Living under the constant threat of assassination, Francisco Pineda was awarded the Goldman Prize in 2011 for courageously leading a citizens’ movement that stopped a gold mine owned by OceanaGold (formerly Pacific Rim) from destroying El Salvador’s dwindling water resources and the livelihoods of rural communities throughout the country.
Gold mining is notoriously damaging to the environment. Mine operators often employ a process known as cyanide leeching, whereby cyanide, a highly toxic chemical, is mixed with water pulled from local supplies and applied to rock deposits to extract the gold within them. The toxic runoff then spreads to surrounding land and often ends up contaminating rivers, creeks and groundwater.
Due in large part to Pineda’s leadership, the Salvadoran government has not granted OceanaGold the necessary extraction permit to move forward with their project. However, the fate of the project is yet to be determined. OceanaGold filed suit against El Salvador, claiming that “El Salvador imposed an ‘illegal and unjustified ban’ on metal mining… that ignored a 1999 investment law under which its predecessor had plowed tens of millions of dollars into exploration.”
The dispute is being heard by a three-judge tribunal of the World Bank and will decide if OceanaGold will get a green light for the project, or in its lieu receive $301 million in compensation from the Salvadorian government. The tribunal, known formally as the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes, will issue its ruling in early 2015.
In the guest blog and Q&A below, Pineda, President of De Cabañas Environmental Committee, gives us his thoughts on the dispute:
Metal mining remains a threat for the present and future of life in El Salvador. In countries like El Salvador metal mining is seen as a means for economic growth, providing financial stability and badly needed job opportunities. However, this work greatly threatens the quantity and quality of water resources that the local population depends on for consumption and food production, leading to environmental deterioration, an impaired quality of life and a reduction in life expectancy.
The company Pacific Rim Oceana Gold continues to take advantage of the poor economic situation of Salvadorian families and the problem of stagnation in economic development. Instability and corruption make government officials and political leaders especially vulnerable to the interests of mining companies. They receive funds in exchange for their silence on the negative impacts of mining. Environmentally destructive projects are given the green light and officials try to convince the population that they are a good opportunity to fight poverty. Voices of dissent are silenced, often by murder.
I have received repeated threats and survived an attempted poisoning in 2008, and many of my colleagues and friends have been harassed and killed, including a young student and a woman who was eight months pregnant.
And yet, our resistance against metal mining does not stop.
Now OceanaGold is suing the Salvadoran state for $300 million, because the country has denied them a permit to start mining. It is an outrageous amount of money they ask for, and it will come out of the budget for the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education, which is where most social investment is needed for the poorest families of El Salvador.
I ask the environmental and social activism community, as well as my fellow Goldman Prize winners to write a letter to the World Bank, in particular the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes, demanding justice for the Salvadorian people, whose lives and livelihoods are put at risk by this lawsuit.
As an environmental activist and a member of the community that will be impacted by the decision, how do you and other community members feel about the fate of the mining project being decided by a three judge tribunal in Washington, DC, instead of by the local community or the Salvadorian government?
We feel it is totally unjustified that a decision impacting our quality of life is being decided by people who do not know and do not feel the love we feel for our land. No one feels represented before this jury and our opinions are not taken into account.
Is there anything you and your community can do/are doing to make sure your voices are heard at the tribunal?
It is impossible to have a voice in this type of case. It is set up so that those who are directly affected cannot participate. It feels like our human rights are being violated and like only the interests of large companies are being protected.
If the mine is given the green light, what will it mean for your community? Will you fight the decision?
It will mean death and suffering for our community. It could also lead to a peasant uprising.
What will it mean for the financial stability of the country if the mine project is rejected and El Salvador is ordered to pay $301 million in compensation to OceanaGold? Can the country afford it?
This is extortion. These companies are using tactics that violate our country’s sovereignty. We are already in economic trouble and this lawsuit jeopardizes our government’s investment in education and health of the people.
El Salvador does not have the money to pay such a compensation fee and we should not have to pay in our silver and gold resources, which are rightfully ours.
With the tribunal deciding to either give the project the green light or make El Salvador pay $301 million in compensation, it seems like a win/win for the mining company, so what would be the ideal outcome for you and your community?
The company says that it is respectful of human rights and the environment. We hope they will honor what they say, and if they do not, risk being responsible for a new social conflict in El Salvador.