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El Salvador Continues To Sound The Alarm Over Guatemalan Gold Mine

May 13, 2013

Desperate to ward off what they claim is a “slow and sure danger” to residents in El Salvador, frustrated opponents of “Cerro Blanco” – a Canadian-owned gold and silver mine under preparation just over the border in Guatemala – are now hoping for help from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

El Salvador’s top human rights official, Ombudsman Óscar Luna, revealed last month that his office is seeking a “special audience” to broach the issue with the Washington, D.C.-based IACHR, an autonomous judicial branch of the Organization of American States (OAS). Luna, a vocal opponent of the Cerro Blanco project, made the announcement while presenting a 100-page “special report” outlying the mine’s potential hazards.

“We’re hoping that by March the Commission accepts our petition and summons Guatemalan authorities to discuss the issue,” Luna explained during the Jan. 10 presentation. “[We hope] the Commission can also recommend measures that will protect the human rights of the people that could be affected by this project.”

Cerro Blanco is being developed by a firm called Entre Mares de Guatemala, S.A., a local subsidiary of Canadian mining giant Goldcorp Inc. Goldcorp is the second largest gold mining company in the world after Barrick Gold, also Canadian. Delayed for several years due to technical reasons, the mine is still in an “exploratory” stage. Guatemalan authorities, however, have already awarded Cerro Blanco the permits needed to begin full operations, meaning extraction could begin at any time. Goldcorp estimates the size of the “classic hot springs gold deposit” at 1.3 million ounces.

Luna and other Salvadoran opponents warn that once in operation, the mine will begin evacuating toxic “residual water” into the nearby Río Ostúa. From there pollutants could make their way to Lago Güija, which hugs the border between the two countries, and later into the Río Lempa, El Salvador’s largest river and most important single source of fresh water.

This project is a “slow and sure threat to human life, vegetation, fauna and water resource, not just in Guatemala but also in El Salvador,” the human rights ombudsman said. “If it’s not stopped in time, there will be serious future repercussions, including violations of the environment, and of the life, integrity and health of the people.”

Goldcorp and its Guatemalan subsidiary insist the mine is perfectly safe. “As part of sustainable mining, Cerro Blanco’s operations are transparent, responsible and mindful of the environment. Additionally, the project is subject to national laws and international parameters,” Entre Mares de Guatemala noted in a statement issued last May.

Opponents are skeptical, particularly given Goldcorp’s less-than-stellar track record eslewhere in Central America. The company’s Marlin mine, also in Guatemala, and San Martín mine, in Honduras, have both drawn complaints in recent years from workers, nearby residents and environemntal groups.

In mid 2012, residents from the area surrounding the Marlin mine put Goldcorp “on trial” through what organizers dubbed a Tribunal Popular Internacional de Salud (TPIS), or Popular Health Tribunal. Over the course of two days, the symbolic court – which was paneled by accomplished human rights defenders, environmentalists and scientists from five different countries – heard testimony from residents, workers and academics. “The mining industry is like a trauma for [adjacent] communities,” Gustavo Lozano, a Mexican anti-mining activist, told the Tribunal. “It causes irreparable harm that lasts for hundreds of years. But it also brings repression.”

Costly opposition

Goldcorp is not the first foreign mining interest to draw stiff opposition in El Salvador. Through an umbrella group called the Mesa Nacional frente a la Minería Metálica, activists have argued for years that El Salvador is too environmentally vulnerable to risk the possible ill effects of mining. Water pollution, for example, is already a huge problem, according to various studies by the Ministerio de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (MARN). The situation is compounded, say environmentalists, by widespread deforestation. El Salvador is often cited as the second most deforested country in the Hemisphere after Haiti.

Six years ago, then President Antonio Saca (2004-2009) of the conservative Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) bowed to popular pressure and implemented an unofficial freeze on mining permits. Saca’s moderate successor, current President Mauricio Funes, has kept the freeze in place, much to the chagrin of mining firms like Canada’s Pacific Rim, which filed a still-pending lawsuit against El Salvador via the World Bank’s International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID).

At last count, the case had already cost El Salvador some US$4.5 million in mounting legal bills. Funes, nevertheless, has shown no signs that he will give in to the company’s demands. “No one has convinced us that there are ways to extract minerals and metals, especially metals, without contaminating the environment and affecting public health,” Funes stated during a public appearance in early 2010.

The president’s comments came just weeks after a pair of anti-mining activists in the northern department of Cabañas were shot and killed in separate attacks. The victims – Dora Sorto Recinos, who was eight months pregnant at the time; and Ramiro Rivera – were outspoken critics of El Dorado, a gold mine Pacific Rim still hopes to open in the area. Another El Dorado opponent, community organizer Marcelo Rivera, was murdered in mid 2009. Unknown assailants killed a fourth anti-mining activist, a young volunteer named Juan Francisco Durán Ayala, in June, 2011.

Seeking outside help

El Salvador has paid dearly for its decision to keep foreign mining firms out of the country’s supposedly sovereign subsoil. And yet the anti-movement – as marked as it has been by tragedy – has also enjoyed a fair share of triumphs. For one thing, the mining freeze looks to remain in place, especially in light of a 2012 MARN report which concluded that El Salvador “is not in a position to develop metals mining with environmental guarantees.”

The state has also enjoyed successes on the international legal front. Last year the World Bank’s ICSID gave Pacific Rim a green light to continue with its multi-million-dollar lawsuit against El Salvador, but only after significantly paring the down the company’s case. In 2011 the ICSID dismissed a similar suit altogether. The plaintiff in that case was a US firm from Milwaukee, Wisconsin called Commerce Group Corporation.

Salvadoran mine opponents would like nothing better than to send Goldcorp and its Cerro Blanco project packing as well. So far, however, that is proving easier said than done – for the simple reason that the mine, for all of the problems it could end up causing El Salvador, is about 18 kilometers shy of actually being in El Salvador.

Any order to shutter the mine, in other words, would have to come from Guatemala, where complaints by Salvadoran environmental groups, Church leaders and even the vice president – who aired his grievances last year on Twitter – seem to be falling on deaf ears. As President Funes himself told reporters in late 2010: “Keep in mind that it’s up to each president to make sovereign decisions regarding his territory.”

Cerro Blanco’s Salvadoran critics plan to keep lobbying for its closure regardless. They urge President Funes to do the same. During his January presentation, Óscar Luna called on the president to order detailed studies of the issue in order to determine “the impacts and costs this project will have on El Salvador’s natural resources, economy, health, biodiversity and [human] lives, not only in areas close [to the mine] but in the country as a whole.”

As Luna’s recent overture to the IACHR demonstrated, the movement is also looking to bring more international pressure to bear on the issue. Another potential ally is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In 2011 UNESCO added the tri-border (El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala) area around the mine to its Man and the Biosphere (MAB) program. The UN agency refers to the zone as the “Trifinio Fraternidad Biosphere Reserve.” The area “gives birth to the Lempa River, which crosses the three countries before reaching the Pacific Ocean,” UNESCO’s MAB program website reads. “Three million people depend on the waters of the River for their livelihood.”

(This article originally appeared February, 2013 in LADB)

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