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September 15, 2010

El Salvador under assault

Reuel S. Amdur

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El Salvador encounters major obstacles in promoting safe development for its population in the face of rapacious corporations, narco-crime, and wide-spread poverty. Let's start with the issue of safety.

Long ago the Roman poet Ovid recounted the story of King Midas, a story that taught us that mineral wealth could be a double-edged sword.  We are seeing the truth of that now in Alberta, with the damage being done in the extraction of oil from the oil sands.  

Considerable efforts are being made to lessen the impact on the environment, but local Indian tribes that use the waters complain about illness and scientists are finding elevated levels of toxic elements such as mercury.  The Cree also complain about reduced water flow.

It is because of such problems that there is a burgeoning opposition to mining operations in Latin America. 

El Salvador native Paul Fortis, who divides his time between his birth country and Ottawa, is currently working in El Salvador as a community developer and assisting opposition to a gold and silver mine in the town of San Francisco El Dorado in Cabañas province.  He is also coordinating opposition to mining throughout Latin America. 

Cyanide is one of the contaminants that is a by-product of the mining venture, and the site of the mining is close to a small river that serves as a source of drinking water and irrigation.  There is also concern about the effect on ground water.  Dr. Eduardo Rovita has, in his medical practice, seen an increased incidence of cancer and other problems that were previously rare, such as hair loss, blindness, earaches, and gastrointestinal problems. 

Robert Moran, an expert in water quality, found fault with the environmental assessment report of Pacific Rim, the Canadian company involved. 

Moran charged that the report failed to deal adequately with issues of quantity and quality of the water and failed to involve adequate community participation in review of their assessment report. 

According to Moran, “Many of the environmental impacts routinely encountered at similar gold mining sites are being neglected, which generates uncertainty for the public and regulators.  This uncertainty is dealt with in the U.S.A. and Canada through the use of financial assurance requirements.  Financial assurance issues are not discussed in this EIA [Environmental Impact Assessment].”

In response to opposition from the local people, who have been supported by the Catholic Church on this issue, the government has halted Pacific Rim’s activities in Cabañas.  The conflict on the question of mining has had bloody consequences.

Earlier this year, 14 people from Suchitoto who were opposing a water diversion were tried and convicted of terrorism, but they were released due to efforts of American lawyers.  Soon after, two of them were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. 

At the end of June, Gustavo Marcelo Rivera, who was an anti-mining organizer in San Isidro, was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered.  He also uncovered local voting fraud. 

Two men have been convicted of murdering two of the opponents of the mining.  They were cousins of the men.  Unfortunately, the previous civil war has inured the country to this kind of violence.  Torture and murder were common practices by ARENA, now the opposition party in parliament.  It is said that conflict between supporters and opponents of the mine is the result of material inducements by the mining company to some of the locals, who then have a vested interest in the mine continuing.

Pacific Rim is not taking the closure lightly. 

In other development activities, Fortis works with ORMUSA, a Salvadorian women’s organization, to promote cooperatives and adult education in 20 local areas.  Workshops are given around issues such as women’s rights, health, and the environment.  As well, there are topics such as micro-business, plumbing, sewing, and organic farming.  Most of the cost is borne by international aid, but 20% is provided by the local governments. 

One obstacle impeding development in El Salvador is organized narco-crime.  Even the government itself is at times crippled by these illicit forces.  In response to anti-gang legislation, narco-gangs ordered a three-day shutdown of businesses, including buses.  The gangs want to negotiate the legislation with the government!

There is one ally that the government is wary to enlist in the fight against the narco-gangs-- the United States. 

It is wary because in the past the U.S. has trained soldiers at the School of the Americas, soldiers who returned to El Salvador and engaged in slaughter and torture.  It also gave assistance to ARENA, which also employed such tactics.  ARENA is now the opposition party in parliament. 

While the challenges facing this small country are daunting, El Salvador is fortunate to have people like Paul Fortis who are prepared to work with the people to promote development at the grass-roots level, in spite of the grave danger lurking. 

On the one side, people like Fortis; on the other, ARENA, the narco-criminals, and foreign companies and their locally bribed allies. Clearly, the likes of Paul Fortis have the stronger hand to play.

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