Although El Salvador has thus far been less directly affected by mining projects than some neighboring countries in Central America, conflict over a proposed gold mine in El Salvador’s northern department of Cabañas has lately attracted international attention. In addition to widespread local resistance to mining in the region, environmental justice and human rights organizations have become increasing concerned with the ecological, social, and public health impacts of metallic mining projects on the country as a whole. Meanwhile, the government’s increasing antipathy toward the mining industry has resulted in two investor lawsuits by mining corporations (the Vancouver-based Pacific Rim Mining Corp. and a U.S. company by the name Commerce Group) against the Salvadoran state for a total of approximately $200 million, both of which cite the investment rules inscribed in the recently implemented Central American Free Trade Agreement.
Since I arrived in El Salvador, I have spent much of my time attending events organized by the Mesa Nacional Frente a la Minería Metálica (National Roundtable against Metallic Mining) and interviewing the activists involved with the coalition. The primary focus of the Mesa at present is to pass a law that would place an outright ban on metallic mining projects in El Salvador which, if passed, would be the first of its kind anywhere in the Global South. Representatives of the Mesa, which is comprised of Salvadoran civil social organizations, NGOs, and local community groups, argue that such a law is necessary above all to protect the country’s primary source of fresh water—the Lempa River basin—as well as to avoid the kinds of social conflicts that commonly emerge in relation to mining projects. Indeed, during the past year and half, three environmental activists have been murdered in the communities surrounding the Pacific Rim’s flagship “El Dorado” mine. As of yet, the intellectual authors of these murders have yet to be identified or prosecuted.
In addition to lobbying for the outright prohibition of metallic mining in El Salvador and calling for an end to impunity in the murder of local activists, the Mesa also recognizes the importance of working transnationally to develop a regional strategy to combat environmentally destructive cross-border mining projects based in Guatemala and Honduras. This, however, represents an even greater challenge, due to the sheer quantity of mining concessions that have already been granted throughout Central America. If the Mesa is successful in its efforts to ban metallic mining, activists claim, El Salvador will be in a much better position to pressure neighboring states to take similar measures to protect the region´s water supply and maintain social stability. It will also represent a significant assertion of national sovereignty in the face of trade liberalization policies that sought to promote transnational investment in the extractive industries in spite of local resistance.
Posted by Emma Kreyche — PhD Candidate in American Studies in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU