Pedals to the Metal

The grassroots activists behind El Salvador’s recent mining ban

El Salvador’s historic ban of all metal mining, which passed the national parliament this March, came about through a decade-long struggle of grassroots resistance and activism. jose cabezas / reuters
01 August, 2017

When Ana Dubón was 13 years old, she began to work at a local radio station, earning $2 a day. Contributing about $40 a month to the family made her feel like an adult. Her pride surged when she got to host her own show a year later.

Dubón lives in Guarjila village, in the Chalatenango department of north-western El Salvador. While other young radio jockeys played reggaeton on their programmes, she spoke about injustices she was witnessing in her community.

“In 2005, at just 15, I found myself talking about something serious: mining,” Dubón, now 26 years old, reminisced when I met her last August. “I knew nothing about mines, but I had to learn it all to talk about it on the radio.” We were in the kitchen-garden of her rural home in Guarjila, and she was trying to not let her two-year-old daughter slip from her arms. The toddler won, and began to dig into the mud.

Dubón’s curiosity led her to an anti-mining protest about 90 kilometres away, in El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador. She reported a story there, bringing home recordings of protestors’ voices to her quiet village. That led her to produce a series of shows focussed on the environmental damage caused by mining, such as water pollution and deforestation. Dubón soon connected with people at other radio stations who were reporting on mining and other environment-related issues.

This March, El Salvador became the first country in the world to ban metal mining, through a vote in the legislative assembly. But this was not a decision taken by politicians overnight—it came about through a decade-long battle of grassroots resistance and collective campaigning, led by many women such as Dubón.

El Salvador is one of the most environmentally degraded countries in all of Latin America. In an attempt to rebuild itself after a devastating 12-year civil war, which ended in 1992, the country took to rapid urbanisation and welcomed mining investments.

Mining companies soon became controversial, however, because of the environmental damage they often caused. In 2006, the non-profit organisation the Association for Economic and Social Development, or ADES, along with local organisations and Oxfam International, formed the National Roundtable Against Metal Mining, known as La Mesa. The organisation initiated a nationwide campaign against metal mining. La Mesa also had the support of the Catholic Church in El Salvador, a powerful institution in the country.

In 2008, the right-wing ARENA party, which was in power, put a moratorium on new mining permits in the country; the decision was precipitated by a study that showed high levels of cyanide and sulphur leaching into the San Sebastian River from a mine that had been closed for a decade. In El Salvador, opposition to mining has proven to be a fairly non-partisan issue; the moratorium remained in effect even after the left-wing FMLN party came to power.

Unsurprisingly, mining companies were highly displeased with the moratorium. In the mid 2000s, the Canadian mining giant Pacific Rim—which is now a subsidiary of the Australian mining company OceanaGold—had invested heavily to explore gold mines along the basin of the Lempa River, which supplies water to a significant part of El Salvador. So, in 2009, OceanaGold sued the Salvadoran government through a tribunal of the World Bank, claiming lost profits of a figure that it revised several times, ranging from $250 million to over $300 million. This punishing sum amounted to around 2 percent of El Salvador’s gross domestic product.

As the company cried foul, ADES began to scrutinise the potential effects on the environment of the mining projects OceanaGold had hoped to carry out, investigating the company’s explorations and permits. ADES soon found that OceanaGold’s environmental-impact reports, which mining companies are required to submit according to Salvadoran law, had not mentioned possible environmental effects, including excessive use of groundwater, which would have very likely occurred.

Vidalina Morales, a mother of five sons, and a teacher who was working with ADES, was deeply disturbed by the company’s exorbitant claim of lost profits of around $300 million. “That is money meant for our development, for our basic necessities,” she said, when I met her near the ADES office, in northern El Salvador’s department of Cabañas.

Morales has been an activist with La Mesa since its inception in 2006, helping coordinate campaigns in Cabañas, often using her skills as a teacher to speak with students. “We realised that the identity and development of our country cannot depend on mines,” she said. “Each time we would go to the community, they did not know anything about the mines. So that gave OceanaGold the leverage to campaign that mines would bring in jobs. On the other hand, we were campaigning against the mines, so communities were confused and divided.” Morales told me that many of those who supported the mines had received bribes from the mining company.

Dubón also worked with La Mesa, representing Chalatenango in the organisation’s national conversations. She told me that people she does not know have approached her at protests and told her to stop her activism. “Over the phone I was threatened that they know I have a daughter,” she said. “That was enough: I could no more travel by bus, as I once used to, feeling like a free person.” Dubón no longer works as a radio journalist. She misses it, but she remains the go-to person within her community for environment-related queries.

Others who speak out about mining on the radio have received similar threats. It has been widely reported that Pacific Rim even offered $8,000 a month to support the station Radio Victoria, on the condition that it stop broadcasting about the impact of mining.

The vibrant resistance made politicians seek to gauge popular opinion on mining. One of these was Teófilo Córdova Delgado, the mayor of the municipality Nueva Trinidad, in Chalatenango. I met him in his office last August. He was dwarfed by a large table and a long line of photographs on the wall of Marxist and Communist leaders.

Delgado told me about how he conducted many meetings with the community, trying to understand if they understood the implications of a referendum. In those meetings, he heard many stories about men who came into town as tourists, but took back small bags of soil from people’s farmland to conduct geological testing for prospective mining projects.

In May of 2015, Delgado conducted a referendum in Nueva Trinidad that posed the question, “Do you support gold mining here?” This was in reference to a mining project that, if it came in, would affect a large chunk of the municipality’s land. The results were staggering in their near-unanimity; out of 1,200 eligible voters, 808 people voted, of which 804 voted against mining. Delgado said that, of the 808 people who voted in Nueva Trinidad, 700 were registered FMLN party members, whereas the rest supported ARENA. “At the referendum everyone voted against the mines, because the interest of the environment was greater than one’s own political ideological beliefs,” the soft-spoken mayor said.

As nearly 70 percent of Chalatenango’s land would be affected by the mines, Delgado claimed, other municipalities in the department, such as Las Flores and Arcatao, also conducted referendums that yielded similar results. More referendums continued across El Salvador, and the national popular voice was united against metal mining.

Amanda Grzyb, a media-studies professor at the University of Western Ontario, was invited to be an international observer for two of El Salvador’s referendums: in Arcatao, Chalatenango, in November 2015; and in Cinquera, Cabañas, in February 2017. “The part of the strategy of the ‘consulta popular’—the referendum—is to formalise processes that exist within the Salvadoran municipal code,” she told me last month on Skype. “However, there could have been no guarantee that these local municipal bans on mining would hold up on a national level, and hence, the national ban is precedent.”

On 14 October, Dubón was drinking coffee at home when she received a call from one of the lawyers in the OceanaGold case, who told her that a verdict would be announced that day. She got online, and soon learnt that El Salvador had won. The World Bank tribunal had dismissed OceanaGold’s $301-million claim for compensation, and instead ordered the company to pay the Salvadoran government $8 million to cover legal costs incurred.

Just months later, on 29 March this year, the Salvadoran legislative assembly unanimously called for a ban on metal mining, becoming the first country in the world to do so. In a widely quoted tweet, Johnny Wright Sol, of the ARENA party, wrote, “Today, in El Salvador, water won out over gold.”

Dubón now has a position in her municipal office, and hopes to leverage it in defence of human rights. But she is most excited about going to college again, with a scholarship from a US-based non-profit.