Rudi Francisco Soza bends over a gallon jug serving as a bucket, lethargically stirring dirty brown water containing ores mixed with mercury. He eyes the mixture and says resignedly: “There’s nothing in here.” Soza had tested an ore sample from a pile of rocks he and a few co-workers had spent the morning collecting from a suffocatingly hot mine in the town of San Sebastián.
For the 52-year-old miner this is routine. He rejoins the group of young and middle-aged Salvadorans taking a break in the shadow of the cashew trees from which they pick up some snacks.
“We’re lucky if we get $20 or $40 every two days. There are weeks when we don’t find any gold,” he says. Soza has worked all his life as a güirisero, the Salvadoran term for a small-scale, artisanal miner. He works five days a week inside an underground mine, dragging carts filled with heavy rocks or dealing with the hazards of mercury, yet he barely makes enough money to support his wife and two children. But Soza refuses to complain.
“I like the work here,” he says. “I’m my own boss. We built the mine with our own hands and we know it’s safe. We don’t use any bad chemicals, that’s a lie. We eat the fruit that grows around here and none of us are sick. I know people who worked as miners and lived to be 95.
“There are no jobs in this area. If they take mining away from us it will be a disaster.” He disappears back underground.
Sosa and his colleagues are now part of a minority in El Salvador, where politicians have unanimously declared the country a mining-free territory – the first country in the world to ban all forms of metal mining. The ban came after a decade-long struggle to protect the country’s limited water supply from being polluted by mining activities. The new law forces the shutdown of existing mines and prohibits the government from issuing new mining licences. It also gives artisanal miners like Soza a two-year period of transition.
In this densely populated country, more than 90% of the surface superficial waters are thought to be contaminated. Although rainfall is abundant, urban and rural communities regularly face water shortages, and deep deforestation (only 3% of El Salvador’s original forests remain) makes holding on to that water even more difficult.
According to the United Nations, El Salvador is the second-most environmentally degraded country in the Americas, after Haiti. It is also a deeply divided country, polarised along civil war-era lines. The conflict between the Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group FMLN and the right-wing Arena-led government of El Salvador claimed the lives of approximately 80,000 Salvadorians during the 1980s, which is why March’s unanimous mining vote – 69 votes out of 84 favouring the law – was even more groundbreaking. The movement to prohibit metal mining grew in the past 10 years, and it wasn’t always peaceful. Anti-mining groups claim that at least four people were murdered. It eventually united academics, the civil society and, more recently, the Catholic Church and brought together the left and the right.
“For the past 10 years we’ve been educating the people of El Salvador about the environment and the perils of metal mining. The Salvadorans are now aware and concerned regarding the shortage of water,” says Saul Baños, a lawyer and an activist with National Roundtable Against Mining, a group that includes NGOs, research centres, civil society and religious groups. Surveys have regularly showed that the majority of Salvadorans wanted a ban. Baños suggests that momentum against mining forced the pro-business Arena party – which had previously granted permits for mineral exploration – to join the cause. “I believe the politicians with Arena realised they didn’t want to be the only ones not backing the law,” he says. “It would hurt them in the elections.”
The centre-right politician credited for bringing Arena behind the ban, Johnny Wright Sol, says his motivation is based on his “passion for the environment”. The legislator and rising star of the conservative party has been challenging his party’s views on both gay marriage and abortion, and rejects the idea that he sounds like a left-wing politician when speaking about the environment.
“Climate change is not going to affect us differently based on our ideology,” he says. On mining, he also made the case that the industry’s impact on the country’s economy and creation of jobs is limited. “Many multinational mining companies require specialised engineers that our country cannot offer right now, which means most workers came from abroad,” he says. Sol hopes the recent union of the two main parties around the mining ban could help “advance a bipartisan agenda”.
Experts and politicians in El Salvador – one of the most devoutly Catholic countries in Latin America – agree that the Catholic Church also played the pivotal role in the approval of the law. After the bill of law was submitted to the legislative assembly, Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas asked the country’s politicians to ban metal mining, saying that the country’s previous mining law was obsolete and made El Salvador especially vulnerable to exploitation.
“The Catholic church in this country had an awakening over environmental issues and I think that’s due to Pope Francis’s condemnation of mining. The Salvadoran church who had been discreetly against mining since 2007 got involved in the political lobbying over the past few months and that played a very important role,” says Andrès McKinley, a mining and water specialist with the institute that wrote the law, the Central American University in San Salvador.
Among the activists that promoted the ban, there’s now some concern over the de facto application of the law. “There are many good laws in this country, but they’re dead laws that haven’t been put into practice”, says Saul Baños. The phasing out of the artisanal miners’ production might prove Baños right.
“The government needs to come up with a plan and a strategy to improve the lives of these people, perhaps through farming, or maybe – because much of the environmental damage might be irreversible – some people might be relocated,” says Wright Sol. “If no solution is found, we will extend the transitional period for another two years and so on until they will have a way to support themselves without contaminating the environment,” says Francisco José Zablah Safie, a legislator with the center-right Gana party.
In San Sebastián, where artisanal mining is an old tradition, a small group of 600 güiriseros is opposing the law, insisting that the water in the river runs bright yellow not because of acid mine drainage, but because of the natural tone of the minerals that exist in the region. If the river had mercury, they say, they would be using it for the mining. But perhaps more importantly, the artisanal miners don’t believe that the government will create alternatives. “There are no jobs for the educated Salvadorans, what jobs will the government create for us?” says Éder Madrid, a 30-year-old güirisero who’s leading the miners’ opposition in this town. “We will keep mining after the two years period is over. We will keep fighting.”