El Salvador mining ban could establish a vital water security precedent


El Salvador‘s battle to protect its water by becoming the first country to ban metal mining could have a wide-ranging resonance

MDG : El Salvador : protest against Canadian mining corporation Pacific Rim

No drying up … with their water supply threatened, Salvadorans are hitting back at mining companies such as Pacific Rim. Photograph: Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images

Five hundred scientists meeting in Bonn last month warned that 9 billion people would face the consequences of severe water shortages within a generation or two, but did not point the finger at industries devastating fresh water supplies.

Meanwhile, a battle against a metal mining industry that has ravaged freshwater supplies in El Salvador shows just how difficult it is for a developing country to build economic alternatives for a water-secure future.

Two mining companies are dragging El Salvador through a costly legal challenge at an international trade tribunal for attempting to protect limited water supplies by refusing permits for their operations.

With 90% of its surface water heavily contaminated and a quarter of its rural population lacking access to safe drinking water, El Salvador is embroiled in a clean water crisis. More than two-thirds of the population rely on the Lempa river basin for drinking water – the same number that would be threatened by water-intensive and water-contaminating metal mining projects were El Salvador to reopen its doors to the industry.

In 2008, after strong public pressure to protect water from mining, Antonio Saca, El Salvador’s president at the time, declared he would not issue any new mining permits. There are no active metal-mining operations in the mineral-rich country, which a majority of Salvadorans would like to become the first in the world to prohibit metal mining permanently. A bill to ban the industry has the support of more than 62% of the population and was initially backed by the ruling FMLN party.

The canton of San Sebastián stands as an emblem of a past where mining companies were given free rein to mine, resulting in the contamination of fresh water. Milwaukee-based Commerce Group ran a gold mining operation in the area until 1999. The community has nothing to show for decades of gold extraction but the famous bright orange waters of the San Sebastián river, a classic sign of acid mine drainage from large-scale gold mining. The Salvadoran environment and natural resources ministry tested the water in 2012 and found nine times the accepted levels of cyanide and 1,000 times the accepted levels of iron.

Without a clean water supply, local subsistence activities have been devastated. Residents are forced to buy bottled water, but continue to use the highly toxic water from the river for feeding livestock, bathing, and doing dishes.

Experiences like that of San Sebastián have galvanised people in other parts of the country. In the northern department of Cabañas, neighbourhood associations, church groups and environmental groups have organised a strong campaign against a cyanide leach gold mine proposed by Vancouver-based Pacific Rim. With the help of a Spanish NGO, Asociación Catalana de Ingeniería Sin Fronteras, a community organisation in Cabañas has armed itself with an extensive baseline study of its water and started implementing measures to improve water quality. Local groups have also led the national campaign for a permanent ban on metal mining, and were initially backed by the broad-based civil society coalition called La Mesa Nacional Frente a la la Minería Metálica.

As Manuel Perez-Rocha of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies observed during a recent fact-finding mission to El Salvador involving 45 international delegates from 12 different countries: “The contrast between the communities exposes the myths of mega mining. Rather than generate wealth for the communities, decades of mining have left the people impoverished in San Sebastián, whereas the communities of Cabañas are well organised and are exploring their own vision for development.”

Salvadorans are simultaneously trying to pave the way for a clean water future through an ambitious new water bill currently being debated at the national assembly. The proposed bill would engage 25 different government agencies in a series of measures ranging from universalaccess to water and sanitation to protecting source water and prohibiting activities that would destroy watersheds. It would establish a hierarchy of water use that would prioritise clean water for human consumption and food production.

Meanwhile, both Commerce Group and Pacific Rim are using a World Bank trade tribunal to circumvent community consent and state regulation. They are suing the Salvadoran government for more than $400m through the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Dispute (ICSID), whose mandate is to protect investment rights.

The legal challenge appears to have have had a chilling effect politically. Negotiations around policies that would be unfavourable to the mining industry have become gridlocked, and civil society actors fear the ruling party may make concessions to the pro-mining opposition. If ICSID forces El Salvador to pay the companies, it would make goals such as universal access to water and sanitation impossible.

As scientists and world leaders deliberate on how to fix the global water crisis, there should be greater international support for communities and countries attempting to forge new paths away from water-destructive economies. If El Salvador overcomes the odds and becomes the first country in the world to ban metal mining, it could serve as a model for a world grappling with the

the threat of an imminent water crisis.

With a recent poll showing a close race between the ruling party and the pro-mining opposition for the 2014 presidential election, the window for change may be closing.

 

source- http://www.guardian.co.uk/

Religion and governance: strange bedfellows #Vaw #womenrights


BMJ 2013; 346 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f3715 (Published 7 June 2013)

Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f3715
  1. Anita Jain, India editor, BMJ

Author Affiliations

  1. ajain@bmj.com

An unexpected turn of events saw a woman referred to as Beatriz get a life saving caesarean section, thanks to doctors in El Salvador who supported her cause, and a rousing international movement. She was earlier denied an abortion, it being criminalised in predominantly Catholic El Salvador, with the ensuing imprisonment of women and doctors (doi:10.1136/bmj.f3612). Timely intervention prevented Beatriz going the same way as Savita Halappanavar did a few months back in Ireland. Savita died after being denied an abortion on the grounds that “it [Ireland] is a Catholic country” (doi:10.1136/bmj.f2208). Her death and Beatriz’s struggle for life raise the question: Why does religion interfere?

A parallel conflict between religion and governance is taking place in the Philippines. At the Women Deliver conference I attended last week, it pained me to hear Filipino women with 16 and 22 children talk of how they were tired of having children, of having to provide for them under conditions of extreme poverty, and fearful of dying in the process of childbirth. Senator Pia Cayetano provided an inspirational narrative of having the reproductive health bill passed last year after five congresses and nearly 15 years. Recognised by President Aquino as a “matter of urgency,” the law marks a momentous achievement to make available free contraceptives, sex education, and comprehensive obstetric services (doi:10.1136/bmj.e8535). The struggle is not over however. With a largely Catholic, conservative, and patriarchal hierarchy, the constitutionality of this law has been challenged in the Supreme Court.

In a review of abortion policies worldwide, Sophie Arie reports a threat that countries may be headed towards being more restrictive (doi:10.1136/bmj.e8161). Closer to home, India may laud itself for a progressive abortion law but it continues to have one of the highest rates of unsafe abortions. Suchitra Dalvie, coordinator of the Asia Safe Abortion Partnership, shares grim statistics whereby, “every year about 11 million abortions take place [about 700 000 are reported] and around 20 000 women die due to abortion related complications.” Clearly the law has not translated into enabling physical, social, or financial access to these essential reproductive health services (doi:10.1136/bmj.f3159). Contrary to what may be expected, states are further imposing severe curbs on medical abortion pills (doi:10.1136/bmj.f1957). In the latest BMJ poll we look forward to hearing what you think of this.

Signifying a commitment to make comprehensive family planning services a reality globally, the London Summit on Family Planning (FP 2020) laid the ground for collaboration among donors and governments (doi:10.1136/bmj.e4160). At Women Deliver, Kavita Ramdas from the Ford Foundation emphasised, however, that “access to contraceptives” needs to be the message, and not just family planning. The importance of this is immediately evident in a similar conflict between the state and religion in Muslim dominated Indonesia where unmarried women are denied reproductive health services including contraception. Shereen El Feki, author of Sex and the Citadel, shared voices of young unmarried men and women from the Arab region who are “sexually active, but not sexually informed” as “marriage remains the only the only socially accepted context for sex—state-registered, family-approved, religiously-sanctioned.” The needs of this large and growing community of single men and women often tend to be neglected in the discourse on family planning.

Nozer Sheriar, secretary general of the Federation of Obstetric and Gynaecological Societies of India (FOGSI), shared that, with an estimated 21.6 million women worldwide experiencing an unsafe abortion each year and with about 70 000 deaths, it is a silent tsunami knocking door to door. As symbolised by Salvadoran doctors who stood strongly behind Beatriz so she would not die giving birth, there is a role for healthcare providers to support women’s choice on this reproductive right that society is so reluctant to give.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f3715

Footnotes

  • Follow Anita Jain on Twitter @ajain247

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