Five environmentalists arrested in El Salvador to re-establish metal mining?

(Euskera) (Castellano)

Five prominent environmental defenders from Santa Marta, department of Cabañas were arrested in the early hours of 11 January on charges of a 1989 offence related to the civil war era and for illicit association, a crime widely used to quash activists. It is therefore believed that this decision may be related to the desire to re-establish mining in the country, because on the one hand the authoritarian government of Nayib Bukele is in favour of its re-establishment, and on the other hand, it is now under pressure to find new sources of income since it failed miserably with a cryptocurrency project. But they are also activists who played a crucial role in bringing about the historic ban on metal mining in 2018.

Since their arrest, activities to demand the release of the 5 have been ongoing. Since Friday the 13th a bonfire has been held in solidarity. Yesterday, 15 January 2023, the freedom of the detainees was the main slogan of the march for the 31st anniversary of the signing of the peace accords that was organised in the capital San Salvador. Hundreds of people from Santa Marta and Cabañas took part in this demonstration to demand the fulfilment of the agreements and the freedom of their comrades. A hundred people from the Salvadoran immigrant community and various internationalist organisations also gathered outside the Salvadoran Embassy in Washington to defend the community project and the abuses suffered by the community.

Bonfire demanding the release of the detainees in Santa Marta (ADES)

In addition, Bukele has been known to obstruct the process of justice for the victims of the dictatorship and related death squads, describing the Peace Accords initiated in 1992 as a farce. This arrest contrasts with the difficulties in prosecuting members of the army accused of dozens of human rights violations and crimes against humanity in the same community of Santa Marta, or other large-scale crimes such as the El Mozote massacre in the department of Morazán. As journalist Miriam García points out, the irony is that Santa Marta has been demanding «almost 40 years of justice and reparation for massacres committed against its population during the armed conflict». Because the Santa Marta community is a repopulation made up of exiles and ex-combatants from the civil war (1980-1992).

And it contrasts with the demands of the detainees themselves and their associations, which is none other than «Prohibition of metal mining and recognition of the victims of the armed conflict». The attempt at criminalisation is also evident in the fact that the authorities label the detainees as «commanders» when the case has not yet been investigated and there is no evidence, but with the clear aim of creating opinion.

Demonstration for the release of the detainees (ADES)

The detainees are Miguel Ángel Gámez, Alejandro Laínez García, Pedro Antonio Rivas Laínez, Antonio Pacheco «Chico Montes» and Saúl Agustín Rivas Ortega and they are accused of killing an alleged army informant more than 33 years ago. They are all human rights and environmental activists. Antonio Pacheco is the director of the Association for Economic and Social Development (ADES), of which Saúl Agustín is also a member, one of the organisations that most influenced the approval of the Mining Law.

According to the community of Santa Marta, expressed in a communiqué, this is an «express case whose real purpose is to attack the community of Santa Marta and the ADES Association by attacking its leaders».

The intentions of Nayib Bukele’s government to re-establish metallic mining have been exposed by Leonel Herrera, of the community media Arpas, who recalled that in May 2021 the government participated in the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development. Herrera also denounced that also in 2021 they approved the new Law for the Creation of the General Directorate of Energy, Hydrocarbons and Mines, which incorporated provisions to regulate mining exploitation. And lastly and most obviously, «the inclusion of an item of 4.5 million dollars in the 2023 state budget to revise and update the law prohibiting metallic mining».

Demonstration for the 31st anniversary of the signing of the peace accords in San Salvador (ADES).

The fight against mining in El Salvador dates back to the early 2000s, after mining companies had caused major impacts on communities and the environment: 90% of El Salvador’s surface water is contaminated. In this context, the government decreed in 2008 that it would no longer issue mining permits without a prior environmental impact study and without creating regulations to regulate the mining industry.

In this context, the government decreed in 2008 that it would no longer issue mining permits without a prior environmental impact study and without creating regulations to govern the industry. The mining company Pacific Rim Cayman, owned by OceanaGold, had been authorised to carry out exploration in Salvadoran territory since 2002, but under the new decree it was denied new gold mining projects in the same department where the detainees came from, in El Dorado (San Isidro Cabañas). The mining company sued the Salvadoran government at the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), demanding compensation for lost potential profits of $250 million. But OceanaGold lost the litigation and was ordered to pay $8 million to the Salvadoran state for its costs.

On 29 March 2018, the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador passed the Law for the Prohibition of Metallic Mining. The law banned open-pit and underground mining, exploitation, exploration and processing activities, as well as the use of toxic chemicals used in these processes that are highly polluting and responsible for environmental and health disasters wherever they are used. A milestone in the enviropmental achivements worldwide. This ban also solved a major environmental impact of a water-related nature due to the large volume of water used in mining processing, which limits the flow of rivers and aquifers and their use by the population and for their various activities.

Despite this law, there are transboundary mining extraction projects, in this case between Guatemala and Honduras, totalling 52. These have direct environmental implications in El Salvador, especially due to the contamination of the water system, as is the case with numerous rivers (Lempa, Paz, Sumpul, Torola, Goascorán) and Lake Güija.

Rally outside the Embassy of El Salvador in Washington.

Cabañas is the second poorest department in El Salvador after Morazán, with more than 55 % of the inhabitants living in poverty. However, Santa Marta has achieved enormous social development thanks to its organisational and political level, and to organisations such as ADES. They have implemented agro-ecological practices and training for farmers. At the same time, both ADES and the Santa Marta community have contributed enormously to the country as a whole by stopping metal mining and ensuring better environmental conditions.

In 2019 we had the opportunity to learn first-hand about the work of ADES through one of its activists, Vidalina Morales (audio and vídeo of the sesions in Billbo, and Donostia (1 y 2)) and we were totally connected to their struggle and achievements. That is why we now also call for the release of the 5 comrades, and once again, we insist that the Metal Mining Act of 2018 be respected and that its objectives not be threatened.

Demonstration for the 31st anniversary of the signing of the peace accords in San Salvador (ADES).


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