Politics of Poverty

Another mining-related killing in El Salvador

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Mining companies should avoid operating in post-conflict societies because conditions don’t exist there for constructive relationships to be established between mining companies and local communities or for community voices to be heard.

In El Salvador two weeks ago, family members identified the body of Juan Francisco Duran, 30-year old student and mining activist from Cabañas. Duran, who was a member of the Cabañas Environmental Committee, had disappeared June 3 after posting signs in the city of Ilobasco protesting the proposed mining project belonging to Canadian company Pacific Rim. His body was found the next day in the municipality of Soyapango with two gunshots to the head.

While the exact motive of Duran’s death hasn’t been established, people in Cabañas have little doubt that it was related to his anti-mining activism. Duran’s killing is the latest in a series of killings of mining activists since 2009. In June of that year, Marcelo Rivera Moreno, a member of the Association of Friends of San Isidro Cabañas was found dead in a well. Ramiro Rivera Gómez and Dora Alicia Sorto, both CAC members, were murdered the same week in late December 2009.

A Resident of San Isidro (Cabañas, El Salvador) looks out over a valley where Pacific Rim hopes to mine gold and silver. Photo by Jeff Deutsch/Oxfam America.
A Resident of San Isidro (Cabañas, El Salvador) looks out over a valley where Pacific Rim hopes to mine gold and silver. Photo by Jeff Deutsch/Oxfam America.

It’s not clear who exactly is behind these murders. There have been convictions for the first three killings, but many in El Salvador feel that the true “intellectual authors” of the killings haven’t been identified. There is a complex web of inter-family conflict, drug trafficking and gang violence in Cabañas. There are also undeniably strong economic interests supporting Pacific Rim that would benefit from the neutralization of the mining opposition. For its part, the company, Pacific Rim, has stated it has nothing to do with any of the violence in Cabañas.

Whatever the precise motive for the killings, it is undeniable that the presence of Pacific Rim in Cabañas has contributed to tensions and conflict in the community. This in turn has created an atmosphere in which violent acts, such as targeted killings, are a potential outgrowth. It’s important to remember that the wounds from El Salvador’s long and brutal civil war haven’t healed, and that Cabañas was an epicenter of that conflict. As Francisco Pineda, a farmer, leader of the mining resistance movement in Cabañas and a recent Goldman Environmental Prize award recipient, said in a meeting last week with our board of directors, “We fought a war to have land to farm. Now they’re trying to take that land way from us again.”

In El Salvador, as in Guatemala, we see the risks of trying to force large-scale mining into post-conflict societies. Because of the ways it disrupts local communities, upsets the social fabric and can create severe environmental damage, mining, almost by definition, generates divisions and conflicts. This is has become bloodily apparent in Peru again in recent days. Given this, it is understandable that when communities are informed that mining companies want to come onto their land, they resist — despite the promises of jobs and other benefits companies frequently make. In Cabañas, this resistance has arisen organically with the support of Salvadoran organizations, particular members of the National Roundtable on Metallic Mining. Outside organizations, such as Oxfam America, have not (as the New York Times stated recently) “taken the lead” in organizing this resistance. We support local organizations that in turn help communities understand the potential impacts (positive and negative) of mining so that they can express their views about what kind of development they think are appropriate. We base our ways of working on the right of communities to free, prior and informed consent, a concept that is increasingly recognized in international law for indigenous peoples. We believe the principle of community consent should be respected in all situations by corporations and governments.

As I’ve suggested in a previous posting, the mining industry needs to have a hard conversation with itself about where it operates. Simply saying it has to “go where the gold is” regardless of whatever social issues might exist on the surface is no longer adequate. In particular, forcing mining into post-conflict societies like Guatemala and El Salvador (and even amidst current conflicts like Colombia and DRC) is usually a recipe for disaster since conditions don’t exist for constructive relationships to be established between companies and communities and for communities’ voices to be heard. Avoiding operating in places like these until conflict-generated tensions have been resolved and wounds have healed could help ensure that the tragedy of Juan Francisco Duran, and others like him, is not repeated.

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