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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

“We Won’t Let them Turn our Town into a Desert”: The Salvadoran Resistance to Metallic Mining

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

by Julia Kaminsky, NY CISPES. Originally published by American Jewish World Service, one of ASIC’s international partners

“Que bello”—how beautiful, whispered my 17-year-old neighbor Chepe as we stepped back to admire our work, paintbrushes still in hand. What had started out that morning as a faint sketch on an otherwise unremarkable wall was now colorfully taking form as a mural of a crane encroaching upon a lush landscape. A steady stream of people had been arriving since the morning—on foot, on bicycles, in the back of a rusting red pickup—all eager to take up brushes and declare their opposition to gold mining in their town.

In March 2008, I arrived in San Isidro, a rural municipality of 10,000 people in Cabañas, one of El Salvador’s poorest regions. I was there to volunteer with Asociación Amigos de San Isidro, Cabañas (ASIC), a grassroots community-development organization. When I first set foot in the dusty town, I had no idea that I was walking into the epicenter of a national and international battle.

The gold-rich subsoil of northern El Salvador has attracted various foreign mining companies, among them Pacific Rim, which operates the most advanced gold exploration project in the country. It operates in San Isidro, near tributaries of the Lempa River—the lifeline of much of Cabañas and El Salvador. Exploratory drilling—the process by which the company finds gold deposits—has deepened groundwater levels, causing water sources in several of San Isidro’s rural communities to dry up.

A local activist, Graciela Funes, pointed to an empty cement tank that once was a well, saying, “People used to come here to wash their clothes, bathe, and bring water to their houses. I am afraid that we will be left without water.”

If Pacific Rim were to receive the extraction permit that it seeks from the Salvadoran government, the results would be disastrous. In a single day, the mine would use 900,000 liters of water—a quantity that could sustain the average Salvadoran household for 20 years. It would also use two tons of cyanide and other toxic substances, which would end up in the rivers, groundwater, air and rain.

Due to heavy deforestation, a long dry season, and inadequate facilities for treating wastewater, Salvadorans’ access to potable water is already low, particularly in rural areas. And given the importance of water for agriculture—the principle livelihood in the region—residents are outraged that their land is being ravaged for foreign economic gain.

In collaboration with local youth and other community groups, ASIC has painted three murals in San Isidro that celebrate the environment and denounce the exploitation that threatens to destroy it. They are part of an awareness campaign designed to get community members involved in the anti-mining movement.

When we finished our project, the community held a celebration inaugurating the murals. Hundreds of people from surrounding municipalities attended the event, which included a performance by 22-year-old rapper Wilfredo Lainez, a local hero for his socially conscious music. That day, he gazed out intently at the audience as he rapped: “We won’t let them turn our town into a desert.”

Armed with paint, words, and homemade beats, the people of San Isidro—from lawyers, to farmers, to young kids dreaming of a better life—are uniting, a veritable David up against a bulldozer-clawed Goliath. They have been joining forces with similarly affected communities throughout El Salvador and Central America through coalitions like the National Roundtable against Metallic Mining (see below). It is my hope that their work will pay off, and that access to clean water will become an inalienable right for all rather than a privilege for some.

I asked Ramiro Rivera, a community leader from a nearby town, why this cause is so important. He replied: “We are asking for respect, because even as a small community, we have dignity.”

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