On Friday, dozens of people gathered outside the office of Chrystia Freeland, Minister of International Trade, to demonstrate their solidarity with the people of El Salvador who have waited seven years for a World Bank tribunal decision in the controversial case of OceanaGold v. El Salvador. The rally, organized by the Council of Canadians and the Toronto-based Mining Injustice Solidarity Network (MISN), demonstrated support for El Salvador's sovereignty in deciding to stop issuing mining licenses.
In this multi-million dollar David-and-Goliath case, PacRim Cayman (now OceanaGold) sued El Salvador for $250 million (U.S.) for denying the company a mining permit. However, in a cautiously celebrated decision, the World Bank decided that Pac Rim's lawsuit was without merit and hence that El Salvador will not have to pay the company the $250 million that it sought.
Since 2009, a national roundtable of organizations in El Salvador (La Mesa), has opposed mining in the country and has rallied the overwhelming majority of the public against mining. A 2015 poll commissioned by the University of Central America found that close to four-fifths of Salvadorans opposed mining. El Salvador has one major watershed, the Lempa River, which supplies water for over half the country's population. The proposed mine would threaten this watershed through both use of water and contamination.
Holding banners that read "Stop Corporate Bullying: ‘Free’ trade is a financial weapon" and "Mining Injustice is Canada’s Foreign Policy" those gathered denounced the overall lack of transparency and democracy associated with private tribunals, such as the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), which heard the PacRim Cayman v. El Salvador case.
Council of Canadians staff member Rachel Small MC'ed the rally and explained to those gathered how "mining companies take advantage of investor-state dispute clauses to force governments to make decisions that put corporate interests ahead of the welfare of their citizens."
Connie Sorio from Kairos read from a solidarity statement released by organizations in the Philippines also speaking out against the potential harms of OceanaGold’s operations. Local organizations in Nueva Vizcaya are calling for an end to mining operations and for their lands to be rehabilitated. The statement highlighted "massive environmental degradation, human rights abuses, and the pollution of waterways and agricultural lands in the area."
Speakers pointed out that, in the ICSID, it is ultimately corporate lawyers – not judges – who decide whether governments must pay corporations for halting destructive mining projects. They also highlighted the absurdity of Canada’s ongoing praise of international trade deals and the assertion that they will contribute to economic development in countries like El Salvador. Others noted that these deals take power away from democratically-elected governments, placing it in the hands of corporations to make decisions that may negatively impact national economies.
As Merle Davis, from the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network (MISN) pointed out, "even though this case can be counted as a success in the struggle against corporate impunity, it demonstrates the punitive powers of an industry that itself operates with impunity."
Seven people have been killed while resisting OceanaGold/Pacific Rim's mining operations in El Salvador and the Philippines. At the rally their names were read aloud and flowers were laid to honour their lives:
June 18, 2009 - Gustavo Marcelo Rivera. A community leader and anti-mining activist, Rivera was disappeared. Less than two weeks later his corpse was found at the bottom of a 60-foot well, while an autopsy later revealed he was strangled to death and tortured.
December 20, 2009 - Ramiro Rivera and Felicita Echeverría. Rivera was Vice-President of the Comité Ambiental de Cabañas -- which works to educate the community about the health and environmental risks of cyanide contamination as a result of gold mining operations by Pacific Rim/OceanaGold in El Salvador. He and his neighbour, Felicita Echeverría, were killed in the same incident.
December 26, 2009 - Dora "Alicia" Sorto Recinos. An active opponent of Pacific Rim/OceanaGold's El Dorado gold mine in El Salvador, Sorto Recinos was shot and killed as she returned home from doing her laundry. She was eight months pregnant at the time. Her other small child was also injured in the attack.
June 17, 2011 - Juan Franciso Durán Ayala. A student anti-mining activist assassinated resisting Pacific Rim-OceanaGold in El Salvador.
December 7, 2012 - Cheryl Ananayo and Randy Nabayay. Ananayo was a member of Didipio Earthsavers Multipurpose Association (Desama), a people’s organization opposed to OceanaGold’s Didipio gold-copper project in Nueva Vizacaya, Philippines. Her cousin-in-law Randy Nabayay was killed in the same attack.
In 2008, after years of violence, conflict, environmental degradation, and water pollution at the hands of mining companies, then-president of El Salvador Antonio Saca stopped issuing new mining permits. This decision has widespread support in El Salvador; a recent poll of the University of Central America (UCA) indicates that that 79.5% of Salvadorans are against any gold mining.
In 2009, OceanaGold (then called Pacific Rim) sued El Salvador through an "investor-state dispute settlement" (ISDS) case at the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), the World Bank Group's arbitration venue. The charge? "Loss of potential profits". These types of suits are increasingly possible under free trade agreements, including ones currently being negotiated by the Canadian government (for example: the TPP and CETA).
If OceanaGold had won, El Salvador would have been required to pay $250 million USD, a morally reprehensible demand. Already, in the seven years that this arbitration has gone on, $12 million USD in legal costs have been incurred, which is enough to pay for over two years of adult literacy classes in El Salvador.
Given the current global economic context, none of this is surprising: Canada is home to over 75% of the global mining industry, and this is because the Canadian government provides very little in terms of accountability mechanisms for communities impacted by the mining industry and actively promotes this industry's interests through trade agreements, investment treaties, and foreign policy. ISDS mechanisms found in trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), and the impending Trans-Pacific Partnership prevent governments like that of El Salvador from saying no to foreign investments that threaten the environment and health of local populations.
The number of investor-state suits like these has ballooned in recent years. As of 2013, there were 169 investor-state suits being heard at ICSID, up from only 3 in 2000. About 35% were brought by oil, gas, and mining firms and nearly 50% of all 169 suits were against Latin American governments.
These suits take place far beyond any democratic process or court system and undermine democratic decision-making and regulatory measures that protect the public interest in El Salvador, in Canada, and around the world.