Radio Victoria | Translation
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Translated by MC Editorial
[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Today’s story begins in Santa Marta, a community in northern El Salvador. It is in the department of Cabañas, on the border with Honduras. Almost half the people in that department live in poverty. And most families living in Santa Marta subsist on agriculture. It’s a place where opportunities are scarce. But something that characterizes Santa Marta is that it is a very unified, supportive place. And much of that solidarity is due to community radio . . .
[Host]: Radio Victoria 92.1 now presents Community Update. Welcome.
[Daniel]: Radio Victoria is a direct product of the civil war that devastated El Salvador in the 1980s. Santa Marta was one of the hubs of the Marxist-leaning guerrillas who were fighting the army and paramilitaries, and was destroyed in 1981. . . . Its inhabitants, at least those who did not die in the attacks, were forced to flee.
People started coming back in small groups in the late 80s and early 90s, and that’s when radio was born. It was for internal use initially, a way of solving the needs of a community that was quite isolated from the rest of the department. They would broadcast messages, they warned if there was any problem, or when it was time to go to school. But they soon realized that the radio could also be used to communicate with other places, to reach beyond Santa Marta. And this was no small thing because its past support of the guerrillas had given the town a very bad reputation in the nearby municipalities:
[Óscar Beltrán]: People have always believed that you could not enter Santa Marta, that you could not interact with the people, and if someone went into Santa Marta, they would not come out alive. We ate the children; we made soap out of people over 60 years old.
[Daniel]: This is Óscar Beltrán. He’s part of the radio management team. He has worked there for over 20 years.
So a few months after creating the radio, the people of Santa Marta decided to climb the seven kilometers up the mountain that separates them from the municipality of Victoria, settle there, and create a radio station for the entire department of Cabañas:
[Óscar]: It was so difficult to set up a communication project. And when we managed to set up the radio, when we managed to get sound out of the radio for the first time—in other words, everyone said this has been a victory, we have achieved what we dreamed of. So that’s how the name of the radio was born, and we called it Radio Victoria. And coincidentally, it is located in the municipality of Victoria.
[Daniel]: Since then, Radio Victoria has been engaged in informing and addressing the problems of Cabañas.
So it was not entirely strange when, in the early 2000s, the small farmers in the area began to approach them asking for help. Wells were running dry and animals were dying under strange circumstances.
[Óscar]: In other words, it was a lot of cattle, not just one cow that died and that was it.
[Daniel]: They also reported that outsiders had arrived and were taking rock samples. And people were very concerned.
[Óscar]: They came asking, “Hey, do you know? Can you investigate what is happening?” And we said, “Look, you should go to the environmental unit, town halls have a unit, and the police are also responsible.”
[Daniel]: But they got no answers in those places. They were told that those events were normal.
[Óscar]: That maybe someone had poisoned the water.
[Daniel]: Nobody knew anything.
So the people at Radio Victoria got together with their neighbors and set out to find answers. But what they found was much bigger than they could have imagined.
We’ll be back after a short break.
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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. Spanish producer and writer Isabel Cadenas Cañón picks up the story.
This is Isabel.
[Isabel Cadenas Cañón]: Radio Victoria joined other organizations that were already looking for answers. One was ADES, the Association for Social and Economic Development, which had also been created in Santa Marta when its population returned from Honduras. The other was an environmental group from the area called ASIC: Association of Friends of San Isidro Cabañas. ASIC and ADES had already worked together before. They had stopped a sanitary landfill project someone wanted to carry out on the banks of the Titihuapa River. One day, they held a forum to talk about this issue, and the delegate from the environment ministry said they were very concerned about a sanitary landfill, but that actually, the contamination that would be caused by that project was nothing compared to what the mining industry would cause. But they soon realized that several mining companies had been prospecting for gold in Cabañas since 1993.
[Óscar]: What happened is that they were drilling very deep and that was causing some water springs to be cut off, and that water was no longer reaching the places where people would normally get it. The water was diverted, and it was no doubt coming out somewhere else.
[Isabel]: So far the companies had drilled more than 200 holes. The mining exploration also explained why the cattle died, because to extract the gold, they had to mix water with several highly polluting chemicals, including cyanide:
[Óscar]: And all that was being dumped out there in the open, and every time it rained, it all ended up in the river. So it was evident that this water was also affecting the livestock of the communities.
[Isabel]: There had been mining in El Salvador during colonial times, and also for a brief period in the 1950s. Cabañas is one of the regions with the most gold and silver in the country, and between 1948 and 1953 an American company, the Rosario Mining Company, worked the El Dorado mine. But since then, there has been almost no mining for metals in the country.
When I was in Santa Marta in 2018, they told me that when people started talking about mining, most people thought it was about another type of mines: anti-personnel mines placed during the war.
But in 1992, with the signing of the peace agreements after the conflict, El Salvador began to promote the extraction of metals through foreign investment in an attempt to reactivate an economy devastated by war.
And given the economic conditions in Cabañas, despite the warning signs of dry wells and dead animals, people in the area were optimistic about the news that a mining company was planning to settle in the area.
This is Marixela Ramos.
[Marixela Ramos]: We didn’t know anything about mining, nothing at all.
[Isabel]: Another journalist from Radio Victoria.
[Marixela]: And we were like, “Wow! There are going to be I don’t know how many hundreds of jobs, this is an opportunity for Cabañas, one of the poorest departments in El Salvador—which is why they call it number 14, because it’s the last in everything—it’s going to emerge, it’s a chance of a lifetime to get ahead thanks to that mining.”
[Isabel]: What happened was that in 2002, after the cattle incident, Pacific Rim, a Canadian company that had gotten mining exploration permits in the area, came to the community with a strong campaign: they made announcements, meetings with the area residents, and lots of gifts for the people: chickens, pigs, trees, food . . .
Actually, maybe the company’s campaign was way too strong, because then some people began to get suspicious.
[Marixela]: Something doesn’t smell right, because something so easy has never happened to the communities, getting things so easily.
[Isabel]: So in Santa Marta, they began to investigate.
[Marixela]: We began to look, and they began to form groups. As always, we got together to analyze the issue and look, “What is a mine? What do they do?” In other words, for such a beautiful thing they want to give us, what do we have to give up? What are they going to take away from us?
[Isabel]: They were learning the more technical aspects of the mining process . . .
[Marixela]: Like how many tons of land are equivalent to making one gold ring: Aha!
[Isabel]: In case you’re wondering, that’s about three tons of rock. They also investigated the chemicals used in the process, stopping at the main one: cyanide… The people of Santa Marta were so interested that several neighbors even went to study more on the subject. One of these was Marixela, who went to the capital, San Salvador, to get a short degree in mining. In addition, a delegation from the Cabañas organizations also visited Valle de Siria, in Honduras, where there was mining between 2000 and 2008. Marixela went there, too. The delegation interviewed residents of the area about how mining was changing their lives. And they discovered something that surprised them: the area was becoming desert.
[Marixela]: People are now buying water, because their river has been dried up. You go to the river and you will not find any life because of the high pH level, meaning that it is unusable and people are even buying the two-meter barrels of water for two dollars, one dollar. And here, well, to get a dollar, two dollars, how does a family that doesn’t have a job manage to drink water?
[Isabel]: They also began to see what jobs these mining companies offered to local people.
[Marixela]: They were the riskiest jobs, such as working underground, right? Being in front of some very dangerous machines.
[Isabel]: And the highest-level, best-paying jobs were going to go to foreigners:
[Marixela]: Because we have no people here who are experts in exploiting mines, many of the engineers who are experts in that area were from Canada, the United States. They were going to bring them in.
[Isabel]: They also discovered that very little profit would actually be left in the country, especially in Cabañas:
[Marixela]: Of the one hundred percent, 98% went to their country; 1% went to the town or to the department, and the other 1% went to the State. And what was left for the community? The disaster.
[Isabel]: In Santa Marta they knew they had to get organized. So in 2005, ASIC and ADES, Radio Victoria, and other organizations came together to create an alliance against mining. They called it the National Roundtable against Metal Mining. It included environmental organizations, research centers, foundations, and even local and national religious organizations.
Under that name they began to attend meetings called by the company, and they organized discussion forums. And in 2006, the Roundtable submitted a draft bill, but it didn’t get very far.
Pacific Rim didn’t sit still, of course. Through a foundation, they started a series of social welfare projects for the Cabañas communities. These were mostly training and educational programs so that young people and women would have the necessary tools to start a business or get a job.
They also launched a very strong campaign in the media, talking about responsible and eco-friendly mining. What they called the future of mining.
[Narrator]: Mining used to be a dirty industry. Today, thanks to technology, there is something new and clean: green mining. Green mining is eco-friendly and modern.
[Isabel]: “Green mining” is a name you hear a lot—a narrative to say that modern mining is nothing short of green, when in fact it has been proven that all mining activity pollutes, no matter what type of technology is used. And so, little by little, that topic that no one had heard of invaded the media in El Salvador.
[Óscar]: Almost all the media in this country were flooded—television, radio, the internet, billboards. The newspapers were flooded with the topic of green mining.
[Isabel]: The campaign was everywhere, except Radio Victoria. The mining company sought them out in 2007.
[Marixela]: They had monitored the radio in the entire department where it was broadcast, and they said, “We want to advertise.”
[Óscar]: And they say it’s just a few ads, what we want to say is how the industry develops, how metals contribute to medicine, to this and that . . .
[Marixela]: They offered us thousands per month.
[Óscar]: “We’re going to pay you $8,000 a month.” And we didn’t even have $1,000 in income at the time, I mean . . .
[Marixela]: At that time, we were constructing this building.
[Óscar]: They said, “Look, we know that you cannot finish making that building. We will build it, if you want, three stories high, if you let us advertise on the radio.”
[Marixela]: They thought they were going to come to our radio station, we were going to sit down and happily reach an agreement, but it wasn’t like that.
[Óscar]: We are not going to give them a voice, that is, we are not interested.
[Marixela]: What’s more, we intensified the campaign, but against them, right?
[Isabel]: On the air, they explained how Pacific Rim wanted to advertise on Radio Victoria but they refused. But they wanted to do more, not settle for being the only one to not run ads for the mining companies. So they met with ARPAS, El Salvador’s community radio network.
[Óscar]: And the agreement that was reached was that all the radio stations associated with ARPAS were going to shut their doors to the mining company. So the company felt that we had not only closed the doors of Radio Victoria, but we had also closed the doors of the other radio stations.
[Isabel]: In addition, they created a network of journalists.
[Óscar]: We prepared young people in communities to inform us of what is happening. And we were broadcasting everything that was happening at the time. They were surprised by the ability of the radio to react, to be in each place with everything they were doing.
[Isabel]: They added a new section to their newscast, focused especially on mining. It was called “The other face of mining.”
[Narrator 1]: Did you know that mining consumes between 7 and 10 percent of the world’s energy?
[Narrator 2]: When it comes to mining, I say to you with complete certainty and with total frankness: No, no, and three times no.
[Narrator 3]: What they want is the same as always, man: take the gold and leave us screwed, polluted, without water . . .
[Isabel]: In the communities of Cabañas, a very clear division began to emerge between people who opposed mining for metals and people who either already worked for the company or hoped to do so one day.
A lot of people called Radio Victoria to show support:
[Marixela]: And the people said, “We don’t want mining here, is Pacific Rim listening to us? If they are listening to us, we want them to leave Cabañas, we don’t want them here.”
[Isabel]: But others called trying try to silence them:
[Marixela]: “What do you know about mining, shut up, you don’t know, let them give us jobs.” Because that was the message the company had sold: there’s a media outlet there that is being, as we say, a nuisance.
[Daniel]: In other words, Radio Victoria was an obstacle to bringing development and well-being to Cabañas. And that would have consequences.
After the break: What happens when you oppose a giant?
We will be back.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. Before the break, we heard how the Canadian mining company Pacific Rim came to one of the poorest departments of El Salvador with the promise of employment and prosperity. The news was initially greeted with enthusiasm by a community where many people barely have enough to eat. But a local radio station was not so sure that everything was positive, and began to investigate . . . They came to realize that things were not so simple: most of the wealth would leave the country, and what would remain would be an environmental disaster.
There was tension among the people in the department. Some wanted the work offered by the mining company and others were willing to fight for the company not to settle in. And things would only keep escalating.
Isabel Cadenas Cañón continues the story.
[Isabel]: In 2007, after the company visited Radio Victoria offering money, the first march against mining was held in Cabañas. They called it “the green march”.
[Marixela]: That was one of the most beautiful results; all the people went out on the streets, dressed in green, with their banners, saying what they wanted, and right in front of the Pacific Rim offices.
[Isabel]: In addition to that, the people from the Roundtable against Metalic Mining brought television sets to the communities to show what they had seen on their visits to mining projects, among other things…
The pressure from Cabañas seemed to have worked. In 2008, the ARENA government gave assurances that it would not grant extraction permits without environmental impact studies and without regulations to control the industry. One more obstacle for Pacific Rim.
To the actions of the environmental groups was added the fact that presidential elections were scheduled to take place a year later, early in 2009, and ARENA could lose power. At that time, everything pointed to the fact that, for the first time since the end of the war, the elections were going to be won by the FMLN, the leftist party that was opposed to mining. The environmental groups even obtained the signature of the opposition candidate, Mauricio Funes, promising that there would be no mining of metals in his administration.
Pacific Rim knew that if they didn’t get an operating permit with the right-wing government, it would be almost impossible to get one if the left was in power.
By way of pressure, the mining company proposed to file a complaint against the Salvadoran State with the World Bank. It may sound strange that a company can sue a country, but it is actually quite common. The World Bank considers companies to be an engine of development and has created an independent arbitration court, which does not depend on the national jurisdiction of any country. In that court, companies can file a complaint against States that put their investments at risk within their national territory. The name is the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes. For simplicity we’ll call it by its acronym, ICSID.
To better understand the threat of a legal process, I asked Saúl Baños for help. He’s an attorney who works at FESPAD, a legal foundation that was also part of the National Roundtable against Metal Mining.
[Saúl Baños]: It can be explained more or less like this: a company that makes an investment in El Salvador assumes that it can expect the conditions, or legal certainty as it’s called, so that El Salvador can allow them to make the investment.
[Isabel]: That is . . .
[Saúl]: The Pacific Rim company understood, from its logic, that by granting them the exploration license the government would also automatically grant the operating permit.
[Isabel]: So what the company wanted with the potential complaint was to claim money from the State for stopping the process. But it was money they never had, but rather, money they thought they were going to get by exploiting the mine:
[Saúl]: The company says, look, we have invested money, it’s already been several million in exploration activities, but you have played with us. So as a company, I’m going to lose that investment that I have made. And so, by denying me the mining license, you are preventing me from getting any earnings, any profits, or a surplus from an investment that I had already made.
[Isabel]: So on March 15, 2009, the presidential elections were held.
[Group]: Yes, we did it! Yes, we did it! Yes, we did it!
[Isabel]: And the FMLN won the elections.
Pacific Rim was in trouble. So they kept their promise: in April, a month after the elections, they filed the complaint with ICSID. They argued that El Salvador was delaying and hindering the concession agreement process. And they were losing a lot, a lot of money.
[Marixela]: At that time, mining was seen as a Cabañas problem here in El Salvador, not a national problem; it was not seen that way.
[Isabel]: But the lawsuit changed that perception. At first, the company said the profit they were losing was 77 million dollars. But later, that sum was increased and the final complaint demanded 250 million dollars from the Salvadoran State. That figure seemed so exaggerated that it sort of created a wake-up call in the rest of the country.
And while the future of mining in El Salvador was being decided in Washington offices, on Radio Victoria the tension turned into threats.
[Óscar]: We started getting emails, phone calls, text messages.
[Marixela]: “We are going to cut out your tongues,” and all kinds of things they were going to do to us.
[Óscar]: “You have this much time to shut up.”
[Isabel]: The atmosphere on the streets of Cabañas was similar. Several people who opposed mining received threats—anonymous notes, people stalking them . . .
And then something happened that shocked everyone in the community:
[Presenter]: On June 18, Gustavo Marcelo Rivera, an activist against mining in the area of San Isidro, Cabañas, was officially declared missing . . .
[Marixela]: Marcelo was one of our first environmentalists. What’s more, he was the first to warn that this was not just a simple matter. He was at the forefront with his organization, ADES and Radio Victoria, covering any action that was occurring.
[Isabel]: After 13 days of searching, Marcelo´s body was found at the bottom of a well. It was clear that he had been tortured.
The police arrested four gang members for Marcelo’s murder. The Prosecutor’s Office said that a friend from the gang had invited Marcelo for a drink, and that he was killed at midnight in that encounter. Authorities also said they found no evidence of any connection between Marcelo’s murder and Pacific Rim. But many people in the community believe that they acted as hired assassins and that Marcelo was killed for being one of the most visible figures against mining. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch also asked the Salvadoran State for an exhaustive investigation into Marcelo’s murder.
After Marcelo’s murder, the threats against the radio station became more and more frequent.
[Óscar]: We had to get our correspondents in that area out of their homes, because anonymous letters were being left under their doors saying that if they didn’t shut up, the same thing that happened to Marcelo would happen to them. They were told they didn’t know what they were doing, no one was going to answer for them, and look how Marcelo had ended up and that was how it was going to stay…
[Isabel]: Some of the radio journalists began to realize that they were being followed, that they were being watched:
[Óscar]: As they walked through the market, they realized there were two known mining company workers walking next to them.
[Isabel]: They went to the Salvadoran Office of the Attorney General for the Defense of Human Rights. There, the director of the institution acted immediately.
[Óscar]: He requests precautionary measures for the radio equipment to protect the radio facilities, and a report within 72 hours on what was going on in Cabañas.
[Isabel]: A few days later, on July 30, 2009, Isabel Gámez, who at the time was in charge of the station’s press, was alone at the radio station when someone called her directly. They began to give her an itinerary of everything she had done during the day.
[Óscar]: You left for Sensuntepeque at eight in the morning. You went to such-and-such office, you met with these people. At two in the afternoon you were here with these people, and now you are the radio station alone. All your companions are gone, so we are waiting for you out here.
[Isabel]: Everyone from the radio station had gone to play soccer, to relieve the stress.
[Marixela]: They called her, they told her, “Look, we’re out here, we’re here to kill you.” And I remember she called us and we called the police, asking them to come.
[Óscar]: And the police say, “Look, we are not here to take care of facilities. That is not our job.” I tell him, “But the Attorney General has asked you to protect the radio equipment and facilities because there is imminent danger to the radio station.” “Sure, but that’s not our job.”
[Isabel]: The police finally agreed, and the radio workers returned immediately to where Isabel was. When they arrived, they saw that a lot of people from the community had surrounded the radio station.
[Marixela]: And they said, if they’re going to do something to the station, they’ll have to do it to us first. So, that was like . . . well, like it gave us strength. So we said, damn, we really are not alone. And we saw Santa Marta and the men with their machetes, with their mats and we said, “We have done a good job.” Seeing elderly men and women who were there at the door and when we arrived, they welcomed us and said, “Don’t be afraid, nothing is going to happen to you.”
[Isabel]: Isabel Gámez was taken away for her safety, and someone close to the Cabañas government officials called Óscar. He was a source for them; they trusted each other. He told Óscar that the radio station could be burned that night. But the people of the community were not going to allow it. So, as an act of solidarity with the radio station, a group was formed, made up of workers from the station and people from the town of Santa Marta, who remained there to stand guard . . .
[Óscar]: Since that night, we spent from July 30 all through December, every night a group of fifteen to twenty people came to watch out for the radio station.
[Isabel]: But the fact is that the threat to Isabel Gámez marked a turning point for Radio Victoria.
[Marixela]: We wondered, what should we do? Do we shut down the radio as they are asking?
[Isabel]: On the station, everyone was suffering from health problems caused by the stress and the threats.
[Marixela]: Many were nervous, there was a lot of anxiety, people even said, I’m going to such a place, I don’t know if I’m going to return. Look, you have to be in constant touch, you have to alert others about anything. So that’s not a good life, is it? That’s being afraid all the time.
[Isabel]: A few months later, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted precautionary measures to several radio journalists and to the relatives of Marcelo Rivera. They also asked the State of El Salvador to adopt the necessary measures to guarantee their life and safety. That’s when bodyguards were assigned to several of them.
But the threats did not stop . . .
[Marixela]: When they realized it had not worked, they looked for a final strategy, which was the fiercest. That’s when they began to mention our family members. They told us, “Oh well, you don’t want to pay attention, we already know how many siblings you have, who your father is, who your mother is and who your son is.” And when they mentioned our families, that’s when many people left.
[Isabel]: Isabel Gámez went into exile in Germany. In addition to Marcelo’s murder, there had been four other murders in the canton of Trinidad, in Sensuntepeque, a municipality near the mine. The police wrote off those crimes as quarrels between families, cases of “passionate” jealousy, according to the Prosecutor’s Office. But the people who died were people who had visibility on both sides of the mining conflict: Horacio Menjívar and Esperanza Velasco, both in favor of mining, and Ramiro Rivera and Dora Sorto, activists against mining and part of the Cabañas Environmental Committee. Dora was on her way to get water with her little son when she was shot to death. She was pregnant.
[Marixela]: I said, I don’t think they are capable of killing a child, but when they murdered Dora and shot her in the belly and wounded her son who was in her arms, I realized they are capable, and they are sending us a very clear message, because that was what they wanted. And that’s when I left.
[Isabel]: Marixela had a 2-year-old daughter. And Dora’s murder was what pushed her to make the decision . . .
[Marixela Ramos]: Because I was one of the people whose daughter was threatened, so my family said to me, “Well, you decide, we will support whatever you decide.” I was moving with my girl for a long time; I left the country for three months.
[Isabel]: Marixela spent 3 months in Ecuador, working for a community radio there, but she did not want to ask for asylum . . .
[Marixela]: According to the radio station, they were going to get me some kind of asylum status and I kept saying no, no, I’m coming back, what was I doing outside my country, I hadn’t done anything wrong, and there was no reason why I had to be there. And I came back, and what gave me the strength to come back was knowing there is a community that is not going to leave me alone.
[IC]: The threats continued until 2012, and even many years later Marixela remained cautious, because the people responsible were never found:
[Marixela]: And still, believe me, until I see this chapter closed, the alert will always be there, especially because there hasn’t been any progress and no results in the investigation. The Prosecutor’s Office has not given us anything. Nothing.
[Isabel]: Not a written report nor a digital one. Not even a meeting where they explain the status of the investigation. Nothing.
Óscar sent me a 19-page document in which he said they collected all the threats they received between 2006 and 2012. Most of the messages are signed by a group that called itself the “Extermination Group.” Despite everything, in those dark years there were moments of hope. First, in 2009, the National Roundtable against Metal Mining received the Letellier-Moffit Human Rights Award, one of the most important in the world.
[Presenter]: As I present you with the 2009 Letellier-Moffit Human Rights Award, please come up and accept this award . . .
[Isabel]: It was received by Vidalina Morales, a small farmer from Santa Marta, and by the ADES organization, which became another of the most visible figures of the anti-mining struggle.
[Vidalina Morales]: We are united in our fight for social justice on behalf of our loved ones who have fallen in the struggle.
[Isabel]: This gave the country’s anti-mining movement an international spotlight. Demonstrations were also held in solidarity with environmental defenders in different parts of the continent. For example, in Toronto:
[Demonstrator]: It’s “No justice, no peace, with mining companies . . .”
[Isabel]: Vancouver, in front of the Pacific Rim headquarters:
[Demonstrators]: Pacific Rim out of El Salvador now!
[Isabel]: Or in Washington D.C, in front of The World Bank.
[Demonstrator]: Companions, you are not alone, we are here with you . . .
[Isabel]: And just as all this was happening, an unexpected ally emerged: The Archbishop of San Salvador, Monsignor Escobar Alas, began making public appearances speaking out against mining.
Support from the Church only grew stronger after 2015, when Pope Francis criticized the current system of consumption and development in which we live. He called for “taking care of our common home,” that is, fighting against environmental degradation and climate change by transforming the production model, not basing it on activities with consequences as negative as mining.
This is Monsignor Escobar Alas at the festivities in honor of the patron saint of San Salvador, August 2016.
[Monseñor Escobar Alas]: I also respectfully ask the honorable Legislative Assembly to issue a law that prohibits mining in our country using cyanide, as it is an extremely lethal poison.
[Isabel]: But the archbishop was not only addressing the country’s politicians; he also began to speak to the World Bank and the ICSID, the body that was assessing whether the State should compensate Pacific Rim for having suspended exploration and extraction permits:
[Monseñor Escobar Alas]: And in the name of God, and of our suffering Salvadoran people, I raise my voice to ask the ICSID not to punish this country for not allowing mining development.
[Isabel]: He also said that forcing a poor country like El Salvador to pay $250 million in reparations to a company would be unjust.
[Monseñor Escobar Alas]: Well, it would literally be taking bread away from a poor town and at the same time allowing others to contaminate their drinking water . . .
[Isabel]: With the support of the Salvadoran Church, many knew that now there would be no turning back. And soon after, something happened that was quite like a miracle. . .
[Journalist]: The government of El Salvador won the lawsuit filed with the ICSID by the Canadian mining company Pacific Rim, now owned by the Australian company Oceana Gold.
[Isabel]: On October 11, 2016, ICSID determined that not only would El Salvador not have to pay the $250 million to the company for not being able to exploit the mine, but additionally, the government would have to receive $8 million as compensation for legal expenses.
But for Saúl Baños, an attorney at FESPAD whom we heard earlier, the victory was very expensive for the country:
[Saúl]: While it is true that El Salvador won (quote-unquote) that lawsuit, it was not a true victory, it was like a pyrrhic victory, you know? The gain is too little…Because the Court orders the company to return 8.5 million to El Salvador, when El Salvador had spent over 13.5 million on defense alone.
[Isabel]: In other words, El Salvador invested 5.5 million more in defense than it received when it won the lawsuit.
[Saúl]: Those 5.5 million could have been used to build an endless number of low-income houses for homeless people here, or to provide hospitals with beds and medicines, or to build water sewers, etc. How much could be done here in the country with 5 million dollars?
[Isabel]: And, of course, money was not the only thing lost in that fight against mining.
[Saúl]: There were people killed, there were people threatened, there was a breakdown of the social fabric in the communities, separation of the communities, environmental damage because there has also been damage done by prospecting.
[Isabel]: After the victory against the company, the environmentalists saw the law of prohibition getting closer. There were marches to the National Assembly, now with the Catholic Church at the forefront; there was collection of signatures and draft legislation. The draft bill was presented to the Assembly on February 6, 2017. But since there was no response, a march was organized: on March 9, thousands of people, summoned by the Church, by the Universidad Centroamericana and by the Roundtable Against Metallic Mining, marched from Parque Bolívar in San Salvador to the National Assembly to deliver the more than 30,000 signatures they had collected. They were received by the President of the Assembly, who, referring to the proposed law, said…
[President of the Assembly]: Having the will, thinking about the country, thinking about the poor, we can get it passed within two weeks. I would wait and ask the commission and its president, as it would make a wonderful Easter gift if we manage to approve the law before Easter.
[Isabel]: At that point, everything was rushed. It was a year when the parties were already starting up their electoral strategies for the legislative and municipal elections of the next year, 2018. No party wanted to position itself against an issue that had more than a decade of struggle behind it, with a lot of mobilization on the streets, and now also with the support of the Catholic Church. Just two weeks after that march, on March 29, 2017, the law was debated in the Legislative Assembly.
There, in the Assembly, were yellow flags against mining at the lawmakers’ tables. The President of the Assembly stopped the session and looked towards the guests from the public. He greeted them, thanked them, and the public behind the glass waved some flags just like the ones on the tables. They read “No to mining, yes to life.”
The session resumes. The spokesmen of different parties took turns saying more or less the same thing: that it was a historic moment.
[Lawmaker]: This is a historic day, and you are at the heart of what we are going to approve this morning.
[Isabel]: And that this law was necessary.
[Lawmaker]: Measures must me taken to prohibit such activity.
[Isabel]: Because it was a law in favor of life . . .
[Lawmaker]: In defense of life, the life of Salvadorans.
[Isabel]: Then there was a silence, and the lawmakers voted.
[Lawmaker]: Voting is now closed with 69 votes, and it is approved in general terms . . .
[Isabel]: 69 votes in favor of banning metal mining, no votes against. The audience weeped, screamed, hugged.
On March 29, 2017, El Salvador became the first country in the world to ban metal mining. As so many politicians have said, a historic day. The law prohibits any type of metallic mining, whether exploration, extraction, production and metal processing activities, both open-pit and underground, as well as industrial or artisanal extraction. The use of toxic chemicals such as cyanide and mercury in any metal mining process was also prohibited. And the law annulled the processes to obtain exploration and extraction permits that had already begun, such as the one for Pacific Rim.
This was a victory for the defense of the environment, not only in the country, but throughout the world. Government support in a region like Latin America, where violence against environmental defenders is constant and where development models based on extraction of raw materials for export are practiced by governments of the right and left.
Present at the Legislative Assembly were several people from Santa Marta who had promoted the Roundtable against Mining . . . but there was no one from Radio Victoria. This did not stop them from celebrating from a distance.
[Marixela]: I was here. When the law was approved, I was following it because there was a reading on Channel 9. We were linked to Channel 9, which is the legislative channel . . . and yes, we cried… we cried with emotion and said, wow, at last.
[Isabel]: Someone who was there was Saúl Baños . . . and he remembers it as a party.
[Saúl]: We were cheering, banging on the glass, waving flags. I don’t laugh very much, and I have a rictus on my face that makes it hard for me to laugh, but the people who saw those photos told me that I was quite happy, because they saw the smile on my face from ear to ear.
[Isabel]: At that moment, in Radio Victoria decided they had to hold a celebration that was not locked up at the National Assembly, but rather, a celebration for the people who fought in the streets and the communities during those 12 years.
[Marixela]: We know that there have been other actors here, we know that there have been other leaders here, who are not there and who will be ignored by the big media, and we need to project that. And so we scheduled a forum called, “Beyond the Law’s Approval.”
[Isabel]: Present were many of the people from the community who fought against Pacific Rim.
[Marixela]: And I felt very happy. We dedicate it to Marcelo, to Dora and to all the people who were there . . . this is for each person, each woman who came out when they said, when we said we are going to march, when we approached them, when we asked, for those who called . . . This is for the people who came and told us, “Here we are and we are going to protect you always,” so that people could see. It all went on the air, and that’s how we celebrated.
[Isabel]: But they did not stop with the celebration. The day after the law was passed, they began to think about what could happen from that moment on, about the new dangers that could arise:
[Marixela]: This law can very easily become unconstitutional, because here the Assembly can make just about anything unconstitutional. So, the elections were also approaching, and we said, look, this can change the landscape.
[Isabel]: What Marixela says is true—laws are one thing. Compliance with them is another. Although today there is no mining activity in El Salvador, the political and social landscape of the country now is very different from what it was a few years ago. The government of Nayib Bukele has not shown much interest in environmental issues during his administration. In fact, it has promoted an Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Metals and Sustainable Development, seeking to give mining activity a new approach.
In addition, in 2021 the Law for the Creation of the General Directorate of Energy, Hydrocarbons and Mines was approved. This directorate does not distinguish between metal and non-metal mining; it can call for bids to explore areas with economic potential, and it can establish relationships with foreign organizations linked to the mining sector.
We have to wait and see if all this will allow the achievements to be upheld.
[Daniel Alarcón]: Isabel Cadenas Cañón is a writer, creator of the podcast “De eso no se habla” and executive producer for El País Audio. She lives in Madrid.
This story was edited by Luis Fernando Vargas, Camila Segura and me. Desirée Yépez did the fact-checking. Mixing and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano.
This story has resulted from the collaboration between Isabel Cadenas Cañón and Ainhoa Montoya from the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. And it was funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council.
Thanks to Paula Morais, Laura Casielles and Vanessa Rousselot, from the podcast “De eso no se habla”, for their collaboration in this episode.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Nicolás Alonso, Lisette Arévalo, Aneris Casassus, Emilia Erbetta, Fernanda Guzmán, Camilo Jiménez Santofimio, Ana Pais, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, and David Trujillo.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.