Oxfam calls for investigation into human rights violations against mining activists in El Salvador

By jforres

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Washington, D.C. – International humanitarian organization Oxfam America calls on the government of El Salvador to investigate the death of Juan Francisco Duran Ayala, a student who disappeared after posting flyers as part of a campaign against Canadian mining company Pacific Rim in Cabañas northern El Salvador. Ayala, a member of the Environmental Committee of Cabanas for the Defense of Water and Culture (CAC), was last seen in San Salvador where he was attending university.

“The Salvadoran government should take immediate steps to investigate the death of Mr. Ayala and hold the responsible parties accountable,” said Keith Slack, manager of Oxfam America’s global extractive industries program. “There is concern within the community that his death is related to work against Pacific Rim’s efforts to set up operations in Cabañas, where mining-related conflicts have led to a wave of recent violence and death threats.”

Pacific Rim has filed a $77 million lawsuit against the Salvadoran government, arguing that the government’s failure to issue a mining exploitation permit in 2009 due to environmental concerns violates the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Recently, the United States government supported El Salvador in the trade dispute, which is currently being heard by an international tribunal at the World Bank.

“The Salvadoran government should get to the bottom of the human rights violations and violence happening in Cabañas,” said Juliana Turqui, Oxfam’s extractive industries program coordinator based in Central America. “The proposed mining project has divided the region and we are genuinely concerned for the safety of citizens there.”

The death of Ayala follows the deaths of three other mining activists in the region. The most recent is the shooting of Dora Sorto in December 2009, who was eight months pregnant when unknown assailants shot her dead and injured her two-year old son. Neither one of the three cases has been solved satisfactorily, but all of them are publicly linked to the profound division that mining projects have provoked in the communities of Cabañas.

NOTES TO THE EDITOR:

- Juan Francisco Duran Ayala disappeared June 3 after leaving his house to go to classes at the Technological University in San Salvador. A Salvadoran press report states that police found his body the next day in a soccer field with two gunshots in the head but did not inform his family until June 14 that the body matched Ayala's description.

- In 2005, Pacific Rim applied for an operating license to open a mining project in the department of Cabañas, in the north of the country. It is suing for the losses incurred on investments made during exploration work. Pacific Rim filed the suit based on the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), specifically chapter 10 on investments and chapter 12 on dispute resolution. The lawsuit was filed with the World Bank's International Center for Settlement of Investment (ICSID).

- The lawsuit has contributed to increased tensions in the region. There has been a string of at least three murders and numerous threats made against mining opponents in the last three years. Local residents believe that Juan Francisco Duran Ayala's death could another in this series. He was a student at the Technological University in San Salvador where he was completing a masters in linguistics. He worked with Francisco Pineda, 2011 winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize who has also received death threats over the years for leading a citizens' movement to stop the gold mine.

- Local groups such as the Environmental Committee of Cabañas (CAC) and residents are concerned the mine will negatively affect local water supplies and ruin their ability to grow crops. Oxfam America is financially supporting and advising local organizations in El Salvador to help communities such as Cabañas stand up for their right to decide whether or not to accept mining.

- Oxfam America is also working with international civil society organizations to raise awareness globally of the human rights violations happening in Cabañas. Oxfam has met recently with members of Congress and the Obama administration to raise concerns. In February, Oxfam America supported the filing by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) of an 'amicus curiae' --a friend of the court brief--in the Pacific Rim case at ICSID. The arguments made in the amicus were supported by the US government in its own filing with ICSID in May of this year.