On March 29, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly voted unanimously to prohibit all mining for metals in its territory. The sixty-nine legislators present in the session celebrated the decision, which was supported by various political parties with differing interests and ideologies. With this historic step, El Salvador looks to prevent environmental damage for its lands and health hazards for its people (though quarrying and the mining of non-metallic materials such as coal will continue), and also to provide an example for the rest of the world of what a united political will can accomplish in search of global peace, security, and justice.
The bill was first presented to the legislature in February, at the initiative of the Catholic Church, the country’s public universities, and various civil society groups. They were spurred to action by the results of a study, published early last year, which showed the devastating effects on local waterways of gold mining operations in the area of Santa Rosa de Lima. But environmentalists have been fighting the mining industry in El Salvador since it arrived in 2002.
While the country it borders to the north and west was called Honduras (“The Depths”) by the Spanish colonial rulers because of the importance of its silver mines, El Salvador had until recently seen very little mining activity. In 2001, in an attempt to attract foreign investment, the Assembly voted to reduce the percentage a company was required to pay the government on profits made by mining. In short order a number of foreign corporations applied for licenses to dig for gold and other metals, including the Canadian conglomerate Pacific Rim Mining Corp, and the Commerce Group Corporation from the United States. Environmentalists and civil society organizations warned that tiny El Salvador, with only one major river system, was particularly vulnerable to ecological disaster.
Since then, the behavior of mining corporations has been a highly contentious issue. Human rights groups charge that mine workers are not provided proper safeguard or paid fair salaries. Reports of water contamination (in Santa Rosa de Lima but also in other mining areas) have caused grave concern among rural communities. Most worrisome is the alleged involvement of Pacific Rim was in the deaths of three anti-mining organizers in the area of Cabañas, between June and December 2009. Though charges have never been filed, public opinion has steadily grown more suspicious of the foreign companies. Since the former guerrilla army, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, won the presidential and legislative elections that year, anti-mining activists have found sympathetic ears at the highest reaches of government.
Still, it took many years of debate and negotiation to bring the various political factions to the table. Pro-business leaders have been loath to restrict commercial activity and foreign investment in El Salvador. But the shocking images of dark yellow water saturated with iron, manganese, phosphorus and other potentially hazardous elements evidently catalyzed public opinion and, in turn, spurred legislators to action.
And so, the tiny Central American nation has placed itself in the vanguard of environmentally minded government policy. The country loses some revenue from the mining profits, but wins the admiration of goodwill of people around the world, which will hopefully lure a different kind of investment. Its waterways are protected from this particular threat, and it shrinks the scope of action for unscrupulous profiteers.
Environmentalist organizations around the world expect that other governments will follow El Salvador’s example. There’s certainly no shortage of human communities and natural ecosystems that have been damaged by mining itself, or by the shady behavior of mining companies. But the potential revenues are huge, and there’s little hope that political adversaries sitting in legislative chambers around the world will reach a consensus as solid as that of the Salvadorian Assembly.
But the truth is that the debate is about a lot more than corporate profits. Is modern society ready to abandon large-scale metal mining? Metals are integral to many technologies that make our lives better. Take gold for instance. The world can easily give up on mining gold for jewelry and coinage. But gold is also used to make conducting materials for sophisticated electronics (it doesn’t corrode, so it’s ideal to conduct electric currents with low voltages). Gold’s malleability make it useful in medicine and dentistry, and gold-coated polyester film is a standard component of almost all space-faring vehicles and artifacts.
How about other metals? Lithium mining has exploded in the last few years due to the growing use of lithium-ion batteries. Lithium is essential to creating an environmentally-friendly fleet of cars around the world, but its extraction pollutes waterways and its processing creates ecological hazards (lithium is highly flammable). Manganese has a myriad uses, as an alloy, an additive to gasoline, an oxidant, and so on, but it can be highly toxic. And those are just the rare metals. How about iron, copper, or aluminum? Are we ready to give up on all of them?
While El Salvador’s move is easy to applaud from a distance, civilization will continue to require metal mining for the foreseeable future. The solutions to environmental threats include the creation of cleaner and safer mining technologies, appropriate regulation of mining activities, increased cooperation between government and non-governmental agencies around the world to limit malfeasance and corruption. These goals will not be easily reached. For the time being El Salvador will serve as an example of what is possible.