Edgardo Ayala : IPS News
Environmental organizations are not dropping the guard in their fight against the operations of transnational mining corporation OceanaGold, which has just lost litigation against El Salvador but does not show any signs of giving up the extractive business in this Central American country.
"The threat has not disappeared yet, they (OceanaGold) continue their efforts to confuse people with the supposed advantages of mining," activist Vidalina Morales of the Economic and Social Development Association Santa Marta, one of the 11 organizations that make up the National Roundtable Against Metallic Mining - la Mesa, told IPS.
"They are increasing their social outreach with the people of the region," stressed the member of la Mesa, who has led a fight in El Salvador to legally prohibit mining activity after the granting of new concessions was frozen in 2008.
Last October 14, the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), an institution of the World Bank, ruled in favor of El Salvador in the matter of a $250 million lawsuit filed in 2009 by Pacific Rim Mining Company, acquired in 2013 by Australian-Canadian corporation OceanaGold.
After several years of exploratory activities, the government of then-President Elías Antonio Saca of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) denied the company a permit to operate the El Dorado mine in 2008 near the municipality of San Isidro, in the northern department of Cabañas.
Later governments, led since 2009 by the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), have maintained the policy.
"Our fear is that the company is waiting for political conditions to change to allow it to continue its activities," added Morales, from the community of Santa Marta, Cabañas, during a trip to San Salvador to meet with other members of the Mesa.
This community of 3,500 families, located in the mountains of the department of Cabañas, has been at the forefront in the fight against the metal extractive industry since 2004.
The company "has not resigned and will never give up (in its interest to continue with its operations), they see the profits and chase them," executive director of the Association for Development of El Salvador Bernardo Belloso told IPS.
Already in 2008, the study The Dark Side of Gold warned about the environmental and social impacts of metal mining in the country.
The report revealed that, since 2006, 29 exploratory projects had been approved for 11 foreign companies, which planned to extract some 12 million ounces of gold and 78 of silver in total.
They planned to use about 22 million liters of water, and use some 950 tonnes of cyanide, a deadly toxic. Had these plans succeeded, there would have been global earnings of about $10 billion dollars US.
"El Salvador is a country with serious environmental problems that already suffers from water stress, and mining activity and the excessive use of water would end up affecting us all," said Belloso.
This small nation of 6.6 million people is the second most deforested in Latin America, with only 13 percent of forest cover, and the second most environmentally deteriorated according to several international reports.
The mining operation would have been a coup de grace to the environmental crisis, said Omar Serrano, academic vice-dean of the Central American University José Simeón Cañas, and part of the collective Lets Care for Everyone´s House.
Serrano said they are concerned that the company, instead of retreating after an adverse ICSID resolution, has been even more active and aggressive in its campaign to create an environment conducive to its activities in Cabañas, through its El Dorado Foundation.
They are lobbying government officials, mayors and other authorities, said the academic during his dialogue with IPS.
"OceanaGold does not leave because it has not lost the hope that they will obtain respective permits" he said.
The Collective's organizations also see little willingness on the part of OceanaGold to pay El Salvador the eight million dollars in legal costs imposed by the ICSID arbitration tribunal in dismissing its claim.
Following the ruling, the company issued a statement in which it said that it would evaluate the path to follow regarding its operations in El Salvador, which has been interpreted as trying to recur to some form of appeal.
The Collective demanded that the Salvadoran authorities suspend the activities of the El Dorado Foundation, the social arm of OceanaGold in the country, because it does not make sense for it to continue working if the corporation does not have any commercial activity.
Officials at the foundation did not respond to an IPS request for comments.
The organization also asked the attorney general to guarantee the payment of eight million, by confiscating the assets of the company, and that legislators initiate a debate to prohibit metallic mining in the Legislative Assembly
The National Rouldtable Against Metal Mining has proposed a bill to that end, but until now the text has not been discussed by legislators.
"Today is the right time to start the debate on a regulation that prohibits mining," Serrano said.
However, the balance of power in the unicameral Legislative Assembly, of 84 deputies, is not favorable to the initiative. Only the representatives of the ruling FMLN have been willing to discuss a project to ban mining, but they only add 31 lawmakers out of 43 needed.
That balance could change in the municipal and legislative elections scheduled for 2018, although the result may also be unfavorable.
Four municipalities of the country have held local referenda (consultas populares) on the viability of having mining activity in their jurisdictions, with support from the anti-mining movement, and the vast majority of voters have opposed it.
As a result of these consultations, they adopted municipal ordinances that prohibit extractive activity, but that may have little effect in practice since these legal instruments are not above national laws or the constitution.
The Mining and Hydrocarbons Law, in force since 1999, regulates this sector but does not prohibit it.
But the interviewees pointed out that, although the ordinances may not have the legal force to stop extractive projects, their objective is that the communities participate and make their own efforts to preserve their livelihoods and stop mining in El Salvador.
In any case, when current president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, came to power in 2014, he declared that "mining is unfeasible in El Salvador," so it is expected that at least during its five-year period there won’t be any concessions to extract metals in the country.
Metallic mining currently accounts for less than one percent of the Salvadoran gross domestic product, which is composed mainly by agricultural activity, maquilas (production for exports on behalf of third parties with imported inputs), remittances from migrants and services.