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The real cost of gold

A surge in new mining ventures has triggered an upswing in activism

By David Wilson

It was a frigid afternoon last March when Vidalina Morales visited our office. I glanced outside just in time to see her, a tiny figure woefully underdressed against the biting wind, coming up the walk with Christie Neufeldt, a United Church of Canada staffperson focused on justice advocacy in Latin America.

Morales hails from El Salvador, where she is involved in efforts to stop a subsidiary of Vancouver’s Pacific Rim Mining Corp. from developing a gold mine that many fear will contaminate the river that supplies water to about 60 percent of the country’s population. The issue took on a new urgency earlier this year when Pacific Rim filed a $315-million lawsuit against the cash-strapped government of El Salvador, claiming the government had broken its own investment rules by refusing to issue the licences required to get the project off the ground.

Co-sponsored by the United Church, Morales’s visit to Toronto was part of a 20-city tour designed to raise awareness of the environmental and human rights concerns surrounding multinational mining projects in El Salvador, and to press for a complete ban on metal mining in the country. “Our movement is very clear,” she told me as Neufeldt translated from Spanish. “No mining. Our country cannot support it.”

As the three of us chatted in my office on that late-winter day, Peruvian-born journalist Roxana Olivera was working on this month’s cover story, also about mining. Olivera’s article (“Standing up to big gold") focuses on the Cajamarca region of northern Peru, but the bones of the story are strikingly similar to the situation in El Salvador: a transnational conglomerate wants to develop a huge open-pit mine in an environmentally sensitive area; the local Indigenous population opposes it; activists are accused of being terrorists; the authorities clamp down with an iron fist.

Sparked by soaring prices for metals over the last decade, the global mining industry is booming. A surge in new mining ventures has triggered a corresponding upswing in activism aimed at the industry’s environmental and human rights record. United Church groups have targeted Canadian mining companies with interests in Guatemala and the Philippines, and the denomination supports partnerships with various advocacy groups opposed to mining. Meanwhile, efforts to persuade the United Church’s pension fund to unload its shares in Vancouver-based Goldcorp continue to fuel a debate about the church’s investment practices.

Vidalina Morales has worked with a church partner, the Economic and Social Development Association of Santa Marta, for 10 years. But her activist roots reach back to El Salvador’s 13-year civil war. “I grew up being inspired by the preaching of Monsignor Oscar Romero,” she says. Romero, the crusading Roman Catholic archbishop of San Salvador, was assassinated in 1980. Morales makes an important point: anti-mining movements in El Salvador, Peru and elsewhere are fundamentally about sovereignty. “In the civil war, it was a fight against one foreign interest — the United States — controlling our country,” says Morales. “Now it’s global interests. The companies that come to our country with the support of their governments are just wearing a different uniform.”

Canada was mostly on the sidelines during the Latin American liberation conflicts of the 1980s. Morales came here to remind us that we’re now in the thick of things. Our chat over, I found myself with a question: Is the thick of things where we really want to be?  

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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