Sandra Ascencio of the Justice Office of Peace and Integrity of the Creation Order of Young Friars in El Salvador. Photo: Jennifer Lentfer / Oxfam America
Sandra Carolina Ascencio has worked for more than ten years to protect the health of her people and her county of El Salvador from mineral mining, which is one of the most environmentally-destructive industries on the planet. Nowhere is this more apparent than in El Salvador where runoff from mining operations has polluted the San Sebastian River with dangerous levels of cyanide and iron.
As a member of the National Roundtable on Metallic Mining in El Salvador (La Mesa), Ascencio was part of a group of community activists from El Salvador who participated in a speaking tour in Canada and the US in March and April, entitled “Water is More Precious than Gold.” They shared stories from the frontlines and the ways in which the mining industry is bullying their way into Latin American communities. As part of the speaking tour, Ascencio appeared on an Oxfam-sponsored panel on land, natural resources, and food justice during Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington DC.
Ascencio serves as a pastoral agent with the Office of Justice, Peace and Integrity of the Creation of the Order of Friars Minor, supporting parish communities and environmental and human rights educators throughout El Salvador. Oxfam was fortunate to have Ascencio share her experiences with us in our offices.
Jennifer Lentfer: Tell us why you’ve come to Washington, DC.
Sandra Ascencio: People doing advocacy work in Canada and the US want to know more about how we are organizing communities and what inspires them to resist mining. The message is the same no matter where I go. I want people to know why it is that we want open-pit, metallic mining to be banned in El Salvador.
We need real transformation in government policies of all developed countries. In the case of the US, for example, towards the kind of development the Millennium Challenge Corporation is promoting. As of now, these policies are supporting infrastructure development that benefits the mining companies, instead of looking at a true development that focuses on eradicating poverty and promoting a better quality of life in the Salvadoran population.
Lentfer: What will you remember most from your time in the US and Canada?
What I have found out in our visits to the US and Canada is that people want to know what they can do to help us and how we can work together in a global resistance movement. When I shared my experiences with the faith-based community at Ecumenical Advocacy Days, I saw how people got inspired and how they demonstrated their solidarity with us. It’s important to transmit those emotions into the work. For us, promoting everybody’s well-being remains the center of faith. Only that way, people can keep in mind that the most important things for humans to survive are water, air, and land.
Lentfer: Tell us more about the Justice Office of Peace and Integrity of the Creation of the Order of Friars Minor and the National Roundtable on Metallic Mining. What are these bodies trying to achieve?
Ascencio: The Office of Justice, Peace and Integrity of the Creation was founded in 1987 to continue spreading the voice of the church and build rapport with communities to promote justice, peace and the protection of the environment. The Mesa was formed in 2005. The Office joined the Mesa in 2007, when we realized that contamination from mining was a big issue to address when it came to our food and water and our health.
At the Order of Friars Minor, we try to maintain a spirituality based on St. Francis de Assisi, focused on serving others and relating to nature and the environment. It’s what motivates us to protect creation. The rights of the earth and the rights of human beings are one in the same.
Lentfer: Where is the national-level debate about mining in El Salvador today?
Ascencio: Currently El Salvador does not have a law to regulate water management and so that’s where the National Assembly is focused right now. Within the proposed law there is a provision that mining is not promoted. La Mesa is trying to include mining provisions in all laws.
The proposal to ban mining has been offered, but has not moved forward in the legislature. After years of remaining silent about this, the Industrial Association of El Salvador is now actively asking the government to think twice about importance of mining to the development of our country. The civil society is watching their next steps closely, due to the level of influence the Association has on the national policies, in particular in regards to the management of the use of water and land.
Lentfer: What do you say when someone tells you that mining is a “good option” for development?
Ascencio: From my spiritual perspective, mining is not a viable option. Millions of years have to pass for the equilibrium to be re-established following the impacts of contamination, and our generations will never see repair. There is already enough minerals/metals extracted that could be re-utilized. There is no need to keep extracting more. What matters most is our ways of consumption and demand for such things.
A community meeting on mining near Ilobasco, El Salvador. Photo: Jeff Deutsch / Oxfam America
Lentfer: What are some of the consequences of industrialized mining that you have seen at the community level in El Salvador?
Ascencio: In the Department of La Unión [in the north-east of El Salvador], there is still proof of contamination of a mine that operated decades ago. The river there is completely contaminated and potable water is now very scarce. After that experience, for everyone that struggles on a daily basis to get drinking water, to think of another mining project coming becomes an issue of life and death.
New mining projects are proposed in Northern areas, where there is a lot of poverty and the soils already need lots of fertilizers. These are the same areas that were very much affected by the civil war.
Lentfer: I’m sure that the environmental educators you work with are discussing much more than the environment when they meet with communities. How do you prepare them? What are some of the biggest challenges they face?
Ascencio: We educate them a lot about health problems from contamination and how to identify sicknesses. We also talk about the rights of people and the rights of the Earth and how to protect them so we have a better quality of life. If we protect the three basic elements—water, air, land—we will also have access to good food. We teach them how to open up these issues and talk about them with communities.
However, mining projects can break the social fabric of communities and divide them. Some people will always prioritize the so-called economic benefits of mining—employment and secondary businesses. What our educators must also share with the communities is the true price of mining—construction of dams that take their water, destruction of natural resources to make roads for big trucks, displacement of communities. For people with the hope of getting a job and having some security, it’s a big challenge weigh short- and long-term costs and benefits of mining. So we have to prepare our educators to talk frankly about the consequences of mining that people cannot often see.
Lentfer: So many people who have been fighting to protect their communities in El Salvador have been threatened, and even killed. Despite these risks, what drives you to continue?
Ascencio: A total commitment. My work is primarily spiritual and by conviction. God gives us each abilities to use according to our faith. When I die, I don’t want to go [up] there and think I didn’t do anything.
I’m preparing my two children to know that my work is for God. They also need to learn the values of service and discernment. I tell them that if something happens to me, then they know that it was worthwhile. But it’s better not to think of those things otherwise you could lose your energy and motivation.
Lentfer: What do policymakers in Washington DC need to know or do to best assist you in your efforts in El Salvador?
Ascencio: You are not the only country and the only generation of this planet. What they have is enough to exist in this world. We want to see a change towards solidarity in US economic and foreign policies.
Lentfer: What gives you hope for the future?
Ascencio: I think that every person is good, in their essence. My work is not because I’m a lawyer or a scientist, but because I believe in solidarity and harmony as the principles of life. We all are on a journey to encounter our common well-being.
Thanks to Sofia Vergara for assisting with translation.