From Gold Country to the Golden Triangle

El Salvador rally in front of the World Bank in Washington, DCThree environmental and human rights heroes came to Washington from gold country in El Salvador this week to protest in front of the oversized World Bank headquarters, at the southern corner of what is known as the “Golden Triangle” in Washington, DC.  One hundred-plus people from a range of organizations from the AFL-CIO to Casa denounced a secret tribunal housed in the Bank that is getting ready to rule on a case that could determine the future of El Salvador’s water supply.

The International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), housed at the World Bank, is hearing the case, which was filed by a Canadian company, Pacific Rim. That company (which was recently purchased by Australian-based Oceana Gold) is suing El Salvador for hundreds of millions of dollars because the government has not granted the company a permit for a gold mining project. Because of concerns that cyanide-based gold mining could pollute the country’s major river system, the government has placed a de facto moratorium on all mining projects.

At a rally in front of the World Bank, Vidalina Morales, a member of the Salvadoran Roundtable against Metallic Mining, said “We are not willing to let the Salvadoran government pay one single dollar. It is the mining company who should pay El Salvador for the violation of environmental and human rights. These courts only defend the interests of large corporations, not the people of El Salvador. Imagine what you could do with that money in El Salvador for social programs to alleviate poverty.”

Elvis Zavala and Cristina Starr, two journalists with the independent radio station Radio Victoria, also attended the rally.  Zavala noted that he has received death threats for his reporting on the Pacific Rim dispute.

A diversity of faith, labor, and environmental leaders, as well as representatives of the Salvadoran community in the Washington region, joined the rally in solidarity with the people of El Salvador who are fighting the Pacific Rim case. They also used the opportunity to draw attention to the investment rules in trade agreements that allow private corporations to sue governments.

The Obama administration is trying to expand these corporate rights in new agreements with Asia (the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and Europe (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), and is pushing to “Fast Track” these controversial deals through Congress. As Bill Waren, from Friends of the Earth US, said “this is a perfect example of what can happen when we prioritize free trade over the rights of people and the planet.”

Cathy Feingold, the AFL-CIO’s Director of International Affairs, said that U.S. workers stand in solidarity with the people of El Salvador and against free trade agreements that allow these abuses.

A climactic moment during the rally took place when the World Bank’s Civil Society Adviser came out to receive 174,000 signatures, collected from all over the world, urging Pacific Rim/Oceana Gold to drop the suit against El Salvador and asking the World Bank to examine whether ICSID and such “investor-state” cases are consistent with the Bank’s official mission of combating poverty.

On March 21, the three Salvadoran heroes received an award from the Washington Ethical Society, the Institute for Policy Studies and others, for their courage, commitment and service in bringing international attention to the issue of precious metal mining in developing countries worldwide.

Manuel PérezRocha is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.