In a move worthy of praise from environmental activists all over the world, El Salvador became the first country in the world to pass a law banning metal mining. Indeed as Lina Pohl, the environment minister of the smallest Central American country, declared: “It’s a historic day in El Salvador. It’s a historic day for the whole world.”
El Salvador’s economy is not exactly in the pink of health, being a capital-strapped, underdeveloped country like the Philippines and is in need of investments; but it made the long overdue decision to protect its environment. El Salvador’s debt is reportedly 60 percent of its GDP. Still it chose to protect the lives of its citizens, especially in the wake of an impending crisis in potable water.
Lest Internet trolls start jumping to conclusions, El Salvador is not a communist country. This goes to show that one nation need not be communist to be able to go against the policies of neoliberal economics and the interests of the world’s most powerful nations, multilateral institutions, and corporations. El Salvador also showed that governments could and should act to protect its people and its environment.
It is not an easy task to go against the wishes of multinational mining companies. First, these mining giants are purportedly a big source of foreign investments and reserves, which are in short supply in capital-strapped, underdeveloped countries such as El Salvador and the Philippines.
Second, because underdeveloped countries such as El Salvador and the Philippines do not have basic industries, they rely on the export of raw materials and minerals, as well as cheap labor, to generate income.
Third, global mining giants are wont to sue and hit hard on governments, groups and individuals who cross their interests. El Salvador was sued by Oceana Gold for $250 million for prohibiting it from conducting mining operations, but lost. Just recently, here in the Philippines, mining companies launched a concerted campaign to block the Congressional confirmation of the appointment of Environmental Sec. Gina Lopez for ordering the closure of 23 mines and the suspension of operations of 5 mines, after a mining audit by the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources revealed that these have been violating environmental laws.
Fourth, mining giants are protected by government armed forces, as well as armed groups. The killings of environmental activists have been intensifying, in recent years, at an alarming rate of two activists a week. At least 908 activists were killed in 35 countries during the period 2002 to 2013 alone. Brazil was infamously “the world’s most deadly country for communities defending natural resources with 448 deaths between 2002 and 2013, followed by 109 in Honduras and Peru with 58. In Asia, the Philippines is the deadliest with 67, followed by Thailand at 16.”
There are many papers produced by the World Bank on the supposed contributions of mining to the economy and employment of countries hosting mining operations. However, it appears that there has been no study that has disproved the negative environmental and social impacts of mining.
A developed mining industry is indeed essential for a country to develop since it is the source of raw materials for industry. But extractive mining for export has caused more damage than the supposed benefits. As El Salvador’s environment minister Lina Pohl said in refusing investments from the global mining giants: “We’re talking about human lives.”