El Dorado covers 144 square kilometres. The exploration phase that concluded in 2006 and involved an investment of 28 million dollars uncovered deposits of at least 1.2 million ounces of gold and 7.4 million ounces of silver.

Luis Trejo, an environmental advisor to Pacific Rim, told IPS that at current world prices, each ounce of gold could fetch 700 dollars.

He also maintained that the company would create 2,000 direct and indirect jobs and would pay the Salvadoran government at least three percent in taxes on its gross sales.

In 2007, the mining company launched a major advertising campaign using radio and vehicles with loudspeakers that drove through nearby communities to promote so-called “green mining” while handing out school supplies, fertilisers and livestock vaccines.

Trejo acknowledged that “cyanide is a hazardous substance,” but said that the human body is able to “assimilate” it, since it occurs in natural form in foods like cassava, grapes and almonds.

In October 2005, U.S. hydrogeologist Robert Moran conducted a technical review of the El Dorado Mine Project Environmental Impact Assessment submitted by Pacific Rim. Moran was critical of the company’s report, charging that it did not provide the necessary data to determine the effects of mining on water resources.

According to his review, neither the general public nor the Salvadoran regulators have been adequately informed regarding the possible environmental or socioeconomic impacts to the local populations.

Moran, who has carried out similar studies in other countries of Central America, also said that a large percentage of similar, modern gold mining operations throughout the world do generate negative environmental impacts, which often do not become visible until after a mine closes.

Francisco Pineda, coordinator of the Association of Friends of San Isidro-Cabañas, said that cyanide and acid drainage from the mining operations would contaminate the same sources of water used to supply the majority of communities in the region.

“We are not opposed to the activity, but rather to the harm it causes,” stressed the environmentalist, who added that in any case, “green mining doesn’t exist, it’s merely a publicity campaign.”

The Salvadoran Bishops’ Conference has joined the opposition to the mining project. In a statement released in May 2007, it warned that “mining causes irreversible damage to the environment and surrounding communities.”

Residents of the community of San Sebastián, in the eastern province of La Unión, sued the Commerce Group mining company in 2007 for the pollution of numerous local rivers with iron, copper and aluminum, products of acid drainage allegedly caused by the exploitation of a nearby mine between 1950 and 1981.

Lourdes Palacios, a lawmaker from the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), has charged that Pacific Rim “negotiated” with the right-wing National Conciliation Party (PCN) to introduce a bill in parliament that would create an independent authority to regulate mining, stripping the ministries of this power.

“The PCN initiative is nothing other than a law drafted by the mining companies,” declared Palacios.

The bill does not take into account the environmental strategic study, and would give the independent authority the power to grant “mining concessions” of up to 46 years, Ligia Guevara, from the coalition of social organisations known as Mesa Frente a la Minería, told IPS.

PCN legislator Orlando Arévalo acknowledged that his party had presented the bill denounced by Palacios, but denied that it was drafted by Pacific Rim.

In his view, mining activity requires three requirements that El Salvador lacks: “A clear regulatory framework, a monitoring agency that enforces the law, and a classification of companies that comply with international standards.”

He added that this would be difficult to achieve “because we are victims of corruption” and admitted that he does not have a solution for fighting this scourge.

The Mesa Frente a la Minería submitted a bill in 2006 that would ban the mining of metals because “it places present and future generations at risk.” But the bill was shelved, noted Palacios.

Sitting in front of a poster that reads “Life is worth more than gold,” Irene Castillo and Nelson Ventura, environmentalists from Cabañas, said “human life cannot be sold for a pittance, and this is what we are talking about in the case of mining.”

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