“Environmentally Responsible?”: “Rogue NGOs” Tackle Pacific Rim in El Salvador

On October 20th, hundreds of people marched in Cabañas, El Salvador to voice their opposition to the proposed gold-mining project of Pacific Rim, a Canadian mining company. The anti-mining movement in El Salvador has been growing over the past decade and in 2007, under pressure from this movement, the Salvadoran government began to put restrictions on the burgeoning, foreign-dominated mining industry.

Salvadorans are protesting Pacific Rim’s proposed El Dorado mining project because they have already seen what kind of damage it will cause. After this same Canadian company began exploratory operations in Palo Bonito, Cabañas, the small town’s main source of water dried up.

In eastern El Salvador, gold mining at a site owned by the Milwaukee-based Commerce Group Company has left nearby communities with polluted water, and extremely high levels of kidney and nervous system diseases. In July, a study by the Salvadoran Ministry of the Environment found that river water tainted by that mine now contains nine times more cyanide and one thousand times more iron than is safe for human consumption.

Instead of taking responsibility for this environmental contamination, Commerce Group is suing the financially-strapped Salvadoran government for suspending its mining permits because of environmental concerns. Frustrated by its own lack of mining exploitation permits, Pacific Rim has filed a similar complaint against the national government, now headed by President Mauricio Funes of the left-leaning FMLN. The two North American firms seek almost $200 million in damages in cases that are being tried before a World Bank Trade Tribunal. Both mine operators contend that their investment rights, supposedly guaranteed under the Central American Free Trade Agreement, have been violated by the current national government (and even the more conservative previous one).

A Growing Movement

The National Roundtable against Metallic Mining, the coalition that organized the October 20th march, insists that Pacific Rim respect the Salvadoran government’s decision to curtail mining. To support this stand, environmental and solidarity activists from around the world called and emailed Pacific Rim on October 20, urging the company to drop its lawsuit and leave the country.

One lucky North American e-mailer received a two-page response from Barbara Henderson, Pacific Rim’s Corporate Secretary and V-P for Investor Relations. Henderson defended her company as committed to building “a socially and environmentally responsible mining company”:

“Our goal is to set the bar for environmental stewardship in Latin America if not worldwide, which is why we designed the El Dorado mine to far exceed Salvadoran environmental regulations and to, in certain respects, exceed even Canadian and US environmental standards for mine design. . . El Dorado will have no impact on water supply except to enhance it and will have a far, far lesser impact on health and the environment than virtually any other industrial activity in El Salvador. It is ironic that environmental concerns keep getting the headlines, so to speak, because this mine is an environmental no-brainer.”

“Rogue NGOs” vs. a “Win-Win Proposal”

In her email defense of the company, Henderson tried to play the corporate victim, claiming that the violence of gun-toting opponents was delaying an environmentally safe mining scheme.

“We have absolutely never, I repeat, never, engaged in any kind of violent activity, even when rogue NGO-organized activist pointed guns were in our faces and our equipment was destroyed, and have spoken out publicly against any kind of violence, especially in whatever way it may relate to the question of mining. We have co-operated fully in the investigations into 4 homicides that took place in communities around El Dorado and went so far as to call on the US embassy to also investigate claims that these murders were related to mining. All of these investigations resulted in the arrest and conviction of the perpetrators and absolutely no evidence, whatsoever, was found to suggest mining even had a role in the homicides we continue to get blamed for by these same rogue NGOs.”

In reality, the National Roundtable against Metallic Mining (or “the Mesa,” as it’s known) represents hundreds of communities and thousands of people throughout El Salvador. These “rogue NGOs” include many respected environmental and grassroots organizations, joined by elected community leaders acting on behalf of poor farmers who are trying to protect their land and water.

As a result of the Mesa campaign, the Salvadoran Bishops’ Conference, the Ombudsman for Human Rights, the Indigenous Coordinating Council, and the University of Central America have all publically rejected mining as a viable or desirable economic activity. In 2009, the University released a poll showing that 62.5% of the population in mining-affected areas agrees with this assessment.

The Mesa has also achieved international recognition and support for its work. In 2011 over 260 international organizations, representing millions of people across the globe, joined the Coalition’s call for the World Bank trade tribunal to dismiss Pacific Rim’s legal claims.

The Real Victims

The majority of victims of violence in this struggle have been anti-mining activists and community organizations, not Pacific Rim. Independent investigations into recent mining-related murders, kidnappings, and threats in Cabañas indicate that those responsible are being paid for their services, but to date the attorney general has refused to pursue this line of investigation. The victims’ families and the National Roundtable have repeatedly called for real justice in these cases.

Even in the face of violence, the anti-mining movement has continued growing and, in 2009, President Funes said he would not allow mining projects during his presidential term. Yet, Pacific Rim’s Henderson claims: “The reason the El Dorado mine is still not permitted has everything to do with political corruption and nothing to do with environmental concerns.” In reality, the company itself is using its deep pockets to corrupt local politics, according to mining foes in Cabanas. To win community support for its plans, Pacific Rim has been giving donations to mayors, school administrators, and other local officials. In an interview in 2009, the Mayor of San Isidro, Cabañas admitted to receiving financing from Pacific Rim for community projects and activities. Radio Victoria, a Cabañas community radio station, reported that a Pacific Rim representative offered them $8,000 to stop their negative reporting about the company’s operations.

But here’s how Henderson depicts such community-minded expenditures by Pacific Rim:

“Yes, we clearly have corporate interests in El Salvador, but that does not mean we are without social and environmental consciences. Our priority is not profit over people, its profit AND people. El Dorado is a rare opportunity for El Salvador and her citizens. . .  To turn its back on a ready, willing and eager investor that wants to build an environmentally safe operation in one of the poorest regions of the country is mind-boggling. Are you aware that the El Dorado mine would be by far the biggest taxpayer in the country, and employ several hundred people with 4-5 times that many gaining employment in spin-off jobs? El Dorado is a win-win proposal. I assure you, our conscience is very clear.”

How reassuring to know that Canadian corporate consciences are clear about Pacific Rim’s controversial intervention in El Salvador — a venture replete with threats to water and land, the attempted silencing of popular protest and dissent, the purchase of local political support and then, when all else fails, a costly “SLAP suit” based on unfair trade deals.

Too bad the people of El Salvador know what a real “win-win proposal” look likes: it looks like the social movement winning a law that definitively prohibits mineral mining, the government winning against Pacific Rim’s bogus lawsuit, and the Salvadoran people winning back their right to kick uninvited corporate guests out of their country for good.

Alexandra Early and Jan Morrill are active in the International Allies against Mining in El Salvador. Alexandra Early serves as El Salvador Co-coordinator for U.S.- El Salvador Sister Cities and Jan Morrill coordinates between the International Allies and the National Roundtable against Mining. For more information visit elsalvadorsolidarity.org or stopesmining.org.