President Saca speaks out against mining in El Salvador

By aperera

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In a telephone call aired on a Catholic Radio Station in late February, El Salvador's outgoing President Elias Antonio Saca stated that his government would not give out any mining permits. President Saca has reiterated this position several times in other media outlets. Political analysts in El Salvador believe newly-elected president Mauricio Funes, who takes office in June, will uphold this position.

El Salvador is a densely populated nation, with over 300 people living in each square kilometer (with roughly 800 people living in each square mile). It is also a country where 96 percent of the surface water is contaminated, and where only 3 percent of the original forest cover still stands. It is for these reasons that Oxfam, the Catholic Church, the Roundtable on Metals Mining, and other sectors of society believe that mining projects are inappropriate for the country under current conditions. With this telephone call to the radio station, the President agreed. His strong and firm position could have far reaching implications for the efforts of various civil society organizations to reform the current Mining Law.

The arrival of mining companies to El Salvador in recent years has provoked tensions and conflicts between affected communities and other sectors of society. Under the rules of the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), Canadian mining company Pacific Rim began an arbitration process last December against El Salvador for refusing to grant the company a mining production license. Saca says he would prefer to confront the company and be forced to pay it the US $77 million it says it has invested in the country rather than negotiate with the company and grant the license.

Oxfam America, which has raised concerns about mining activity in El Salvador, its impacts on communities, and its role in the development process, supports Saca's position.

"It's an important step for El Salvador to be the first Latin American country that undertakes a critical analysis of the costs and benefits of these mining projects and exercises its right to say 'no' to mining within its borders," says Andrés McKinley, a program officer for extractive industries with Oxfam's office in Central America. Oxfam America has an international campaign which maintains that both communities and governments have the right to know the full extent of the potential impacts of mining projects and the right to freely decide whether or not they want these projects in the country. (Right to Know, Right to Decide Campaign).

In its desire to turn the words of the highest government authority into a firm commitment, the National Roundtable On Metals Mining presented a memorandum in the legislature on March 3. This correspondence asks the legislators to vote in favor of a bill that prohibits metals mining in El Salvador. The bill was originally presented by the Roundtable in December 2006.

"The position of the president is an excellent one, albeit belated," says Francisco Pineda of the National Roundtable on Metals Mining."After four years in government he proved us—the communities, the church and the studies—correct: mining is bad. That's why we are presenting this memorandum, so that the President's message can become a political position," he said. "This issue was second on the agenda, which means it is considered important. Legislators of different parties and factions that wouldn't meet with us in the past are now doing so. We listened to the speech given by an ARENA legislator and he took the same position as the President. We hope this is not merely because we are in a campaign season, but that they continue to take this position for the good of the Salvadoran people."

Since 2005, Oxfam America has been working on the issue of mining in Central America. Through its studies, such as the recently published report, "Metals Mining and Sustainable Development in Central America: An assessment of Benefits and Costs"; its participation in forums; its dialogue with NGOs and government agencies; and media interviews, Oxfam has promoted public debate on mining. We provide information on mining and its impacts, and provide advocacy training to coalitions of organizations concerned about the possible impacts of this industry. In addition, we help coalitions engage in productive dialogue with the government, to develop concrete proposals, and use non-violent strategies.