Politics of Poverty

Salvadorans rally at the World Bank to celebrate independence

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Protesters stand outside the World Bank in Washington, D.C. on September 15, 2014. Photo: Alex Blair/Oxfam America

Asking “Should the rights of a sovereign nation and human rights of its people be sacrificed in favor of mining company OceanaGold’s narrow self-interests?”

Sofia Vergara is the Senior Advocacy Advisor for Oxfam America’s Extractives Industries team

Salvadoran communities living in the DC area celebrated the 193rd anniversary of independence of El Salvador in front of the World Bank on Monday. Why did they decide to forego their Monday obligations and gather in downtown DC?

Because behind closed doors, inside the World Bank’s International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes, a three-member Tribunal is currently deciding whether the Salvadoran government should pay more than $300 million dollars to a multinational mining company called OceanaGold (formerly Pacific Rim).

This company is trying to operate a gold mine in the northern region of Cabañas, despite the fact that both the Salvadoran people and the government have said “NO” to mining there. Salvadorans do not see mining as a key to solving the country’s poverty and inequality issues, and there are grave environmental concerns about the mine.

Photo: Guadalupe Ortega
Photo: Guadalupe Ortega

But the rally on Monday was not filled with worry and fear. I was there and witnessed that Salvadorans messages to the World Bank were delivered through celebratory dances and protest music and songs. This rap directly from Cabañas in Spanish and English accompanied their clear message:

“Respect El Salvador. It is not for sale.”

“Yes to life, no to mining.”

“El agua vale mas que el oro.” [Water is worth more than gold.]

“301 million should be used to end poverty, not to pay a mining company.” (photo).

The Salvadorans standing up to the mining company were not alone. Casa de Maryland and Casa de Virgina, San Camilo [Saint Camillus] Parish, Oxfam and a multitude of human rights and environmental NGOs were there to support the right of Salvadorans to a real independence from corporate and private powers that are causing strife in their country.

OceanaGold’s suit against El Salvador in the World Bank throws the supposed “good faith” of their corporate social responsibility policies into question. Besides the outcome of this legal – and non-transparent – battle (the outcome of which is to be made public in the spring of 2015), there are more important questions to continue asking OceanaGold/Pacific Rim: Are you listening to the Salvadorans? Do you really want to impose your business on top of a sovereign decision? Have you assessed the risks, both for your business and the economy, and more importantly, for the people in El Salvador? How do you reconcile this behavior with your commitment to “Free, Prior and Informed Consent”?

And now another question for the World Bank: Will its tribunal respect human rights over the interests of privately-held, multimillion dollar companies?

We gathered on Monday in front of the World Bank to ask again these questions and make sure that OceanaGold lawyers and CEOS hear our voices! One of the powerful and inspiring messages came from Fray Fr. Jacek Orzechowski of St. Camillus:

“We come here today, on the Independence Day of El Salvador to stand in solidarity with the people of that country. We’re here to help protect their water from being poisoned by thousands of tons of lethal cyanide that is used to extract gold.”

Photo: Guadalupe Ortega
Photo: Guadalupe Ortega.

He told the crowd gathered that Pope Francis has decried “an impersonal economy that lacks a truly human purpose [and which] tends to devour everything that stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment.” It is a contemporary version of the worship of the ancient golden calf, he said.

While all this was happening in DC (as well as locations in Australia and Canada, where the company is headquarted), more than 2,000 people filled out the plaza of the town of San Isidro who gathered to celebrate their water, their land and the right to say no to mining. The festival hosted by grassroots organizations from Cabañas, including El Movimiento Unificado Francisco Sanchez-1932 (MUFRAS 32) and la Asociación de Desarrollo Económico Social, Santa Marta (ADES) was called [translated] the “Festival for the Sovereignty and Self-determination of the People. Pacific Rim/OceanaGold, get out of El Salvador.”

Once more, people voiced their concerns with happiness and joy, between music, theater, and paintings from the children. Representatives from national organizations, the church, and the Human Rights Ombudsman Office were there too. The message was also clear to the company representatives based in Cabañas. Earlier in the morning, in San Salvador, President Sanchez Ceren initiated the festivities in San Isidro with a speech he delivered:

The country should be for all Salvadorans a place where human rights are guaranteed under the principles of equality and justice. The country should be a place where the primary purpose of the state is the happiness of the people.”

It is clear that Salvadorans know how to show this happiness, while they stand up for what they believe, as reiterated by this question from Fray Jacek:

“No amount of gold, or political influence, or legal posturing can change the moral equation.”

Photo: Guadalupe Ortega

You can keep supporting Salvadorans by joining 167,000 voices asking OceanaGold/Pacific Rim to drop the lawsuit against El Salvador by signing this petition.

Read more on the OceanaGold/Pacific Rim case here.

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