Community Democracy Confronts Mining in El Salvador

“All of us, [even] our animals—we don’t want mining!” said the elderly María Isabel as she left the voting center on November 23. By a staggering vote of 235 to 2, she and fellow residents of San Isidro Labrador municipality, located in the northern Salvadoran department of Chalatenango, voted to ban mining in their territory.



San Isidro Labrador, Chalatenango — “All of us, [even] our animals—we don’t want mining!” said the elderly María Isabel as she left the voting center on November 23. By a staggering vote of 235 to 2, she and fellow residents of San Isidro Labrador municipality, located in the northern Salvadoran department of Chalatenango, voted to ban mining in their territory.

Approximately 62 percent of eligible voters participated, an impressive turnout given the large portion of the local population that has emigrated in search of work but remains registered there. International observers from four different countries described the voting process as “clean and transparent,” noting the welcoming environment of the voting centers, the lack of need for armed security, and the accommodations provided to elderly and disabled persons.

In interviews, residents’ most common fear about mining was that the extraction process would release cyanide, arsenic, and other toxic chemicals into surrounding water supplies. Silvia, a former president of a local woman’s committee, expressed the widespread feeling that mining “would contaminate the water.” She and other middle-aged and elderly voters also spoke of the burden it would place on younger generations, saying that “it would impact our children” most of all. Roberto, a man in his forties, worried that “we are—or could be—the ones responsible for the poor health of the coming generation.” These fears are well-founded, according to a multitude of studies.

Some of the voters explicitly rejected the portrayal of anti-mining voices as “anti-development.” One young activist, Ana, said that “we’re not against the development of our country,” but “people’s rights are being violated, especially the right to a clean and healthy environment.” Genuine development must take place under the leadership of the communities affected, and not “at the expense of environmental destruction.”

In 2008 the Salvadoran national government announced a temporary prohibition on mining—surprising given the country’s large underground gold deposits and the simultaneous mining boom around much of Latin America. Massive grassroots opposition within El Salvador, amplified by international solidarity, was one reason for this remarkable policy shift.

But a bill to prohibit mining permanently has been met with right-wing resistance in the legislature. Given this roadblock, community organizers in northern El Salvador have turned to local consultas, or popular referenda. They have utilized a little-known section of the Salvadoran Municipal Code, which mandates a local referendum on an issue when at least 40 percent of voters petition for it. The November 23 referendum was the second of its kind. In September, the nearby municipality of San José Las Flores also expressed its overwhelming disapproval of mining, with 99 percent of voters standing against it. Additional referenda are now being planned in other communities, in part to increase pressure on the national government to pass a permanent ban on mining.

Grassroots organizations have been crucial in these efforts. The municipality of San Isidro Labrador forms one node in an impressive network of popular organizations that connect rural communities across the country. Three entities—the Association for the Development of El Salvador (CRIPDES), the Association for the Cooperation and Development of El Salvador (CORDES), and the Association of Communities for the Development of Chalatenango (CCR)—have formed the organizational backbone for the two referenda thus far. While local affiliates have done most of the actual organizing work, the headquarters have helped with publicity, training, legal aid, and other assistance. Most of these organizations are members of the National Roundtable Against Metallic Mining, a national coalition of grassroots groups, NGOs, academics, research centers, and religious organizations.

Many local organizers come from communities with proud histories of activism. The towns and villages of northern El Salvador played a pivotal role in the guerrilla resistance movement of the 1980s. The country’s civil war (1980-1992), which erupted after years of systematic repression of nonviolent reform movements, devastated much of the country, including the town of San Isidro Labrador. Government forces and right-wing death squads, with billions of dollars in U.S. support, engaged in what Salvadoran Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas in 1980 characterized as “a war of extermination and genocide against a defenseless civilian population.” These forces were responsible for 85 percent of the acts of violence, according to testimonies collected by a postwar UN-sponsored Truth Commission; guerrillas were accused in 5 percent of cases.

Although the communities of Chalatenango no longer face this scale of violence, multinational mining companies have proven no less determined than the large landowners who organized the death squads of past decades. In recent years assassins have murdered at least three anti-mining activists in the neighboring department of Cabañas.

The mining giants’ primary offensive has taken place outside El Salvador, however. Since the government’s mining moratorium, two multinational companies, the Canadian-based Pacific Rim (recently acquired by Australian firm OceanaGold) and the U.S.-based Commerce Group, have sued the Salvadoran government for what they consider lost potential profits. The OceanaGold case is currently before a distant and unaccountable World Bank tribunal known as the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), where the looming decision could cost El Salvador $315 million.

The lawsuits have drawn worldwide outrage, particularly since the right of capitalists to sue countries is a central aspect of pending agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a twelve-country “NAFTA on steroids” deal now being secretly negotiated with the guidance of over 600 corporate representatives. According to leaked texts from the TPP negotiations, U.S. negotiators have insisted on allowing corporations to sue governments that pass public-interest laws that infringe on their “expected future profits.” The U.S. Trade Representative, former Citigroup executive Michael Froman, recently reiterated the importance of this provision to deals like the TPP.

The broader impact of the community referenda in El Salvador remains to be seen. As mentioned above, organizations across the country are demanding a national law to prohibit mining, along with a related bill to ensure access to water as a human right. They have public opinion on their side: a poll conducted in 2007 by the country’s Central American University found that 62.5 percent of Salvadorans opposed mining while just 18.9 percent supported it.

But obstacles remain. At the national level, the FMLN party that holds the presidency lacks sufficient votes in the legislature to pass an anti-mining law. At the local level, many communities lack San Isidro Labrador’s active social organizations and shared tradition of struggle. Many organizers attribute the violence in nearby Cabañas department to the fact that communities there are less organized and cohesive, which has made it easier for mining companies to divide them.

In poor and oppressed communities, the lure of temporary benefits from extractive industry can be great. Roberto, quoted above, said that the mining companies often start by funding social projects in order to win local support. “But what happens later?” What seems like “something nice” is in fact something “artificial, which quickly becomes discolored, you know, and we end up in the same situation—and worse, because of all the contamination that we’re going to have afterwards.”

Organizers hope that the recent consultas might serve as a model for others, elsewhere in El Salvador and beyond. “It’s not just about us here,” says Roberto. The referenda represent a sharp rejection of not only a profit-driven economic agenda but also the institutional structures through which it is imposed. In a world where the vital decisions affecting humanity are typically made by unaccountable elites, Roberto and fellow residents have proposed a radically different way of doing things.

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