Pacific Rim/Oceana Gold can take their case to the World Bank, but where can the victims of human rights abuses go to demand justice and compensation?
Victims of mining-related human rights violations in El Salvador presented the case of Pacific Rim/Oceana Gold to a special tribunal in Geneva recently. The transnational mining company is suing the Salvadoran government for $301 million for denying a gold mining permit due to environmental concerns.
The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal was organized by the Global Campaign to Dismantle Corporate Power and Stop Impunity, whose goal is to enable communities and governments to hold accountable corporations that are widely known for human rights violations.
A majority of Salvadorans – especially rural communities – oppose mining because of concerns about the country’s vulnerable ecosystem and water supplies.
But Pacific Rim/Oceana Gold has largely ignored the opposition to mining, and the violence and conflict linked to their operations in the country. Rather, starting in 2009, the company filed the lawsuit with the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID). By bringing this case to an international tribunal, the company will potentially cost El Salvador hundreds of millions of dollars, and undermine Salvadorans’ democratic right to determine if mining happens in their country.
This is why Salvadoran activists came to Geneva to voice their opposition in the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal and bring attention to the case.
“We are asking the company and the World Bank to respect the rights of Salvadorans. Drop the case and leave El Salvador,” said Saul Baños, a member of the National Roundtable on Metallic Mining (La Mesa) and a lawyer from the Salvadoran civil society organization, FESPAD, who presented the case.[i]
El Salvador is considering the first national ban on metallic mining, and urging Pacific Rim/Oceana Gold to respect the will of the people to not proceed with mining. The smallest and most densely populated country in Latin America is already experiencing a “clean water crisis,” according to Oxfam’s Country Director in El Salvador, Ivan Morales.
“Mining would threaten people’s rights to clean water for drinking and farming as well their right to adequate food. This is a fight to protect the human rights of people living in poverty and their livelihood,” he said.
According to El Salvador’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources, 90 percent of the surface water is contaminated due to agricultural runoff and deficient sewage processes. The World Bank says that one fifth of the rural population does not have access to clean water. Mining could make the clean water crisis worse, with risks like acid mine drainage posing a dire threat to water supplies. Reopening the country to mining would threaten two-thirds of the Salvadoran’s water supplies, affecting health, agriculture and livelihoods.
The National Roundtable on Metallic Mining has called the lawsuit a “direct attack against the sovereignty and legitimate right of the Salvadoran population to reject an industry that is a threat to our lives.” La Mesa member Vidalina Morales in 2012 called it a case of the aggressor suing the victim:
“While failing to comply with environmental regulations and laws, Pacific Rim’s exploration activities caused ecological damage, economic losses, social conflicts and corruption. In other words, it aggrieved the country and as a result, should be judged. Instead, the company is suing the state. The roles are reversed.”
Though a resolution to the lawsuit is still uncertain, it could set a precedent for companies’ behavior, not only in El Salvador, but the entire region.
“People across El Salvador have said ‘no’ to mining, and their government has listened. Pacific Rim and their Australian-backer Oceana Gold have not, though,” said Christina Hill, the mining advocacy coordinator at Oxfam Australia.
“With their lawsuit, the company is holding the government of El Salvador ransom in order to secure a mining license.”
The World Bank’s ICSID will conduct its final hearing this September in Washington, DC and issue a decision in the coming months.
Oxfam America is currently working with local and national partners in El Salvador and other international allies to support the right of Salvadoran communities to determine whether they allow metallic mining in their country. To find out how you can help, visit Oxfam America’s extractive industries campaign page
 Local and international allies against mining in El Salvador include La Mesa, the Catholic Church, Breaking the Silence, Sister Cities, Mining Watch, the Center for International Environmental Law, the Institute for Policy Studies, Oxfam, environmentalists, human rights attorneys, universities, and members of the US Congress.