In 2017, the government of El Salvador announced that it would be the first country in the world to ban mining. The action was hailed as a major environmental victory.
For half a century, industry has dumped waste and toxic chemicals into local rivers. Prioritizing clean water was imperative as climate change worsened droughts in the region. El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele – who has made investment and infrastructure central to his mandate – has implemented a series of measures that, at least at first glance, appear to be preparations for the return of mining. His government created a new department to oversee the extractive industries and began evaluating international agreements that would facilitate investment in precious metals.
He has also detained several anti-mining activists on charges that critics say are dubious. Five “water defenders”, who led the offensive to ban mining in 2017 and returned to demonstrate last year, were arrested in January 2023 for alleged involvement in a kidnapping and murder that took place during the country’s civil war, 30 years ago. years.
The legitimacy of the accusations is unclear. The water defenders were part of a resistance group fighting the right-wing dictatorship during the war. However, they hail from Santa Marta, a community founded by displaced people largely considered victims.
Silencing water advocates
“The arrests are politically motivated as they seek to silence these water advocates and demobilize community opposition at this crucial time.”, declared in a note the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank that also defended the prohibition of mining and is headquartered in Washington, DC, in the United States.
Water advocates began to speak out against industrial mining around 2005, when rising gold prices attracted growing interest in untapped deposits in northern El Salvador. Specifically, water advocates were concerned about mining near the Lempa River basin, which is one of the country’s main sources of water. It took more than a decade and several lawsuits before the country finally banned the industry.
One of those detained, Antonio Pacheco, is the director of the Association for Economic and Social Development (ADES), one of several organizations in northern El Salvador trying to draw attention to water contamination problems left over from the days leading up to the ban. 2017. His organization was also trying to raise awareness of the rise of artisanal mining, which is allegedly dependent on child labor and mercury.
In the third week of March 2023, the five water defenders remained in detention.
Mining may be back
There are other signs that mining may be making a comeback. In October 2021, with the approval of Congress, a government department was created to regulate the energy and mining sectors, called the General Directorate of Energy, Hydrocarbons and Mines. In addition, that same year, the country joined the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development, an international organization that supports the “sustainable development goals” for the mining sector. None of these institutions responded to the interviewer’s request for comment.
Last November, the country also began negotiating a trade deal with China that some environmentalists fear will include ways to introduce mining concessions. In recent years, China has aggressively penetrated Latin America with its Belt and Road initiative, a program international investment to develop infrastructure, energy and mining projects. El Salvador joined in 2019.
“We call on the international community to join the Salvadoran people in their struggle to protect water, defend the environment and protect the right to life, which is seriously threatened by the harmful extraction of metals,” 20 local environmental and public health groups said in a statement released in January 2023.
Lifting the mining ban is ignoring environmental concerns
Bukele has a history of launching controversial projects that ignore environmental concerns in the name of economic growth. A airport and new train lines that sought to bring international trade closer to the eastern half of the country circumvented preliminary environmental regulations and could endanger mangrove ecosystems. Several road projects also generate concern in relation to deforestation.
An unorthodox gamble for economic growth has been to make bitcoin legal tender along with the US dollar. Cryptocurrency went into crisis last year, and international observers feared the country would default connection of US$ 800 million in January. According to observers, if the country needs capital as well as economic stability, opening a profitable mining sector may be an option.
“It seems that the only way out that this government sees is to bet on investment”, said Vidalina Morales, president of ADES. “Youattract investors to the country to do the most viable: mining”.
* Main image: Anti-mining protesters in El Salvador. Photograph: Courtesy of the Institute for Policy Studies.
* Original article: https://news.mongabay.com/2023/02/is-el-salvador-preparing-to-reverse-its-landmark-mining-ban/