News  El Salvador fights Canadian gold mining

Speakers decry environmental toll and human rights abuses stemming from companies' operations

Anti-mining activists Bernardo Belloso and Juan Carlos Ruiz Guadalajara spoke at McGill Tuesday on the adverse impacts of Canadian mining in their respective countries of El Salvador and Mexico.

Their speeches detailed the environmental, social, political, and cultural damages caused by the pending projects and current operations of Canadian mining companies in their countries.

El Salvadorians are resisting efforts of Pacific Rim, a Canadian company vying for operating permits to create an open-pit gold mine in the northern region of the country.

Bellosos stated that it is widely recognized throughout El Salvador that such a project is undesirable from an ecological perspective, though Pacific Rim insists on pressing ahead with its operations.

Through a translator, Belloso, who works for the Association for the Development of El Salvador explained, “Since there’s a big interest behind the amount of minerals that are found within the fields that Pacific Rim have been exploring, it has been basically the only company that has remained insisting to get the permit to keep exploring.”

The company’s behaviour, Belloso said, overlooks the likely ramifications of the open-pit mine. He added that the company’s testing phase alone has already resulted in the contamination of water sources and death of livestock.

Since the granting of 16 exploration permits to Canadian, American, and Australian companies, the political context of El Salvador has greatly shifted. Last year’s national election brought Mauricio Funes to power under a mandate of ending mineral extraction on El Salvadorian soil.

“Before 2010, in El Salvador the government was always responding to the neo-liberal policies in the interests of these big companies,” said Belloso.

Belloso added that the companies take “a stand toward big multi-national exploitation in El Salvador with no respect whatsoever for the needs of the country.”

Due to the issuance of exploration permits under the previous government, Pacific Rim and another Canadian company, Commerce Group, are demanding a total of $200 million from the El Salvadorian government through the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

“We are asking why is this happening,” Belloso said. “This is a Canadian company and El Salvador doesn’t have a free trade agreement with Canada.”

Although El Salvador wants to become the first country to ban all forms of mineral extraction, it sits in a precarious situation while it deals with the charges the companies have brought to the World Bank. Banning mineral extraction now may support the companies’ claims that El Salvador “illegally expropriated their investment.”

According to a Pacific Rim press release from earlier this month, the company “believes that El Salvador’s objections are not only completely without merit, but are also frivolous, and that [the government of El Salvador] filed them purely as an attempt to stall the arbitration proceedings. [Pacific Rim] fully expects that the Tribunal will reject the objections and proceed with the arbitration claim.”

The 29 sites originally considered for mining operations are located in the northern part of El Salvador, near the headwaters of all the major rivers that flow through the rest of the country.

Belloso stated that these rivers face contamination by heavy metals and cyanide if the open-pit operations begin.

This area is also home to the majority of all agricultural production in El Salvador, so a project such as this, said Belloso, threatens to destroy the entire country’s means of production and ability to feed its population of seven million.

Moreover, 250,000 families would be directly affected through forced displacement – a necessity given the mining sites proximity to the city of Cabañas.

These environmental concerns are only a part of the issue, as human rights abuses mount. There have been six killings with suspected links to the company in the region where Pacific Rim plans to dig. Religious leaders and radio journalists have received death threats after publicly opposing mining operations in El Salvador.

Belloso explained that there’s a need “to tell the Canadian people that Canadian companies are involved in very dirty ways of doing business.”

He also sees strong parallels between Canada and El Salvador, given the many struggles against the extraction of minerals on indigenous land.