Fact-finding mission in El Salvador

3 Jun 2013

Report from Baj who attended the National Roundtable against Metalloc Mining in El Salvador:
I had the immense pleasure last weekend of attending the fact-finding mission organised by the National Roundtable against Metallic Mining in El Salvador (Mesa nacional frente al minería metálica).  The three days were very busy, but very educational, with many good alliances
and connections made.  I will summarise each day, and then highlight take-home points.

This day took the format of a traditional conference, which took an overview of the situation in El Salvador, and Latin America, with regards to mining.  There was considerable discussion regarding the political situation in El Salvador, which currently has a moratorium in place on gold mine development.  The main reasons for this moratorium are to protect El Salvador`s precious water resources -- statistics quoted at the conference suggest 98% of El Salvador`s water is already contaminated, and it is one of the most ecologically fragile/vulnerable countries in the region when it comes to stresses, be it from natural disasters, climate change, or indeed initiatives that have a huge impact on the environment such as mining.  It is this moratorium that has led Vancouver-based Pacific Rim (now funded by an Australian backer, OceanaGold) to take the government of El Salvador
to international trade arbitration.  The case is ongoing.

In the afternoon, we split into three strategising groups, around the Pacific Rim suit, around organising against GoldCorp`s Cerro Blanco mine in Guatemala which has huge implications for water in El Salvador, and a third group that is slipping my mind.  I am not sure what concrete developments emerged out of these sessions, as I felt we had too large a group in too short a time for meaningful action to emerge, but it was still very good to hear of people's work, and some
good connections were made.

This day, we went to Cabanas, the region where Pacific Rim planned its mine.  There was an excellent presentation done about the biogeochemical impact that has already taken place with mining and exploration -- it was solid quantitative research that was well-presented.  Of course, it will be challenged as the scientific process goes and a sympathetic crowd may not be the best gauge of how they might respond, but I think they will be able to stand their own. I noted it was funded by the Spaniards in large part -- definitely not the Canadians.

We then also heard a lot of community testimony about the struggle against mining, including the horrific murders of anti-mining activists that has taken place in the region.  We also heard about the
intimidation of journalists reporting on the issue.  There was nothing I did not know at least peripherally before, but it was very powerful to hear first-person accounts.

On this day, the group split up -- one went to the Cerro Blanco site in Guatemala, and I went to San Sebastian, a mine that was left behind by the US-based Commerce Group, with horrific acid mine drainage and big tanks of sodium cyanide lying around.  The river at the site is a peculiar orange colour that looks far from natural, and the local community spoke extensively of increased kidney failure rates as well as a seeming spike in cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome.  Commerce Group has also taken the government of El Salvador to court because it wants to return now that gold prices are high, and that case continues too.  The issue is complicated by the fact that Local/artisanal/informal miners are taking advantage of the abandoned mine, using mercury rather than cyanide.  There are rifts in the community because of this use -- it is a very poor community, and some people welcome the income, and few are willing to criticise openly the actions of the small-scale miners.  Everyone is united in their opposition to the big foreign company though.

Overall, I made some good connections with people active in the mining justice struggle, making personal connections with important people who were extremely excited to see a health justice person involved. In particular, MiningWatch would really like to talk to us more.  One of the most important contributions that health workers and activists could make, I found, was helping develop community-based epidemiology.  Good stories about the health effects are difficult to get as  people
are unable to understand clinical syndromes and to work with epidemiological concepts in a manner that makes sense to both community and policy-makers.  There is some interesting work happening
in Canada that we may want to tap into, but people who have ideas about community health surveillance mechanisms, that democratise epidemiology, may want to get involved.  People involved in the struggle now know that the People's Health Movement wants to be an actor in this field, and so building and acting on these links will be important.

There is of course a lot more to say but I will leave it to you to ask questions if there is any more information you want,  or anything on which you would like further detail/follow-up.
All the very best,


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