There was great cause to celebrate this week in El Salvador's government and among environmental activists after the country won its seven year legal dispute with Oceana Gold/ Pacific Rim.
Salvadoran painter Roberto Huezo describes the destructive impact of mining on Salvadoran communities in an unexpectedly beautiful way; he explains that the people bathe in water that is red one day, blue the following day, and yellow the next. I spend most of my time researching and working on my thesis in the Humanties and tend to shy away from issues that have to do with the environment and hard sciences, not because I don’t see these as critical topics, but because I recognize that these are not my areas of expertise. However Roberto Huezo’s artistic portrayal of the impact of mining on a local community in El Salvador gets at the profoundly human side of the issue of gold mining in the country.
There was great cause to celebrate this week in El Salvador's government and among environmental activists after the country won its seven year legal dispute with Oceana Gold. Oceana Gold's predecessor, Pacific Rim, had initiated the arbitration against El Salvador seeking more than $300 million after the country refused to grant it permits to mine gold on the company's El Dorado property in the department of Cabanas. OceanaGold was ordered to reimburse El Salvador for the country's $8 million in legal costs in defending the suit.
Interestingly, the gold mining industry in El Salvador today is rather impractical given that there really isn’t very much gold to mine in the region. The relatively low concentration of gold means even small quantities of gold exact a large environmental cost. A recent report by public health expert and activist Andrés Mckinley Mitos y realidades de la minería de oro en Centroamérica (available in Spanish at stopesmining.org) explains, for example, that extracting enough gold for one ring requires dynamiting twenty tons of rock. In exchange for a piece of jewelry then the mining industry destroys the natural landscape and contaminates the air with large amounts of dust and toxic particles.
The fact that Pacific Rim, a Canada-based mining company, spent the last seven years bullying El Salvador with a $301 million dollar lawsuit for not allowing the company to set up a gold mine is even more disgraceful given the colonial history of the region and the fact that European gold-fever led, in large part, to the genocide and destruction of the indigenous peoples and cultures of the Americas that began 500 years ago.
Whenever I go home to El Salvador I have to re-learn how to cope with the challenges of losing access to clean drinking water. These days it seems like El Salvador is relying increasingly on plastic bottles as a primary source of drinking water. I worry about the toxicity of drinking from plastic bottles that heat up in the back of trucks en route to delivery and the leeching of BPA from the re-use of these bottles to transport water. I also worry about plastic bottles as a new source of waste in landfills. Can El Salvador’s already shaky infrastructure cope with this new assault?
Mining is considered one of the primary causes of water contamination, even in industrialized countries like the United States. Mining damages lakes, rivers and streams by depositing toxic substances like cyanide, sulfuric acid, lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic into these bodies of water. Mining also uses exorbitant amounts of water. According to Andres Mckinley’s Mitos y realidades report, the Marlin mine in Guatemala, for example, uses in one day the amount of water that a rural family would use in 30 years.
Selling out the Future
Mining has a long-term impact that is not often acknowledged. Mines continue to be sources of contamination for hundreds of years after extraction has ended. According to a 2006 report in Chemical and Engineering News Roman Imperial mines have been discovered in Spain and France that to this day continue leaking acid into the soil and ground water.
For Whom the Bell Tolls
Hopefully the World Bank's dismissal of Oceana Gold's mining claim to El Salvador sends an important message to transnational companies that need to recognize that the health of Salvadorans is not for sale. I hope that El Salvador's government will continue to hold firm in the refusal to allow companies like OceanaGold/Pacific Rim to exploit the land, water and people of El Salvador. It is vital that those of us steeped in the Humanities find ways to engage with the issues of mining and contamination in Central America and join with environmental and public health minded activists in protest. As the poet John Donne articulated so exquisitely, “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”