Canada Should Tell Mining Firm to Stop Bullying El Salvador

Re-posted with permission from Embassy Magazine: Vancouver-based mining company Pacific Rim is butting heads with the government of El Salvador.

Representatives from environmental and public policy organizations in the United States, including ours, say the Vancouver-based mining company Pacific Rim should stop bullying the people of El Salvador.

The gold-mining company is trying to pressure El Salvador to let it open gold mines and a cyanide-leaching gold processing plant that would threaten to poison the water source for half of the country’s already water-starved population. The people of El Salvador opposed this plan, making El Salvador the first country to halt gold mining. But Pacific Rim has kept the pressure on, taking El Salvador to an international tribunal to try to force it to allow the dangerous gold mining operation.

On Nov. 12 representatives of these organizations, including me, paid a visit to the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC to deliver a letter to the Canadian ambassador to the United States.

Our letter was co-signed by Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Public Citizen, Friends of the Earth, Earthworks, the Center for International Environmental Law, and others.

We wrote:

“Given the severe environment and human rights implications associated with Pacific Rim’s investment in El Salvador and the gold mine and cyanide leach-water processing plant it is proposing, we urge the Canadian government to alert Pacific Rim that its investor-state claim against the Salvadoran government for enforcing its own environmental laws and striving to protect its water and communities tarnishes the image of the Canadian mining industry.”

Salvadoran community leaders tell us that, since 2009 when they came to Washington to receive the Letelier-Moffitt human rights award from the Institute for Policy Studies, Pacific Rim has been trying to transform itself from victimizer to victim. This behaviour is reprehensible.

Four people have lost their lives due to anti-mining activities, such as Marcelo Rivera, the brother of one of those who received the awards, who was assassinated for speaking out about the perils of gold mining.

This is the effect of free trade agreements.

Despite the prospect of major environmental damage, and damage to the livelihoods of everyday Salvadorans, Pacific Rim says it has the right, under the investor-state regime allowed by investment rules in free trade agreements, to reap the profits that would have been brought by gold mining.

In pursuit of these so-called lost profits, Pacific Rim is demanding up to hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation at the International Centre for Settlement of International Disputes, an unaccountable World Bank tribunal that operates behind closed doors. These secret tribunals allow corporations to attack environmental and public protections and undermine democracy, all while hidden from public scrutiny.

Using large roll-out maps of El Salvador’s watersheds that he had brought to the embassy, John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies, discussed exactly what is at stake here.

He explained to the first secretary of the Canadian Embassy that, though there is always danger from the mining and processing necessary to extract gold, Pacific Rim’s activity in El Salvador is particularly threatening given that El Salvador is the second most water-starved country in our hemisphere.

A full 98 per cent of El Salvador’s surface water is contaminated, some of it from mining activity halted decades ago. Yet Pacific Rim stands to exacerbate El Salvador’s water problems, threatening the river that supplies water to more than half the population.

There is a broad consensus in the department of Cabañas and throughout the country that opening a mine in the Lempa River watershed presents a dangerous risk that El Salvador cannot afford. Polling shows that the people of El Salvador oppose gold mining and the government supports this mandate.

Pacific Rim claims that those who oppose gold mining are “certain,” “rogue,” and “anti-development” organizations. But hundreds of environmental organizations in the United States, Canada, and globally stand firm to defend the right of the people of El Salvador—the first nation to halt gold mining—to defend their environment and to implement public policies to this end.

Yesterday we asked the embassy official to notify his government that we expect an escalation in worldwide protests demanding that Pacific Rim drop its suit at the World Bank’s ICSID, and leave El Salvador.