Giving their lives to stop a gold mine in El Salvador

By Anna Kramer
Francisco Pineda, Oxfam America partner in El Salvador and winner of the 2011 Goldman Environmental Prize for his efforts to protect his community from the harmful effects of a gold mine. Photo: Jessica Erickson/Oxfam America

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For the last few years, people have been threatening to kill Francisco Pineda.

Following a series of death threats and a poisoning attempt, he lives with 24-hour police protection at his home in El Salvador. He worries about the safety of his wife and three children. He can name friends and colleagues who haven’t been so lucky: Ramiro Rivera, shot in 2009. Francisco Duran Ayala, college student, murdered earlier this year. Dora Sorto, eight months pregnant when she was killed in 2009.

But Pineda, who visited Boston last week during a US speaking tour, takes this violence—as well as the honors he’s received—in stride . Good or bad, all are part of the fight that’s dominated his life for the last seven years: a battle, now playing out on the international stage, to protect Salvadoran communities from the harmful effects of a gold mine.

When a river runs dry

This year Pineda won the Goldman Environmental Prize, a prestigious award honoring grassroots heroes worldwide. His all-volunteer organization, the Environmental Committee of Cabañas (CAC), includes members from 26 different towns in the Cabañas region. He’s partnered with Oxfam America to take his fight to the national and global level.

But before Pineda became a leader, he was a farmer. His fight began in his cornfields in 2004, when the river that irrigated his crops suddenly ran dry.

Much of El Salvador’s surface water is polluted, and in rural areas few people have access to municipal water. So Pineda and other farmers were outraged to discover pumps draining the clean water from their local river to construct the Pacific Rim gold mine. They took their concerns to their mayor, who told them that the Canadian mining company was too big to fight.

“That’s when we said ‘fine—we’re going to organize, and we’ll be responsible for getting these people to leave,’” Pineda recalled.

Their efforts convinced Pacific Rim to take down the pumps. Meanwhile, Pineda began to study and talk with others about the long-term environmental consequences of gold mining, including toxic chemicals in the local water supply. Company representatives denied locals' concerns in a series of public meetings. “They even tried to convince us that cyanide was safe to drink,” said Pineda.

With support from Oxfam, Pineda and others traveled to communities affected by mining in Honduras and Peru. There, they documented severe environmental damage, increased poverty, and human rights violations. “We brought this [evidence] home and said ‘look what’s in store for us,” said Pineda. “That helped convince local people they didn’t want this mine in their community.”

The fight of their lives

CAC’s local and national demonstrations against the mine helped achieve a major victory: The Salvadoran government denied Pacific Rim’s mining permit in 2009, citing potential environmental hazards. Pacific Rim has since scaled down their operations in Cabañas. They also filed a $77 million lawsuit against the government, arguing that the denial violates the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The US supported El Salvador in the trade dispute, currently being heard by an international tribunal at the World Bank.

“This is a key case for determining whether mining will take place in El Salvador, and it has broader implications for countries’ right to decide what kinds of development are most appropriate for them,” said Keith Slack, manager of Oxfam America’s Right to Know, Right to Decide campaign.

Meanwhile, Pineda and other leaders in the anti-mining movement have become targets.

“No one has been prosecuted for these actions,” said Pineda of the murders of his fellow CAC members. “The police say they were killed because of ‘personal matters’, but all of the people who died were environmental activists.” Oxfam America is working with international civil society organizations to increase global awareness of the human rights violations in Cabañas, and has raised concerns with members of Congress and the Obama administration.

Pineda said the media attention he’s received since winning the Goldman Prize has helped protect him from further attacks. But with the honor comes an increased sense of personal responsibility.

“You feel the weight of trying to help all of the people who have put their faith in you,” he said.

Still, Pineda remains committed to his goal of stopping mining in El Salvador for good.

“This is our responsibility as parents: to protect our land and water for our kids,” he said. “We’ve been in this fight for years, and the mining company has tried frightening us and diminishing our movement. …  All of us are volunteers, but we’re still ready to give our lives for this.”