In Texistepeque, El Salvador, farmers question wisdom of relying on mining

By Chris Hufstader

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El Salvador is at a crossroads in its path to economic development. High prices for commodities like gold have mining companies aggressively exploring and staking their claims for large-scale, industrial mining projects in this small country of six million, but many farmers, civil society organizations, and even the Catholic Church and government ministers are questioning this route to development.

Mining has never been a significant part of El Salvador's economy, but modern techniques make it attractive in some areas. The Canadian mining company Pacific Rim is currently exploring for minerals in three areas, and has requested a concession to restart mining at the El Dorado mine in the department of Cabañas where it says it has invested $28 million and can produce 1.2 million ounces of gold and 7.4 million ounces of silver. Pacific Rim is also in the early stages of exploration on its Zamora project, near Texistepeque, Santa Ana.

Community response

Farmers near the town of Texistepeque are skeptical about mining, and some have even visited large-scale mines in Honduras and come back opposed to any mining in El Salvador. Salvador Antonio Seseña Rodruígez, 62, is one of the farmers who made the trip to the San Andres mine in Honduras. "I was really impressed by the destruction," he said about the mine. "We saw the main river there was almost dry, and there was no life in the river."

Rodruígez is a father of 10, and makes a living raising cows and growing corn and beans. So he was particularly concerned about the water problems he saw. "We already have a water crisis here," he says. "We can't drink contaminated water. How will we end up if we allow mining here?"

It was through his church and a meeting with the Centro de Investigación Sobre Inversión y Comercio (know as CEICOM) that he participated in the exchange visit. He came back ready to mobilize others in his community.

Oxfam involvement

Oxfam America is working with CEICOM and a coalition of social, environmental, and other civil society organizations pushing for a voice in a real debate about whether mining is suitable for El Salvador, where some estimates say 90 percent of surface water is already polluted. The country has also been largely deforested, leaving many communities at risk of landslides during heavy rains, so many are already concerned about the environment. The Salvadorian Bishop's Conference released a statement saying mining causes damage to the environment and communities in May of 2007.

Civil society organization in El Salvador have proposed a law that would prohibit all hard-rock mineral mining, arguing the country is too densely populated and water is too scarce to support the industry.

Oxfam America's program in Central America, which is based in El Salvador, is working to enrich the debate on this issue, help civil society project its voice and hold the government accountable to the people, and provide information about mining and its effects on communities and the environment that citizens can use to make informed decisions.

Government and company response

The government of El Salvador has said it will not grant any new licenses to explore or operate mines until it does a strategic environmental study to assess the likely impact of open-pit mining in the country. "We feel this study should be done with the participation of civil society," says David Pereira of CEICOM. He said that in 2006 the minister of natural resources came out publicly against mining, saying the government did not have the capacity to regulate the industry. The minister then challenged civil society to change the laws and cautioned land owners not to sell their land to mining companies.

Some members of the senate have written a public letter to government leaders saying that they believe allowing industrial mining into the northern areas of the country will jeopardize development projects supported by the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a $460-million, US government-funded foreign aid program, to bring sustained economic development in that region.

Pacific Rim continues to explore at El Dorado, which it says is its flagship property. The company is running an aggressive public relations campaign with radio ads introducing the slogan "minería verde" in an attempt to win hearts and minds of government and citizens. It also sponsors municipal soccer teams, and holds community meetings to sway farmers to accept mining in their community.

In the meantime, the Environmental Committee of Cabañas is reporting that 10 natural springs have dried up in the past month in areas close to Pacific Rim exploratory drilling. These reports have been verified by the Ministry of Natural Resources. In one of the cases, cattle-raising communities lost their natural spring four days after Pacific Rim began drilling. The company is now trucking in daily rations of water.