In an historic vote, El Salvador became the first nation in the world to ban metal mining. On Wednesday, March 29, the Legislative Assembly voted unanimously to approve the Law to Ban Metal Mining, which prohibits all mining activities from exploration to extraction to processing.
Despite last minute lobbying by one of the country’s largest mining interests, all 70 present members of the assembly voted in favor of the ban. It now heads to President Salvador Sánchez Cerén’s desk who has said he will sign it.
Representative Ana Marina Alvarenga, from the left-wing FMLN party, said that the vote was a “popular victory in which our great little country has won this battle against a transnational (mining) company.”
The vote marked the culmination of more than a decade of pressure from community activists, environmentalists, and increasingly, from the powerful Catholic church. In the viewing section of the Legislative Assembly, activists cheered, hugged, and cried as the vote total passed the threshold.
“The unanimous vote to prohibit mining vindicated communities who for more than a decade organized relentlessly to demand a mining ban and their right to determine their form of sustainable development,” said Pedro Cabezas, a member of the International Allies Against Mining in El Salvador, a key organizing and solidarity group.
Over the past three years, Cabezas has worked within local networks to organize municipal referendums on mining. In community after community, majorities voted to impose bans within their borders.
The anti-mining movement was able to bridge deeply partisan divides and rally supporters with the slogan “No to Mining! Yes to Life!” The message focused on the well-being of Salvadorans and argued that mining posed a grave risk to the country’s fragile environment.
FMLN Representative Guillermo Mata, who is the president of the Assembly’s Environment and Climate Change Commission, highlighted that fragility pointing out that El Salvador “is a densely populated country...with less than 3% of forests remaining, and 90% of the surface and subterranean water is contaminated.” He added that mining companies’ use of toxic chemicals, primarily cyanide, “harms ecosystems, harms biodiversity, and contaminates the air and soil.”
El Salvador is listed by the United Nations as one of the most environmentally degraded countries in the Latin America, and that’s without any major mining operations. The enormous threat of large-scale mining for rural communities with limited access to resources drew in the Catholic hierarchy, which overcame its own internal divisions to unite against mining in order to protect the people of El Salvador.
In the past few months, the church threw its weight behind the ban. In February, the Archbishop of San Salvador, José Luis Escobar Alas, delivered the bill for the Law to Ban Mining to the Legislative Assembly. In early March, the church called an anti-mining rally and garnered promises from key political leaders to support the ban.
Escobar Alas urged the Salvadoran representatives, “of every political party, with dignity, approve this law that aims to protect El Salvador, to protect everyone, especially the poorest that live in those (affected) areas.”
The years long struggle had a dark side. The El Dorado project (originally owned by Pacific Rim before being acquired by Australian-Canadian mining giant OceanaGold in 2013) in the northern province of Cabañas became the epicenter of the conflict. Between 2009-2011, four activists and community leaders were murdered. After the vote, representatives, activist leaders, and Church officials took a moment to honor the memories of Marcelo Rivera, Ramiro Rivera Gómez, Dora Alicia Recinos Sorto (who was eight months pregnant), and Juan Francisco Durán Ayala.
The El Dorado project generated a legal battle that lasted nearly a decade between OceanaGold/Pacific Rim and the Government of El Salvador. After the president of El Salvador placed a moratorium on mining in 2008, the company sued the small Central American country for $250 million dollars for an alleged violation of investor rights.
Under Free Trade Agreement rules, the case ended up before the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), a World Bank tribunal, which found that the company had not complied with the basic requirements for a mining permit. The panel awarded El Salvador $8 million to partially cover its legal fees. OceanaGold has still not paid the amount ordered by the court and continued operate a pro-mining foundation and to lobby the government to allow it to mine in the country.
The day before the assembly’s vote, the ICSID ordered OceanaGold to pay 2 to 5 percent interest per month on the $8 million it owes to the government. In the days leading up to the vote, lawmakers reported that OceanaGold paid residents from the countryside to rally against the ban at the capital.
Vidalina Morales, the president of the Association for Economic and Social Development (ADES) in Cabañas and an internationally known environmental activist, has been fighting against mining in El Salvador from the very beginning. She hopes El Salvador’s monumental victory will reverberate around the world.
“It is a momentous step in the history of a country as small as El Salvador, that opens the doors to be an example to other countries in the world that must focus their eyes and heart on their people, on their environment.”