El Salvadoran anti-mining campaigner Vidalina Morales recently toured Australia to raise awareness about the destruction that OceanaGold, a Melbourne-based company, is unleashing in her country. Red Flag’s Patrick Weiniger spoke to her about the issues.
For nearly a decade, Canadian-based multinational Pacific Rim has been trying to establish a gold mine in the small Central American country of El Salvador.
The project, in the department of Cabañas, has met strong opposition from the local community, whose water supplies would be poisoned by contaminants from the operation.
In 2007 the president of El Salvador prohibited the mine. But Pacific Rim is suing this desperately poor nation for US$315 million.
Under CAFTA-DR – the Central American free trade agreement – a company can sue a government if it makes decisions that negatively affect the company’s economic interests. (This will also be the case if Australia signs the Trans-Pacific Partnership currently being negotiated.)
This year, Pacific Rim was taken over by OceanaGold, an Australian company based in Melbourne.
“At the moment this project is in the process of exploration; it has not gone into production. But already in the prospecting phase, rivers and lakes have been destroyed, animals have died from drinking the water and crops have been lost”, explained Vidalina.
“The main issue we face in El Salvador in relation to pollution is that 92 percent of our rivers are contaminated. As the Latin America Water Tribunal has reported, El Salvador is facing water stress; there won’t be enough water in the future.”
Cyanide is used to separate gold from ore, in a process involving large amounts of water that then becomes toxic waste. This waste is deposited in tailings dams, which are supposed to prevent the cyanide and other toxins from entering the local water supply.
Tailings dams in developing nations often fail. Vidalina pointed out the particular reasons that this would be the case in her country: “There are five major volcanos in El Salvador. We feel the earth tremble every day.”
There has been much resistance to the mine. “From 2004 we started finding out about these mining projects. We visited places affected by mining to see what the horrendous consequences are. Then we went back to our community and held educational forums and seminars to inform people of the likely consequences.
“This was a grassroots movement that started in the communities. We have been able to work with other communities and founded the National Roundtable Against Metallic Mining (MESA).”
The problem of water contamination from mining is not only a national problem. “This is an issue that affects all of Central America. Right now, every country in the region, with the exception of El Salvador, has mining projects.”
MESA activists are also well aware of OceanaGold’s terrible record in the Philippines. “We learned that the company carries out mining projects in communities that are very environmentally vulnerable. We know that the Human Rights Commission in that country is concerned and is trying to take measures against the company.”
Violence is often used by giant companies to intimidate locals out of challenging destructive corporate practices. The struggle over the mine in El Salvador is no exception:
“In 2006 the death threats started, and divisions within the community started. In 2009, two men and an eight-months-pregnant woman were murdered. Then there was a wave of death threats against journalists and community radio station.
“We believe that the origin of all this violence is the presence of Pacific Rim in our department. In 2012 the son of one of our female comrades was killed. This woman was well known for denouncing the potential consequences of mining on her land.
“This year the death threats continued. A comrade from Mesa received threats and was robbed, and a male comrade was fired at four times, but fortunately none of the bullets struck him.”
Vidalina’s direct predecessor within the campaign was one of the people assassinated. Marcelo Rivera was a teacher and prominent community activist in the campaign against the mine. He was disappeared on 18 June 2009.
His assassins kept him alive for nine days, during which time they tortured him before dumping his corpse in a well. The initial explanation by the National Civilian Police – that the death was just the act of “gang members” – is considered dubious by many people following the campaign.
“Normally any assassinations or killings are dismissed as the acts of street gangs. But we are concerned that these killings are performed by hit men who know what they are doing. So we are pressuring the attorney-general to find the real perpetrators of the crimes – not just the person who carried out the physical act, but who is behind it, who planned the act.”
The US$315 million lawsuit by Pacific Rim has already cost El Salvador US$7 million in legal fees. As Vidalina pointed out, this is “a lot of money in country that that has so many needs like education and services that are not being met”.
The case holds lessons for Australia. As John Passant previously noted (“Keeping us in the dark on free trade”, Red Flag #12), if Australia signs on to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it will establish “an investor-state dispute settlement. This would allow foreign corporations to sue governments. For example, if the Australian government harms a corporation’s investment (‘reduces its expected profits’) through, say, environmental regulation, the door to litigation may be opened.”
El Salvador proves that this threat is real. Undoubtedly poorer nations – whose national budgets are far smaller – will be hurt the most. In many cases, it could well be Australian companies inflicting the pain on these poorer trans-Pacific “partners”.
“These free trade agreements are very negative”, Vidalina explained, “especially for countries like El Salvador whose only exports are our natural resources. The big countries are after our natural resources like our water, our forests and our minerals. And when people dare to resist, they sue you, they have these legal tools to start a lawsuit against us.” If this lawsuit were to succeed, the damages would amount to nearly half of El Salvador’s annual education budget.
But this is not stopping activists trying to protect their land and their communities. “Our people won’t sit still if this project proceeds. They will rebel and take action against it. But we know these companies will hire their private security, who are very likely to try to kill anyone who opposes these projects.
“We ask people in Australia to keep an eye on what Australian companies are doing overseas in countries like ours. Because in El Salvador there is widespread rejection of these mining projects, and it is only fair that companies like OceanaGold respect the sovereign rights of a nation to protect its resources.”