El Salvador banned all mining of metals in 2017, but environmentalists are concerned that the government is preparing to reverse the decision and bring in international investment. The government has created a new agency to oversee extractive industries and begun looking into international agreements that facilitate investment in precious metals. Five “water defenders,” who have spent decades speaking out contamination of water sources by mining projects, were arrested in January after mining officials visited their town of Santa Marta.
MEXICO CITY — It was considered a major environmental victory, back in 2017, when El Salvador’s government announced it would be the first country in the world to issue a total ban on metal mining. For a half-century, the industry had been dumping waste and toxic chemicals into local rivers. Prioritizing clean drinking water was a must as climate change worsened droughts in the region.
But the government today appears to be on the verge of turning back a page. President Nayib Bukele, a populist who’s made investment and infrastructure the centerpiece of his agenda, has taken a number of steps that, at least on the surface, look like preparations for a return to mining. His government has established a new agency to oversee extractive industries and started looking into international agreements that would facilitate investment in precious metals.
It also arrested several anti-mining activists on what critics say are dubious charges. Five “water defenders,” who led the charge on the 2017 mining ban — and who had begun to speak out again last year — were arrested this past January for their alleged involvement in a kidnapping and murder that took place during the country’s civil war 30 years ago.
It’s unclear how legitimate the accusations are. The water defenders were part of a resistance group fighting the right-wing dictatorship during the war. But they come from Santa Marta, a community founded by displaced people largely considered to be victims. “The arrests are politically motivated as they seek to silence these water defenders and to demobilize community opposition at this critical moment,” the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank that also advocated for the mining ban, said in a statement.
The water defenders started speaking out against industrial mining around 2005, when the rising price of gold attracted increased interest in the untapped deposits across northern El Salvador. Specifically, the water defenders were concerned about mining around the Lempa River Basin, which is one of the principal water sources in the country. It would take more than a decade and several lawsuits before the country finally banned the industry.
One of those arrested, Antonio Pacheco, is the director of the Association of Economic and Social Development (ADES), one of many organizations in northern El Salvador trying to draw attention to water contamination problems left over from before the 2017 ban. His organization was also trying to raise awareness of the rise in artisanal mining, which allegedly relies on child labor and mercury.
There are other signs that mining could be on its way back. A government agency to regulate the energy and mining industries, called the General Directorate of Energy, Hydrocarbons and Mines, was created with congressional approval in October 2021. And later that year, the country joined the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development, an international body that supports “sustainable development goals” for the mining sector. Neither institution responded to a request for comment.
The country last November also began negotiating a trade deal with China that some environmentalists fear will include pathways to introducing mining concessions. China has made an aggressive push into Latin America in the past few years with its Belt and Road Initiative, an international investment program to develop infrastructure, energy and mining projects. El Salvador joined in 2019.
“We call on the international community to join in the Salvadoran people’s fight to protect water, defend the environment and secure the right to life that is gravely threatened by the harmful mining of metals,” said 20 local environmental and public health groups in a statement last month.
Bukele has a track record of launching controversial projects that ignore environmental concerns in the name of economic growth. A new airport and train line meant to bring international commerce to the eastern half of the country circumvented some preliminary environmental regulations and could threaten mangrove ecosystems. A number of highway projects are also raising concerns about deforestation.
A more unorthodox bet on economic growth was making bitcoin a legal tender alongside the U.S. dollar. The cryptocurrency crashed last year, and there was concern from international observers that the country would default on an $800 million bond in January. If the country needs capital, as well as economic stability, opening up a lucrative mining sector could be an option, observers said.
“It seems like the only way out that this government sees is to bet on investment,” said Vidalina Morales, president of ADES. “To bring investors to the country to do what’s most feasible: mining.”
Banner image: An official looking through photos and files of the five activists, who were part of a resistance movement during the civil war. (Photo via Fiscalia General)