Gold, Bodies and Justice


Gold, Bodies and Justice

June 10, 2010

Investigating a Spate of Bloodshed against Activists in El Salvador

By Julia Kaminsky, AJWS World Partners Fellow 2008-2009

The shot rang out loud and deep, piercing the stagnant mid-day air. A young mother clutched her nursing baby tighter, and the group, so talkative only moments before, became a circle of transfixed bodies and darting eyes. Their fear—over what turned out to be an accidental misfire by a police officer accompanying us—indicates the very real threat that has been hanging over this community.

It was February 2010, and I was in Cabañas, El Salvador as part of a fact-finding delegation to investigate the recent wave of violence against social and environmental activists. The delegation was organized by Voices on the Border, an organization that promotes sustainable and equitable development in El Salvador. I had spent 2008 as a volunteer in Cabañas through American Jewish World Service's World Partners Fellowship, and was already familiar with the local context as a result. My connection to the violence was personal: Marcelo Rivera, the first activist murdered in the recent spate, had been my supervisor at the NGO where I volunteered for nearly a year.

Tension Mounts in Communities Targeted for Gold Mining

Cabañas, a rural, poverty-stricken department of northern El Salvador, has become deeply polarized over mining exploration projects operated by foreign companies hoping to extract the region's abundant gold deposits. Residents fear the contamination and depletion of water that mining is known to cause, and are outraged that they have not been consulted in the plans to extract resources from their land.

The most controversial of these companies is the Canadian-based Pacific Rim, which operates the country's most advanced exploration project in San Isidro, a small municipality of 10,000 people in Cabañas. Community members and local NGOs began to organize in 2005—the same year that Pacific Rim requested an extraction permit from the Salvadoran government. Motivated by the urgency of their cause, activists in Cabañas reached out to San Salvador-based NGOs, forming a national coalition with strong international networks. 

The Salvadoran government has not granted Pacific Rim the extraction permit it seeks, and due to the community's efforts, both former President Tony Saca and President Mauricio Funes have publicly declared their opposition to gold mining. In April 2009, Pacific Rim commenced a lawsuit against the Salvadoran government for hundreds of millions of dollars in lost profits to which it feels it is entitled under the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The preliminary hearing at the World Bank's International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes ("ICSID") began on May 31. Even though no gold has been extracted, and for the time being it's unlikely that mining will move forward, tensions have been set in motion by the company's activities.

These tensions are particularly evident in Trinidad, a remote village two hours north of San Isidro, where Pacific Rim conducted preliminary explorations at Limón Peak. Trinidad has been the site of most of the recent violence, which many believe is the result of deep rifts between residents who staunchly support mining and those who actively oppose it. The latter have taken non-violent action on four occasions, blockading the highway to prevent Pacific Rim's equipment from entering, and forcing the company to remove the machinery operating at Limón Peak. Many activists speculate that these actions angered local mining advocates, many of whom may have a financial stake in the mining. 

Community members in both Trinidad and San Isidro have reported that Pacific Rim has made attempts to gain favor with local inhabitants by paying some residents to promote mining, and by offering gifts such as free eye-glasses in exchange for support. "The ambition for money is the root of all this," says Israel Menjívar, a Trinidad resident, who, like many community members, believes that the violence is the result of these divisions.

Read the rest of Julia's article in PDF.