Mines and the waters and lives they threaten

Written by Tracy Glynn on April 1, 2013

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Sandra Carolina Ascencio speaking about the opposition to mining in El Salvador at the Wilmot United Church in Fredericton on March 28th. Photo by Tracy Glynn.

Salvadoran activist sheds light on opposition to mining

Fredericton – Sandra Carolina Ascencio, a community advocate and environmental activist from El Salvador, told 40 people gathered at Wilmot United Church in Fredericton on March 28th that we all share the same problem: Canadian mining companies.

El Salvador is the first country in the world to seriously consider a ban on large-scale metal mining. No metals extraction is occurring in the country today but Canadian and American mining companies have not given up their quest to open mines there, despite local opposition.

Sixty-nine mining concessions were approved in El Salvador by the previous National Republican Alliance (ARENA) governments, and Ascencio says her organization opposes every one of them. The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) that came to power in 2009 is more open to a mining ban.

Ascencio told an attentive audience of solidarity activists, environmental activists, United Church members and students that mining should not occur in her small country because of its dense population, its deforestation rate that is the world’s largest after Haiti, and its many rivers that have already been contaminated by mining done in the past.

Ascencio of La Mesa (the El Salvadoran National Roundtable Against Metallic Mining) said her organization’s main goal is to get a law that bans all large-scale metal mining in the country.

The Cerro Blanco gold and silver mine in Guatemala, owned by Goldcorp, a Canadian mining company, was a focus of Ascencio’s talk. She explained how the mine threatens water quality in the Lempa River, which supplies water not only to Guatemala but also to El Salvador and Honduras. She said it’s especially difficult to stop this mine and the thermal pollution that it will generate because it is on Guatemalan land.

El Salvador solidarity groups in Canada and the U.S. say that another mine in the country, the Pacific Rim mine, in the Department of Cabañas has claimed five lives including the lives of three environmentalists: Dora Sorto (32), Ramiro Rivera (52) and Marcelo Rivera (36). Sorto was shot dead while eight months pregnant and as she carried her two year old son in 2009. Ascencio said that the authorities have only carried out a superficial investigation of the murders. “The murders will not stop our opposition to mining in El Salvador,” said Ascencio.

In the neighbouring country of Guatemala, violence has been on the rise in recent months. On March 17th, four indigenous Xinca leaders were kidnapped by armed masked men, after participating as observers at a referendum that resulted in the community rejecting the Tahoe and Goldcorp Escobal silver mine in the San Rafael Las Flores region. Three men escaped with their lives, their vehicle riddled with bullet holes. Exaltación Marcos Ucelo, Secretary of the Indigenous Community of Santa María Xalapán, did not escape and was found dead the next day.

Tahoe Resources is a Canadian/American mining company with one mining interest–the Escobal silver project. Goldcorp is a Canadian gold mining company, the second largest in the world, and owns 40 per cent of Tahoe’s shares. The project is currently at an advanced stage but lacks the final permit needed to operate.

“As distressful as these latest incidents are, they are not surprising, they are not an anomaly.  The U.S. and Canadian governments, and North American resource extraction companies maintain full and profitable economic and military relations with the Guatemalan elites and regime in power, always turning a blind eye to repression, violence and impunity that are the norm in Guatemala,” says Grahame Russell of Rights Action, a Canadian/American organization that raises awareness of abuses of Canadian mining companies in Central America.

Rights Action and Mining Watch Canada are calling for an investigation into the violence in the area of the Escobal project, the protection of human rights and environmental defenders and for the company to suspend their operations in response to recurring violence in the area and its failure to obtain community consent.

El Salvador, Guatemala and other countries feel the pressure of having to pay millions of dollars in compensation if they revoke a permit or do anything that harms a company’s investment.

When El Salvador failed to grant Pacific Rim’s permit to mine, the company took the country to the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investments Disputes (ICSID) and demanded $77 million in compensation. ICSID has found that the case cannot proceed under the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) because the mine had been granted an approval in 2003 before the free trade agreement was signed in 2004. The investor protections, installed by CAFTA, formed the basis of the case against El Salvador. Nonetheless, ICSID has claimed jurisdiction to continue to hear the claim under a Salvadoran neoliberal investment law that also allows foreign companies recourse to international tribunals.

On April 1st, as Ascencio entered the U.S. leg of her speaking tour, Pacific Rim announced that their subsidiary had filed a statement of claim against the government of El Salvador. Pacific Rim is seeking a total compensation of US$ 315 million for what they say are losses caused by the government of El Salvador’s breaches of the Salvadoran Investment Law.

Gail Wylie, a member of the Wilmot United Church, reminded the crowd gathered for Ascencio’s talk that many Canadian pension funds are invested in mining companies. Many members of the United Church who are also solidarity activists working with communities affected by another Goldcorp mine in Guatemala, the Marlin gold and silver mine in San Marcos, were shocked to learn in 2008 that the United Church’s pension plan was invested in Goldcorp. A resolution at the United Church’s 2008 national General Council meetings has led to investigations but has not yet led to divestment.

Joining Ascencio was Lawrence Wuest, a resident of Stanley. He is concerned about what could become one of the world’s largest open-pit tungsten and molybdenum mines in the Upper Nashwaak Watershed–the Sisson mine owned by Northcliff Resources. The mine, which would have a footprint of approximately 770 hectares, would be located about 20 km from Stanley and 60 km from Fredericton.

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Lawrence Wuest, a resident of Stanley, speaking about the potential impacts of a proposed tungsten and molybdenum mine on the Nashwaak watershed at the Wilmot United Church in Fredericton on March 28th. Photo by Tracy Glynn.

“Fugitive airborne emissions and water emissions from this mine threaten the human and ecological health of the Nashwaak Valley,” said Wuest. He points out that the ore contains about six times more arsenic than tungsten.

Of concern to Wuest is the possibility of failure of a massive tailings dam that could contaminate the Nashwaak River and destroy Atlantic salmon populations. Wuest has calculated that there is a one-in-30 chance for failure during the 27 years that the mine plans to be in operation. If the tailings dam did fail, according to Wuest, the tailings would travel down the Nashwaak River and reach Stanley in 17 minutes and Fredericton in three days.

Julia Linke, who lives downstream of the proposed mine site in Taymouth, said, “Three hundred jobs for 27 years. That’s not even a young person’s entire career. And after 27 years, then what? The ore is gone and the jobs are gone. We are left with the tailings and a super dam full of arsenic.”

The audience was shocked to learn that the province of New Brunswick collects no royalties from metals mining.

Wuest challenges the government to show that the Sisson mine will be profitable for the province. He wonders if the mine will cost New Brunswick more than it will actually receive in return. Large swaths of forest will be clearcut for the mine and NB Power will provide subsidized power rates for the mine.

Ascencio’s stop in Fredericton was part of a national speaking tour organized by Mining Watch Canada, the Council of Canadians, KAIROS, the United Church of Canada, the Natural Resources Council of Maine and Salvaide. The tour is aimed at creating greater awareness about Canadian and other multinational mining projects in El Salvador and other Latin American countries. Ascencio’s group hopes to build relationships with groups in North America also confronting problems with mining.

The Fredericton event was supported by the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network, UNB’s Department of Culture and Language Studies, the Fredericton Chapter of the Council of Canadians and the Conservation Council of New Brunswick.

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