Bringing the Struggle for Water to its Source

Robin Broad

Asunción Mita, Jutiapa, Guatemala: I am here as part of an international delegation — representing 22 organizations plus individuals such as myself, from 12 countries – that has come to support El Salvador’s right to stop environmentally-destructive gold mining. Half of the delegation has traveled over the border into Guatemala because the giant Lempa River that supplies most of El Salvador’s fresh water begins in the Guatemala hills where one of Canada’s largest mining firms is trying to mine gold.  Environmental destruction from this mine would therefore hurt not only Guatemalans, but also millions of Salvadorans who depend on the river’s water as it winds into the Pacific Ocean a nation away.

Our delegation is the result of an almost decade-long struggle of Salvadorans to protect their communities from the ravages of commercial gold mining.  That we are in Guatemala is a reminder that environmental havoc does not respect national boundaries — and that the rights of Salvadorans are interconnected with the rights of Guatemalans.

As gold and other mineral prices skyrocketed over the past decade, Canadian, US and Australian gold-mining firms have sought out veins of gold that were unprofitable when prices were low. Quite attractive is a gold deposit belt, first discovered about a century ago, which traverses the middle of Central America, including El Salvador’s northern provinces and this particular part of Guatemala.

Some years ago, community members from northern El Salvador visited mining communities in neighboring Honduras. There, they learned about the environmental destruction from mining, including the use of toxic chemicals, the generation of tremendous quantities of toxic mine waste, and the reality that mining exacerbated rather than solved poverty. As a result, they announced their opposition to these firms opening mines in El Salvador, primarily based on their concern over further degradation of El Salvador’s key watershed. (The country has the most compromised environment in the entire hemisphere after Haiti.)

They formed a National Roundtable Against Metallic Mining (“La Mesa”). Their case was so compelling that they gained the support of the Catholic Church and the majority of the public. In response, President Mauricio Funes (2009-2014) proclaimed that no mining permits would be issued during his administration. La Mesa is now working hard to get that mining ban enshrined in national legislation.

Unfortunately, the struggle for democratic rights is seldom simple. At least four people opposed to mining from northern El Salvador have been brutally murdered.

And two mining firms, one from the US and one from Canada, have sued the Salvadoran government in an international tribunal, the World Bank’s International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID).  They are demanding licenses to mine and hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. In other words, a country that has, through democratic means, decided to be the first country in the world to end commercial gold mining is being challenged in a far away tribunal.  A loose coalition of “international allies”, including Institute for Policy Studies, MiningWatch Canada, Oxfam, the Council of Canadians and the Center for International Environmental Law, is supporting La Mesa, including protesting the corporate suits at ICSID.

And, now, the decisions of another giant mining firm, Goldcorp, and another government, that of Guatemala, also threaten the democratic decision-making of millions of Salvadorans.

Goldcorp’s operation here, called Cerro Blanco, is also a stunning reminder of why independent and thorough environmental impact assessments (EIAs) are so important. The company’s various piecemeal EIAs for Cerro Blanco have significantly downplayed the dangers, according to a number of experts including one who deemed this “an exceptionally high-risk project.” Indeed, as tunnels were carved into the hills, hot underground thermal water, laced with arsenic and other toxic metals, flooded the mining tunnels.

Goldcorp, we are told by community members and laid-off workers, is currently running a 24/7 operation to try to dry out the tunnels (so it can get its workers back in), stop further flooding, cool the released thermal waters, mix them with lime to try to remove the arsenic, and then deal with getting rid of both the arsenic-lime toxic sludge and the rest of the waste-water. Even should it somehow succeed with those daunting tasks, toxic thermal groundwater could still make its way into the Ostua river, which empties into Lake Guija (a source of fish for the local population), at the headwaters of El Salvador’s Rio Lempa watershed. In the meantime, the Guatemalan Ministry of Energy and Mines has reported that arsenic-rich water is already being released into the local water supply. Waste rock and mine tailings present another potential source of long-term contamination, whose management is not well detailed in the company’s assessment. It is hardly a reassuring short- or long-term scenario — and certainly not the low impact that the company predicts.

But the thermal flooding has bought time for those opposed to Cerro Blanco, including the organizers of the National Roundtable and the local community members with whom we have met in Guatemala. Their work is bolstered by that of El Salvador’s Human Rights Ombudsman, Oscar Luna, who boldly declared that the negative environmental impact of the mine is a violation of the human rights of Salvadorans and therefore under his domain. Luna’s office is working on various levels to stop the mine, including bringing the issue to the Inter American Commission of Human Rights. (Luna, by the way, has also declared that mining in El Salvador must be permanently banned to protect the human rights of Salvadorans.)

And so, Cerro Blanco stands as another on a growing list of environmental, economic, and social mining disasters in the making. Yet, it also has the makings of a powerful test-case of human-rights law, trans-boundary environmental issues, and the struggle between democratic rights and global corporate profits.  At the center stand small-scale farmers of El Salvador and Guatemala who simply want to save their water and their children’s future.

We should all be “international allies” of this anti-mining, pro-water, and pro-human rights struggle.

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3 Responses to “Bringing the Struggle for Water to its Source”

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