El Salvador’s Historic Metal Mining Ban Is in Danger

Following its failed crypto scheme, authoritarian president Nayib Bukele’s cash-strapped government is making moves to reverse El Salvador’s metal mining ban. Its reintroduction would be a disaster for the nation’s already contaminated water supply.

Salvadorans participate in a protest against mining outside the Legislative Assembly in San Salvador on March 29, 2017. (Marvin Recinos / AFP via Getty Images)

Unlike many Latin American countries that court extractive investments from transnational companies, El Salvador has no metal mining industry. This is unique in the region, the result of years of organizing by social groups, environmental organizations, and the Catholic Church. Under President Nayib Bukele, however, this mining prohibition is facing new threats.

On January 11, the Salvadoran government ordered the arrest of five prominent anti-mining activists and water defenders: Miguel Ángel Gámez, Alejandro Laínez García, Pedro Antonio Rivas Laínez, Antonio Pacheco, and Saúl Agustín Rivas Ortega. These figures, who all played a role in lobbying for the 2017 mining ban, are accused of “illicit associations” and committing a murder during the country’s twelve-year civil war (1980–1992). In the context of Bukele’s increasing openness toward mining, however, some in El Salvador and around the world are questioning the true motives behind the arrests. Furthermore, the five organizers are being prosecuted by a specialized war-crimes team set up by Bukele, raising worries that the ruling may be dictated from above for political purposes.

The genesis of the war-crimes team itself points to a deeper injustice in Salvadoran society. Although the UN attributes 85 percent of the crimes committed during the civil war to the US-backed military, no military member has been prosecuted there. This had led people in Santa Marta, a community with a strong anti-mining legacy, to decry the attorney general’s double standards, as there are dozens of cases that have been started by survivors of military massacres that have not gone to trial. Three specific cases are those of the Lempa massacre (forty-three killed, 189 disappeared), the Los Planes massacre (twenty-seven killed), and the Santa Cruz massacre (up to one hundred killed). Additionally, Bukele refuses to open military archives related to the El Mozote massacre, in which the US-trained army murdered around one thousand civilians in and around the village of El Mozote, even though courts have ordered him to do so.

On January 20, 251 organizations from twenty-nine countries signed a statement calling on the Salvadoran government to drop the charges against the five water defenders or, at the very least, release them from prison to await their trial. Currently, they are being held at a judicial detention center in Soyapango with many limitations: they are isolated, unable to receive visits from family members, and their lawyers are only allowed to speak with them for a maximum of five minutes. The attorney general is looking for a permanent location for their detention, but due to the state of exception that has seen the Bukele government arrest 2 percent of El Salvador’s adult population, most long-term facilities are full. The defense lawyers also believe that, because the case is attracting international attention, no facilities want to take them.

The failure of Bukele’s cryptocurrency investments provides some context for his apparent interest in reintroducing mining to El Salvador. According to a statement by the Institute for Policy Studies, the Bukele government is searching for new ways to earn revenues “thanks in part to its ill-advised embrace of Bitcoin.” The Salvadoran government invested $150 million of its reserves into cryptocurrency, and it is known that the state has already lost at least $60 million on these investments due to recent crypto devaluation. This amount is not a large proportion of El Salvador’s finances — the country’s GDP is currently valued at around $25 billion, while its debt is around $20 billion. “But still,” said University of Georgia professor Julio Sevilla, “you cannot really afford to make bad investments when your finances are precarious to start with.”

“Water Is More Important Than Gold”

The Salvadoran mining ban was instituted in March 2017, after years of lobbying by scientists, environmentalists, labor groups, the church, and anti-mining locals affected by the unsustainable and often criminal actions of extractive companies. That year, the Canadian mining company OceanaGold had lost a lawsuit against the Salvadoran state, which it was suing at the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) for denying Pacific Rim, a subsidiary of OceanaGold, an exploitation license in the northern Cabañas department.

Pacific Rim had been maneuvering for years to receive exploitation approval from the central government as local communities organized resistance to the project. Four anti-mining activists were killed protesting the Pacific Rim project — including Dora Alicia Recinos Sorto, who was eight months pregnant. Ultimately, the company was denied the license on the grounds that it had failed to meet necessary regulatory requirements, and was ordered to pay El Salvador $8 million in legal fees.

Following the victory over the Canadian company, the anti-mining movement was empowered. It used its newfound strength to press lawmakers into passing the mining ban.

During the resistance to the Pacific Rim project, anti-mining activists organized around two key issues: water and health. In El Salvador, 90 percent of surface water has been contaminated by industry, agriculture, and underdeveloped sewage systems — it is, as Thomas McDonagh and Aldo Orellana López put it, “a water stressed country.” The mining industry puts even more pressure on the country’s water supplies. In 2013, Oxfam warned that the “development of large-scale metallic mining [in El Salvador] would further contribute to the deficiency of fresh water due to its release of acid mine drainage.”

Organized around the slogan “Water is more important than gold,” activists succeeded in getting the mining ban passed and thereby ensured the ecological integrity of their country in a region where states generally side with foreign investors over local demands, leading to potentially tragic conflict.

Such conflict is ongoing at the Cerro Blanco mine in neighboring Guatemala, which is owned by Canadian company Bluestone Resources. A recent referendum found that 89 percent of locals from nearby Asunción Mita opposed mining activity due to environmental concerns, but the Guatemalan state and Bluestone rejected their views and pushed for an injunction to annul the results. Events like these show the historic importance of the Salvadoran mining ban as well as the dangers that await if it is overturned.

Bukele’s Scheming

Unlike previous presidents, Nayib Bukele, elected in 2019, has not condemned mining. In fact, the gains made by social movements have been increasingly targeted by the government as his administration appears to move toward reintroducing mining to the country.

Bukele and his most ardent supporters have been busy setting the stage for the reversal of the mining ban by attacking land and water defenders, as Omar Flores of the National Roundtable Against Metallic Mining outlines:

Nayib Bukele utilizes a narrative of hate and stigma against human rights defenders, including environmental defenders, as they oppose his extractivist economic agenda. The use of hatred by the president is replicated by all the institutions of the state apparatus and has become the hegemonic narrative of all public officials. . . . Similarly, there is an army of anonymous internet trolls who also disseminate the messages of the government to deepen hatred against environmental and human rights defenders.

According to Luis Gonzales of the National Roundtable, the Bukele government “operates under a pro-mining logic.” This is evidenced by the fact that, under his administration, El Salvador has joined the Canadian government–funded Intergovernmental Forum on Mining and passed a law to create a Directorate of Hydrocarbons, Energy and Mines. Additionally, Gonzales and others report hearing testimonies from rural community members that representatives from mining companies are visiting their towns.

Locals in the region of Cabañas (including Antonio Pacheca, one of the five community leaders arrested on January 11) have reported the presence of unknown individuals offering to buy land and fund social programs, and two mayors in the region claim to have communicated with the president of PROESA, the Exports and Investment Promotion Agency of El Salvador, who told them that mining will soon be brought back. Finally, there are rumors that mining is on the negotiating table in ongoing free trade discussions between El Salvador and China.

Meanwhile, some Canadian companies have maintained an interest in El Salvador’s mining sector. Financial reports released in 2022 reveal that two of OceanaGold’s El Salvador-based subsidiaries, Bienstar and Dorado Exploraciones, remain active in the country. Since 2017, the year of the mining ban, OceanaGold has actually increased funding for Dorado Exploraciones.

Bukele’s scheming to reintroduce mining in El Salvador is part and parcel of his authoritarianism. While targeting anti-mining activists from the country’s mineral-rich northern region, the Salvadoran government is taking no steps to rectify the atrocities of the civil war era, the vast majority of which were committed against the rural poor by a right-wing military with US assistance. The return of mining will only continue to exacerbate these injustices.

At the same time, the Bukele administration apparently views mining as a way to bolster the country’s sagging revenues, which have created further incentive to make an example of prominent water defenders. Like elsewhere in the region, land and water defenders are being demonized and stigmatized, a strategy that will only intensify if mining is reintroduced. In a country whose water supply is so vulnerable to industrial pollution, this is extremely worrisome.

The reintroduction of metal mining into the Salvadoran economy would be a terrible idea. Those interested in environmental justice should watch the water defenders’ trial, and the broader debate around mining in El Salvador, very closely.