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Salvadorans ask: "What price gold?"

"What price gold?"

By Heather Fraser

Volcanic eruptions, flooding, landslides and earthquakes all hit El Salvador last October, resulting in 62 fatalities and scores of people living in shelters after "acts of nature" swept away their homes and belongings.

As the level of alarm subsided, people started to ask questions: Why were houses built in landslide-prone areas? Why wasn't the dike completed that would have prevented flooding in one of the worst-hit areas? Why were the roads in the ritzier sectors of town fixed before those in poorer sectors? Why did the government recently adopt natural disaster legislation that focuses on receiving foreign aid, rather than promoting prevention efforts?

At the same time, the community development organization that I work with, ADES, was managing its own crisis: the El Dorado gold mining project, to be operated by a subsidiary of the Canadian Pacific Rim Mining Corp.

In early October, El Salvador's Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN) published its intention to give the El Dorado project environmental approval. This meant that the public had 10 days to both review the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) submitted by Pacific Rim, and submit their concerns in writing. But there was only one copy of the 1,400-page document available for review, and it was in an office in San Salvador, two hours away; no photocopies or photographs of it were permitted. Moreover, parts of it were in English, and much of it very technical.

ADES commissioned an expert to review the report. The hydro-geologist echoed our fears. Claims that the mining project would bring no negative impacts to the community were based on nothing. There was no credible baseline water quality or quantity data, and insufficient data to justify claims that discharges from the tailings pond to the local river would have no negative impact on the community.

So the public is left asking: "Will or will not this mining project contaminate our already fragile environment?"

More than 500 people -- an unprecedented crowd in a zone where citizen participation is minimal -- attended a public forum organized by ADES, called "Mining for Metals: Opportunity or Threat." Guest speakers included the president of Pacific Rim, the director of ADES, medical and technical experts, and representatives from communities affected by mining.

The crowd, a dynamic mix of women, men, youth and adults, represented people in favour of the mine, against it and undecided. During a medical expert's passionate presentation about the illnesses he attributed to mining-related contamination, Pacific Rim staff began handing out posters promoting mining as development.

The El Dorado Project is located within one of the poorest regions in El Salvador, with a very high unemployment rate. When part of the crowd shouted "no a la mina, si a la vida" ("no to mining, yes to life"), another part sat in displeased silence, arms crossed or holding up their new posters.

During the question-and-answer period, there were taunts between sides:

"You've sold out to the foreigners."

"Oh yeah, well if the mine doesn't come, then what kind of a job are you going to offer me?"

An observer later noted that "whether the mining company takes off before developing the mine or after all the gold has been taken out, what will be left is a divided community."

A little more than two weeks after the government signaled its intention to give the mine the green light, a group of 25 people from the community submitted a statement of "why we, the public, feel negatively affected by the proposed mining project" to the environment ministry, with more than 350 signatures attached.

Hoping to attract some media attention, we marched about two blocks, blocking traffic and chanting slogans. We arrived to find the entrance locked. It appeared as though they had heard us coming. We waited in the hot sun for 90 minutes until the environment ministry agreed to let three people in to present the document.

As of this writing, we are waiting to hear the ministry's response.

So what does all this talk of mining have to do with natural disasters? It has to do with prevention and risk management. It has been argued that with both of these ingredients, the negative effects of the volcano/earthquake/ rains of early October could have been minimized.

Gold mining in all parts of the world is a risky business -- a combination of blasting, the movement of massive quantities of rock, the treatment of rock with toxic chemicals, and the storage and eventual disposal of the toxic wastes. In an area prone to earthquakes and flooding -- as is the area of the El Dorado Project -- the potential for disaster is very tangible.

Technology and best-management practices can minimize the risks of mining, but they cannot eliminate them.

Who is ensuring safeguards to minimize risks or prevent mining disasters for the communities of San Francisco, San Isidro, Dolores, and others near the El Dorado Project? In such a risky business, can such safeguards actually exist? Or will the hands that are currently encouraging foreign mining investment in El Salvador later be extended, asking for foreign aid to treat the effects of contamination from these same investments?

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