Living under the constant threat of assassination, Francisco Pineda courageously led a citizens’ movement that stopped a gold mine from destroying El Salvador’s dwindling water resources and the livelihoods of rural communities throughout the country.
For small farmers and communities in rural El Salvador, water is more valuable than gold. Without country-wide water delivery infrastructure, people in these areas must rely on the bodies of water nearby to feed their crops and sustain their personal needs. However, it is estimated that 90 percent of the country’s surface water bodies are contaminated. Nearly all municipal and industrial wastewater is discharged into rivers and creeks without treatment, reducing clean water availability for rural populations. Only three percent of the country’s natural flowing rivers remain pristine. The clean water that still flows in the Rio Lempa, El Salvador’s longest river with a watershed extending to nearly half of the country, is absolutely essential to the lives and livelihoods of the region’s rural people. A total of four million people rely on this water source.
Mining represents the greatest threat to El Salvador’s water supply. The US-Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) has made doing business in El Salvador easier for foreign companies, and thus exploration permits have been issued for a variety of development projects, including gold and silver mines. Gold mining is notoriously damaging to the environment. Mine operators often employ a process known as cyanide leeching, whereby cyanide, a highly toxic chemical, is mixed with water pulled from local supplies and applied to rock deposits to extract the gold within them. The toxic runoff then spreads to surrounding land and often ends up contaminating rivers, creeks and groundwater.
Francisco Pineda is a farmer with a degree in sustainable agriculture and is the founder and president of the Environmental Committee of Cabañas, a community volunteer association. In the process of organizing his community against a waste dump that would have polluted local water supplies, he taught himself about water ecology and became an environmental leader in his region.
In 2002, Canadian mining giant Pacific Rim began the exploration phase for a gold and silver mine in Cabañas. Growing concern over the environmental consequences for the region’s forests and the Rio Lempa was largely ignored by the government. That changed in 2004 when Pineda discovered that the creek supplying irrigation to his crops had completely stopped flowing. Pineda walked along the water’s edge and found Pacific Rim’s pumps siphoning the creek to its exploration area upstream. Recognizing the potentially devastating situation, he and his neighbors immediately approached local government officials with their concerns about the water supply, but were told that the mine was moving forward regardless of local protest. Officials claimed that the opportunities for development and employment outweighed potential problems, but upon closer inspection, Pineda and his colleagues realized that the local population was not qualified for the highly technical jobs Pacific Rim would create. They then set in motion a people’s movement that would succeed in halting the mine, but would have deadly consequences for many involved.
Pineda and his colleagues visited communities facing similar struggles against mining operations in Honduras, where they saw the effects of chemical poisoning on the people and became aware of the potential violence they would face in their fight against Pacific Rim. Pineda and his colleagues returned to El Salvador and immediately began educating the people of Cabañas by going door-to-door and organizing community meetings. By 2011, the movement grew to include 26 communities and more than 450 members. Pineda helped establish the National Anti-Mining Board and with his coalition organized a series of local and national demonstrations to bring more attention to the issue.
As the movement gained momentum, supporters of the Cabañas mine suspected to have ties to Pacific Rim retaliated with threats and deadly attacks. In 2009, three of Pineda’s colleagues were assassinated. One close colleague was killed while under police protection. A month later, a group of assassins set out to kill another member of the environmental committee, but when they did not find him in his house they murdered his pregnant wife instead. Another anti-mining activist was kidnapped and his tortured body was found in a well.
Pineda has had to live with 24-hour police protection and he has vowed to continue his struggle no matter the consequences.
Due in large part to Pineda’s leadership, the Salvadoran government has not granted Pacific Rim the necessary extraction permit to move forward with their project and the company has reduced its active exploration area by 50 percent. The movement succeeded in creating a loud enough public outcry to sway the current government, despite the financial incentives and development funds offered by Pacific Rim.
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