In 2017, the government of El Salvador announced that it would be the first country in the world to ban mining. The action was hailed as a major environmental victory.
For half a century, industry dumped waste and toxic chemicals into local rivers. Prioritizing drinking water was imperative as climate change was worsening droughts in the region. Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele – who has put investment and infrastructure at the center of his term – has implemented a series of measures that, at least at first glance, appear to be preparations for the return of mining. His government created a new department to oversee the extractive industries and began to assess international agreements that would facilitate investment in precious metals.
He has also detained several anti-mining activists on charges that critics say are questionable. Five ‘water defenders’, who led the offensive to ban mining in 2017 and resumed protesting last year, were arrested in January 2023 for their alleged involvement in a kidnapping and murder that took place during the country’s civil war 30 years ago.
The legitimacy of the charges is unclear. The Water Defenders were part of a resistance group fighting against the right-wing dictatorship during the war. However, they come from Santa Marta, a community founded by displaced people widely seen as victims.
Silence the defenders of water
“The arrests are politically motivated, as they seek to silence these water advocates and demobilize community opposition at this crucial time.said the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank that has also championed the mining ban and is based in Washington, DC, in the United States.
Water advocates began speaking out against industrial mining around 2005, when rising gold prices sparked increased interest in untapped deposits in northern El Salvador. Specifically, water advocates were concerned about mining near the Lempa River basin, which is one of the country’s main water sources. It took more than a decade and several lawsuits before the country finally banned the industry.
One of those detained, Antonio Pacheco, is the director of the Association for Economic and Social Development (ADES), one of several organizations in northern El Salvador trying to draw attention to contamination issues of water left over from the days leading up to the 2017 ban. His organization was also trying to raise awareness of the increase in artisanal mining, which is believed to rely on child labor and mercury.
Since the third week of March 2023, the five water defenders have remained in detention.
Mining could be back
There are other signs that mining could return. In October 2021, a government department responsible for regulating the energy and mining industries, called the Directorate General of Energy, Hydrocarbons and Mining, was created with the approval of Congress. Additionally, later that same year, the country joined the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development, an international organization that supports the “sustainable development goalsfor the mining sector. None of these institutions responded to the interviewer’s request for comment.
Last November, the country also began negotiating a trade deal with China, which some environmentalists say will include ways to introduce mining concessions. In recent years, China has aggressively entered Latin America with its Belt and Road Initiative, an international investment program aimed at developing infrastructure, energy and mining projects. El Salvador joined in 2019.
“We call on the international community to join the Salvadoran people in their fight to protect water, defend the environment and protect the right to life which is seriously threatened by the harmful extraction of metals20 local environmental and public health groups said in a statement released in January 2023.
Lifting the mining ban is ignoring environmental concerns
Bukele has a habit of launching controversial projects that ignore environmental concerns in the name of economic growth. A new airport and rail line intended to bring international trade closer to the eastern half of the country has circumvented preliminary environmental regulations and could endanger mangrove ecosystems. A number of road projects also raise concerns about deforestation.
A less orthodox bet for economic growth was to make bitcoin legal tender with the US dollar. The cryptocurrency went into crisis last year, with international observers fearing the country might fail to pay an $800 million bond in January. According to observers, if the country needs capital as well as economic stability, opening up a lucrative mining sector could be an option.
“It seems that the only way out this government sees is to bet on investment“, declared Vidalina Morales, president of ADES. “Youattract investors to the country to do the most viable: mining”.
* Main image: Anti-mine protesters in El Salvador. Photo: courtesy of the Institute for Policy Studies.
*Original article: https://news.mongabay.com/2023/02/is-el-salvador-preparing-to-reverse-its-landmark-mining-ban/