By Rachel Nadelman*
El Salvador’s refusal to allow gold mining within its borders sets it apart from most other Latin American countries, but the mining suspension is far from permanent. Since 2007, three successive presidents, from both the right-wing ARENA and left-wing FMLN parties, have maintained an administrative metals mining “industry freeze.” This executive action has created a de-facto moratorium that prevents all mining firms – international and Salvadoran, public and private – from accessing El Salvador’s estimated 1.4 million ounces of gold deposits. Some in the Salvadoran media trumpet this policy. When former U.S. President Bill Clinton made a philanthropic visit to El Salvador earlier this month, a number of news stories fixated on one of his travel companions: Canadian mining magnate Frank Guistra. Some media slammed Guistra as “persona non grata in El Salvador.” They showcased his billion-dollar global mining investments, labeling him (incorrectly) a major shareholder in Oceana Gold, the Australian company suing El Salvador for $284 million for having denied the firm a license to mine.
The mining freeze represents a drastic break from El Salvador’s past economic strategy. In the 1990s, after the civil war, El Salvador, encouraged by international donors and creditors, embraced mining as an opportunity for economic growth. Environmental activists challenged the policy, emphasizing the country’s ecological vulnerability and worsening threats of water scarcity and deforestation. Consecutive ARENA governments ignored these arguments and implemented legal and regulatory reforms to attract foreign mining firms. But a community-based social movement changed that.
- Led by a decade-old Salvadoran coalition “roundtable” (with some international support) against mining, this movement strategically promoted a campaign that is pro-water rather than anti-industry, based on rigorously collected and analyzed scientific evidence.
- The Salvadoran Catholic Church, citing doctrine as prioritizing water and land over economic gain, has provided the movement a level of non-partisan, moral legitimacy.
- Individual government officials from across elected, appointed, and civil servant ranks have ensured that El Salvador’s weak but existent administrative mechanisms resist pressure from powerful multinational business to reverse policy.
- A number of Salvadoran companies relying on water and land resources, such as agrobusiness, ranchers, and producers of juices and soft drinks, have largely stayed out of the debate, eliminating a potentially huge obstacle to the movement’s agenda.
The media’s zeal – strong enough for them to mistakenly connect Frank Guistra to Oceana Gold and the ongoing lawsuit – reflects strong popular support for the administrative freeze on mining. My field research and earlier studies indicate that most Salvadorans do not see the environmental threat from mining as imagined. Nonetheless, the suspension is precarious – based only on executive action and not legislation that would permanently prohibit mining. Many in the anti-mining movement believe that a suspension is inadequate over the long term because a change in government could lead to its reversal. New mining technology, which purportedly would ward against environmental damage, could give political leaders a pretext for lifting the moratorium. Yet others who support the freeze under current environmental conditions want to have the option of opening the country to mining available in the future. For those who advocate that total prohibition is the only solution, the fight to stop mining permanently for El Salvador will be a long one.
November 23, 2015
* Rachel Nadelman is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the School of International Service, whose dissertation research focuses on the unique aspects of El Salvador’s mining policies.
Correction: November 23, 2015
The original photo accompanying this blog was incorrectly labeled as being from a Salvadoran mining town. The photo was actually taken in a town named El Salvador, Chile, and is unrelated to the content of this post.