El Salvador, 30 March 2017

There was a time in the early 1980s when the villagers of Cinquera, located on the northern border of El Salvador, fled from their homes. These were the early days of the violence, and the military—armed by the US—would spread terror throughout the region supressing the civic uprising that wanted an end to repressive militarism, and called for social justice and the opportunity to earn a liveable wage. The military swept through villages in death squads, massacring combatants, disappearing citizens, and filling pits with the dead. Over 75,000 people were killed during the Civil War.

Before the war El Salvador had other strains to social wellfare, the country had undergone intense deforestation due to majority land use for agricultural, the method of slashing and burning – although unsustainable – was policy to encourage new growth. Over time, with longer hot seasons, and prolonged drought, El Salvador’s land resembled the dust bowl scattering topsoil with the heavy summer winds and washing away soil in mudslides where there was no vegetation to hold it in place.

So the people of Cinquera left their village of 2,000 people, in search of safety, livelihood, and the best possible life they could manage. Twelve years passed. In 1990, a year before a peace treaty was signed, the villagers returned. They wanted to resettle their township and begin life again. When they returned they found a forest covering 19 square miles where before there had been none.

This forest provided a home for many different kinds of life. The people recorded 138 bird species, 27 types of mammals, and over 130 types of butterflies. The villagers took it upon themselves to protect this forest and called it Cinquera Forest Ecological Park. They educated themselves on biodiversity, their watershed and agricultural ecology. The forest was also the home of the story of the Civil War: dumping pits where bodies had been buried, cooking pits where soldiers made food and shelter, and abandoned spent and live munitions.

Three people of the village took it upon themselves to learn this landscape and provide guided walks through the forest that was once contained in their town. The municipality of Cinquera received attention for their work by the mayor of the region. Adjacent communities came to visit. Cinquera valued the forest and took pride in it.

After a time, this municipality held a referendum. They discussed the need for money, but they did not want to welcome metal mining back into their region. Metal mining uses cyanine compounds in the process and this would contaminate the watershed that they now valued as an integrated part of their forest.  The village of 2,000 voted and passed the metal mining ban. Encouraged, the neighboring communities also held referendums and passed bans. By 2014, five municipalities had banned metal mining in their regions.

El Salvador is a small country with a complicated relationship with democracy. But the people saw what had to be done, and did it.

The referendums inconvenienced the powerful mining company used to doing business with El Salvador. That company, OceanaGold, had proposed the El Dorado mine. In 2008, for the first time, the government of El Salvador did not grant OceanaGold a mining permit and OceanaGold was in a fury. Unwilling to accept the law of a tiny country, OceanaGold sued El Salvador for $7 million and later for $350 million dollars of lost of potential gain. This lawsuit went on for seven years. The country of El Salvador spent over $13 million defending their decision in court against OceanaGold’s Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS). The government said many things; such as, “It is a fundamental obligation of states to safeguard their population.” OceanaGold, through alliances, threatened the lives of people in government.

The hearings continued, the pressure increased and in October 2016, the arbitration panel rejected the company’s claim and ordered OceanaGold to pay $8 million towards the legal costs spent by El Salvador to defend itselft. Today the company is persisting and exploring ways to hold onto their claim for business in El Salvador; the country has clearly stated that OceanaGold is not a welcome guest. There are current claims of killings and threats made on behalf of the company to undermine the government’s decision.

Sharing this story and learning more about the struggles of other countries that may seem unrelated or unimaginable in our own backyards is an important way to create solidarity. But there is really only one struggle right now, and that is “us” against “them,” by which I mean financial profit versus the universal right to clean air, water, and food.

The Cinquera Forest Ecology Park is run by the local community; this year the national government has provided funding for their work for the first time.


Back Story’s Main Story
Mining Ban in El Salvador Prizes Water Over Gold
March 30, 2017, Page A4 of the New York edition