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Is El Salvador independent?

Vidalina Morales speaks to the crowd at Independence Day celebrations in San Isidro Photo by James Rodriguez/Oxfam America.

Independence Day in San Isidro features a fiesta, and concerns about mining and its effects on future generations in El Salvador.

San Isidro is alive with patriotism today—its Independence Day in El Salvador and the entire town is in the central plaza, as each school’s marching band and cheerleader squad parade past and perform in the muggy heat and drizzling rain. Some of the cheerleaders make the sign of the cross as they pass the town’s church. Across the street is a low yellow building, a cultural center named for Marcelo Rivera, whose tortured body was found 12 days after he disappeared in 2009. He was killed, people in the town assume, for his opposition to a proposed gold mine.

Next to a large painting of Rivera (and Archbishop Romero, the iconic martyr-in-chief of El Salvador) on the side of the building, a young man in sunglasses and a black Megadeth t-shirt asks people to sign a petition and letters to Michael Wilkes, the managing director and CEO of Oceana Gold, an Australian company that recently bought the rights to mineral deposits near here in the department of Cabañas

A mural of environmental activist Marcelo Rivera is on the town’s cultural center in San Isidro. He was an ardent critic of a proposal to mine for gold in Cabañas, and received numerous death threats before he was kidnapped, tortured, and killed in 2009. Photo by Chris Hufstader/Oxfam America.

I am here to learn more about the struggle against mining in Cabañas, and all over El Salvador, one of the only countries I can think of where citizens are actually working to ban metal mining altogether. If they can block the mine in Cabañas, it will have national implications.

I ask a young woman at the table why they are asking for petition signatures today. “We’re here to raise awareness,” says Sara Mejia, 23, an education student in her last year of university who wants this independence celebration to be about a bit more than flag waving. “People need to move from patriotism to real problems facing the community.” Coming from a farming family, she is concerned that mining pollution will affect the water her father relies on for his 10 cows and maize fields.

Opponents to mining in Cabañas have staged this fiesta to raise awareness of the threat of pollution of nearby rivers they say will come if the government allows mining here. But the government may not have much of a choice: It has not granted a permit to the company to actually start mining (citing lack of compliance with legal requirements), but the company has filed a suit against the government of El Salvador for more than $300 million. A panel of judges at an investment dispute court in Washington will decide who wins.

Vidalina Morales, 46, the vice president of a local development organization called ADES sees the irony of the hearing in Washington on El Salvador’s national holiday: “This is also the day that the government is being sued for not allowing mining here.” It makes her wonder, she says, “what true independence is to us.”

Members of MUFRAS 32 carry a banner to the center of San Isidro on Independence Day. Photo by James Rodriguez/Oxfam America.

While the cheerleaders twirl their batons, ADES and another partner of Oxfam’s called MUFRAS 32 hold a rally, with traditional music, speeches, and slogan chanting (“Si a la vida! No a la mina!).  In Washington, the judges at the World Bank’s tribunal will hear arguments from the government of El Salvador and Oceana Gold. It’s a strange coincidence that calls into question whether a poor country like El Salvador can ever really be independent if the World Bank can force it to sell out its own water, and people, for it minerals.

But MUFRAS 32 and ADES have allies in other parts of the world. On Independence Day they were in Washington protesting in front of the World Bank, calling for Oceana Gold to drop its case and its intentions to mine in San Isidro. Vidalina Morales says she would have liked to have been in Washington on this day, but seemed glad that others were there taking up the cause.

El Salvador and its people have the right to decide whether or not they want this gold mine in their country—and their decision needs to be respected. Tell OceanaGold to drop their case against El Salvador.

Sign the petition

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