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UPDATE: Salvadorans defend Lempa River watershed from Canadian mining company

Lempa River

Lempa River

Just last month in The Nation, John Cavanagh and Robin Broad wrote, “Residents of (the northern Salvadoran community of Santa Marta in the northern department of Cabanas) are fighting US and Canadian mining companies eager to extract the rich veins of gold buried near the Lempa River, the water source for more than half of El Salvador’s 6.2 million people, (which also winds through Guatemala and Honduras). …The communities’ goal: to make El Salvador the first nation to ban gold mining.”

“The mining corporation that had come to Cabañas was the Vancouver-based Pacific Rim, one of several dozen companies interested in obtaining mining ‘exploitation’ permits in the Lempa River watershed. In 2002 Pacific Rim acquired a firm that already had an exploration license for a Cabañas site bearing the promising name El Dorado. That license gave Pacific Rim the right to use such techniques as sinking exploratory wells to determine just how lucrative the site would be.”

Those in Santa Marta were concerned about water. “Francisco Pineda, a corn farmer and charismatic organizer with the Environmental Committee of Cabañas, …who received the 2011 Goldman Environmental Award (which some call the Environmental Nobel Prize, talks) about watching the river near his farm dry up: ‘This was very strange, as it had never done this before. So we walked up the river to see why… And then I found a pump from Pacific Rim that was pumping water for exploratory wells. All of us began to wonder, if they are using this much water in the exploration stage, how much will they use if they actually start mining?'” People were also concerned about “the safety of the containers that mining companies build to hold the cyanide-laced water used to separate gold from the surrounding rock” (given the area is prone to earthquakes), and about “the contamination of rivers by cyanide and other toxic chemicals.”

“Protesters around the globe know the sprawling structures that house the World Bank in Washington, yet few are aware that behind these doors sits a little-known tribunal that will be central to the Salvadoran gold story. The Salvadoran government never approved Pacific Rim’s environmental impact study, and thus never gave its permission to begin actual mining. In retaliation, the firm sued the government under the 2005 Central American Free Trade Agreement. Like other trade agreements, CAFTA allows foreign investors to file claims against governments over actions—including health, safety and environmental measures and regulations—that reduce the value of their investment. The affected farmers and communities are not part of the calculus. The most frequently used tribunal for such ‘investor-state’ cases is the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, housed at the World Bank. …Pacific Rim is demanding $77 million in compensation. …Many believe that even if Pacific Rim withdraws its case or loses in this tribunal, the very existence of ‘investor-state’ clauses in trade agreements is an affront to democracy.”

And, “While questions remain, many activists believe that pro-mining forces—including local politicians who stood to benefit if Pacific Rim started mining—are ultimately responsible for the 2009 murder of Marcelo Rivera. Marcelo, a cultural worker and popular educator from the Cabañas town of San Isidro, was an early and vibrant public face of the anti-mining movement. …Over a six-day period in late 2009, two other local activists were killed, one a woman who was eight months pregnant; the 2-year-old in her arms was wounded. …And in June, nearly two years after Marcelo Rivera’s murder, the body of a student volunteer with the Environmental Committee of Cabañas was found dead, with two bullets in his head. …’The last time he was seen by fellow environmental activists (he) was…distributing fliers against metallic mining in (Cabañas) in preparation for a public consultation about the mining sector taking place nearby.'”

The full article by Cavanagh and Broad can be read at http://www.thenation.com/article/162009/water-gold-el-salvador?page=0,0.

Several Council of Canadians blogs (dating back to May 2009) on Pacific Rim in Cabañas can be read at http://canadians.org/blog/?s=%22pacific+rim%22.