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

ISIDRO - 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

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

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." (END/2008)

AMP Section Name:Natural Resources
  • 116 Human Rights
  • 181 Food and Agriculture
  • 182 Health
  • 183 Environment
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