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GUATEMALA-EL SALVADOR: Cross Border Opposition to Mine

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Apr 5 2010 (IPS) - The Cerro Blanco gold and silver mine in the southeastern Guatemalan province of Jutiapa, on the border with El Salvador, is under fire from environmentalists in both countries concerned about the threat it poses to the shared Lake Güija and rivers on either side of the border.

“Toxic waste water from the mine will be discharged into the Ostúa river in Guatemala, and will flow into the 45 square kilometres of Lake Güija, and on into the Lempa river, the main river basin in El Salvador,” David Pereira, a Salvadoran activist with the non-governmental Research Centre on Investment and Trade (CEICOM), told IPS.

In his view, the mine should be shut down because it will cause irreparable damage to water sources, soil, animals and plants and human settlements in the vicinity. The main risk is to the Lempa river, which supplies more than three million Salvadorans, with activities like agriculture, livestock raising and hydroelectric power plants depending on it.

Pereira’s conclusions are based on a study by Dina Larios, professor of geochemistry and hydrogeology at Ohio University in the United States, which contains serious warnings about waste water from the mine.

Dumping water with high concentrations of fluorine, arsenic and boron in the Ostúa river at a temperature of 35 degrees would endanger its biodiversity and cause thermal pollution, affecting fishing which is the livelihood of hundreds of families in the area, Pereira quoted the study as saying.

The Cerro Blanco mining project, approved by the government of former Guatemalan president Óscar Berger (2000-2004), is now under construction and is expected to start producing gold and silver later this year.

The Salvadoran Catholic Church has also expressed its concern about the mine, and asked El Salvador’s leftwing President Mauricio Funes to intervene.

“Pollution of Lake Güija and the Guajoyo and Lempa rivers would be inevitable, and so we ask our government to use its good offices with the authorities of our sister Republic of Guatemala to stop the exploitation of this mine,” the archbishop of San Salvador, José Escobar, said in March.

Social organisations in El Salvador and Guatemala trying to stop mining operations at Cerro Blanco met Mar. 16 with Guatemalan lawmakers and the Guatemalan deputy ministers of Environment Luis Zurita, Foreign Affairs Lars Pira, and Energy and Mines Alfredo Pokus.

However, according to Héctor Nuila, a lawmaker for the leftwing Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity party who attended the meeting, no agreement was reached.

“The Foreign Ministry has no idea of the international relations problems that could be caused by this project; the Environment Ministry takes an environmental view, but a very feeble one; and the Ministry of Energy and Mines takes a purely market point of view,” the lawmaker complained.

Nuila said the mine would cause serious environmental harm on the Guatemalan side of the border, but El Salvador would suffer even more.

“The main concern is that this government has not approved permits for exploration and exploitation, but is allowing all this to go ahead in spite of serious weaknesses in the environmental impact assessments,” he said.

The mine, located in the Asunción Mita municipality in Jutiapa, is operated by the Entre Mares company, a subsidiary of Canada’s Goldcorp. Another Goldcorp subsidiary is operating the Marlin gold and silver mine in the Guatemalan province of San Marcos, on the border with Mexico, in the face of strong local opposition.

Guatemalan organisations and community activists have also protested against the Cerro Blanco mining project.

Fray Armando González, a Catholic priest who has led several marches in protest against the Cerro Blanco mine, told IPS that the project will only bring pollution, greater poverty, violence, prostitution and divisions between communities on the borders of El Salvador and Guatemala, which he regards as reason enough to call off the project.

González is also concerned because Entre Mares has offered to build a geothermal energy plant in the area, which is not included in the environmental impact assessment.

Guatemalan environmentalist Julio González, of the Madreselva environmental group, told IPS that mineral extraction at the Cerro Blanco mine will be via a tunnel, from which hot water will be removed and dumped in the Ostúa river that flows into Lake Güija.

“When hot water is poured into a river, biodiversity is destroyed, apart from the fact that the water itself may contain highly toxic substances,” he said.

According to González, the problem with mining in Guatemala is that the country has been “too permissive” with its permits, without regard for the serious damage being done to the environment.

“Environmental impact studies are carried out to suit the companies, because they pay for the consultants, and naturally the assessments are favourable to the company, while the people are left in the dark about the impacts and the devastation of biodiversity that will ensue,” he said.

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