Closing the Doors to El Dorado


Marcela Sanchez, The New York Times

Date of publication: 
27 October 2009

In 2002, the Canadian mining company Pacific Rim received preliminary permits to explore gold-mining possibilities in northern El Salvador. The company’s representatives assured residents of nearby San Isidro that the El Dorado mine project would create much-needed jobs and development.

Although Pacific Rim insisted that its cyanide-based extracting methods were eco-friendly and that its cleaning processes would render all the water it used potable, community leaders were skeptical. They had seen firsthand how nearby communities had lost their water supplies to the mining industry, and they were worried about what would happen to San Isidro.

In 2005, these community activists joined other mining opponents in El Salvador, including the Catholic Church, to form the National Roundtable Against Metallic Mineral Mining. Together, they pressed the government of former President Tony Saca to deny mining companies any additional permits. The group has also supported legislation, now making its way through the Salvadoran legislature, to ban precious- metal mining altogether.

Recently, the National Roundtable received the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award for its work.

Public dissatisfaction with mining operations has increased in Latin America in recent years. Mining companies now face tough questions about their projects’ environmental impact and the number of jobs and development they actually bring to local communities. Unsustainable by definition, all mines eventually close, and the growing public perception is that mining companies have been allowed to reap all the rewards and leave communities to deal with the damage.

Part of the problem is that “governments in Latin America don’t have the capacity to effectively manage these projects,” says Keith Slack, manager of the extractive industries program for Oxfam America. “Where there is very little government presence and capacity to monitor and enforce environmental laws … companies and communities are left to fend for themselves and end up fighting with each other.”

Also at the root of the problem: The mining deals and their implementation processes rarely include the communities most affected by them. Some experts, including Nobel Prize-winning political scientist Elinor Ostrom, believe that this disconnect is too often overlooked.

“One of the absolutely key, most important variables as to whether or not a forest survives and continues is whether local people monitor each other and its use. Not officials. Locals,” Ostrom said in a press conference this month. “What we have ignored is what citizens can do.”

In essence, that is the history of Latin America and its natural resources. The quest for El Dorado, both in legend and in reality, has rarely proceeded with the acquiescence, let alone the participation, of those who had the most to lose.

Some companies have begun to involve the local public in their mining deals. For instance, foreign companies mining copper in Espinar, Peru, have agreed to create a development fund to ensure that profits from a local mine will benefit generations of residents to come.

But as long as such agreements are the exception, rather than the rule, widespread dissatisfaction with mining companies — even in countries where the industry is a driving force of economic growth — will likely continue to generate unrest. In a report issued last month, Peru’s public defender’s office detailed 90 active conflicts between mining companies and local communities.

For Miguel Angel Rivera Moreno, one of the award recipients from El Salvador, the violence is personal: In July, the body of his brother Marcelo was found in a well; it appeared that he’d been tortured. Authorities have arrested four alleged gang members in connection with the murder, which they chalked up to common crime. But death threats against other activists continue, suggesting a larger, more organized effort could be behind the murder.

Still, Rivera is not likely to be dissuaded from the cause. “The anti- mining struggle is based on asserting our rights but also on fulfilling an obligation to protect the community and our country,” he said in an interview. Too often, he said, private companies and public officials weigh only the benefits to themselves, and don’t recognize that their rights end where the community’s begin. As Ostrom has observed, shifting the balance of rights is fundamental to the protection of natural resources.

Certainly the outsiders recognize their own rights — and will exercise them. The Salvadoran government now faces two multimillion- dollar lawsuits brought to the World Bank’s International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes, one by Pacific Rim and the other by the U.S. mining company Commerce Group. Both are suing for alleged losses caused by their inability to develop mining projects in the country.

As Tom Shrake, president and chief executive of Pacific Rim said in April, “While we regret having to take this action, we fully intend to pursue the company’s rights vigorously.” (Marcela Sanchez has been a Washington-based journalist since the early 1990s and a syndicated columnist for more than six years.)