Calling gold mining a scourge on the environment of El Salvador, a group of protesters rallied Monday outside the World Bank in the District, where a tribunal is discussing the case of a foreign company that seeks to extract gold from the impoverished Central American country.
About 100 protesters, including Salvadoran immigrants, Roman Catholic priests and environmental activists, were accompanied by Spanish-language protest songs as they chanted anti-mining slogans under an enormous balloon statue of a fat cat representing wealthy business interests.
“What’s happening in my home country is terrible. We have to save the few pure rivers and forests that still exist,” said Wilfredo Morataya, a library worker from Hyattsville who attended the rally. “These companies want to take our gold and leave us with contaminated earth.”
The rally coincided with El Salvador’s Independence Day, marking the date it was freed from Spanish control in 1821. Several speakers at the protest said demands by the mining company were an affront to El Salvador’s sovereignty and democratic rights.
Starting Monday, an international tribunal is meeting inside the World Bank to discuss a complex legal case that pits an Australian-Canadian mining firm against the government of El Salvador. The company has filed a $300 million lawsuit, claiming the Salvadoran government reneged on a past agreement to allow it to mine gold.
Although little known in the United States, the case has attracted intense interest among environmental groups as well as leaders of the large Salvadoran community in the Washington area.
El Salvador has large gold deposits that could bring significant profits if extracted, but environmental critics say it cannot be removed without creating toxic chemical conditions that may permanently contaminate the earth and water.
“The last time I went home, I saw the San Sebastian River turned orange. It is from mining that poisoned our water and left our villages poor, not rich,” said Lita Trejo, a school worker in the District, who addressed the rally. “The people of El Salvador want water to live, not to die.”
The controversy is also linked to broader discord over international free trade agreements that have been signed by poor countries in Central America and elsewhere. The protesting groups charged that these pacts have benefitted business interests at the expense of environmental safety and other public concerns.
“This is a paradigmatic case that illustrates a huge problem all over the world,” said Bill Waren, a trade policy analyst for Friends of the Earth. He said there have been many similar cases in which mining companies have extracted minerals under free trade agreements but then left large problems of contamination.
In this case, the Salvadoran government allowed a foreign company to explore for gold but never issued it a permit to extract the mineral, after experts determined that it could damage the environment. The company, OceanaGold/Pacific Rim Mining Corporation, filed a lawsuit against the government, saying it had reneged on its agreements.
The case is being heard by the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes, an affiliate of the World Bank. Lawyers for both sides are expected to spend much of the week arguing the matter.
Some of the demonstrators called the tribunal a “kangaroo court,” charging that it was biased in favor of corporate interests. They also complained that the proceeding was being held behind closed doors with no chance for public comment. In an earlier hearing, the panel ruled in favor of the mining firm.
According to a study by researchers at American University, the case rests on disagreements over details of official permits that were granted to the company by a former Salvadoran administration that is no longer in power. Despite the technical nature of the case, mining opponents say, its economic and environmental implications are huge.
“This is our country, and our land matters to us,” said Juan de la Cruz, a Franciscan monk from El Salvador who works with a Spanish-speaking parish in Maryland. “If they dig for gold it may bring jobs for a few years, but it will cause suffering for generations.”