As of the 25th of April, El Salvador has become the first nation in the world to ban metal mining. The law, which was passed in March, prohibits “prospection, exploration, exploitation, extraction or processing of metallic minerals in El Salvador,” according to a text published in the central American nation’s Official Journal.
This unprecedented step is the culmination of a long-running dispute with the Australian-Canadian company OceanaGold over the environmental impact of their mining operations in the north of the country. In October of last year, an international tribunal dismissed the mining company’s demand that the government of El Salvador pay $250m in compensation for failing to grant permits for the El Dorado project in the north of the country. Last month, the government seized company assets for legal fees the company owed.
The ban was well received by a wide range of groups across the nation, being the result of years of activism that has seen unlikely alliances form in the name of environmental conservation. Lawmakers and politicians from both sides of the aisle have joined environmental groups, concerned mothers, Western academics and even the Catholic Church in celebrating the decision. The small yet densely populated nation has long struggled with the environmental impacts of the mining industry; whilst rainfall is plentiful, an estimated 90% of El Salvador’s surface water is contaminated; in some areas heavy metal levels are at 1,000 times what the World Trade Organisation deems safe.
There are worries that this law may be a further blow to El Salvador’s already struggling economy. The country is currently seeking to secure a lifeline from the IMF as its debt is expected to exceed 60 per cent of gross domestic product by the end of 2017. Environment minister Lina Pohl has emphasised the primacy of the nation’s health over its economic wellbeing; “we’re talking about human lives,” she said. Jen Moore, the Latin America programme coordinator at MiningWatch Canada, has stressed that “the Salvadoran people and leaders made huge efforts to weigh the short-term benefits with the long-term risks to their water, environment and social wellbeing”.
The move is symptomatic of a larger backlash against dangerous mining practices in Latin America and beyond. In March, residents of Cajamarca in Colombia unanimously voted against an AngloGold mining project in a non-binding referendum, while this month the Philippines has joined Costa Rica and Argentina in banning open pit mining.