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.
Q. How did you first learn about Pacific Rim's permit to mine gold and silver in your country and what inspired you to fight against it?
A. In 2002, we started to notice that the river behind our farm was dirty. We walked further up the river and saw pumps coming from Pacific Rim machinery. In 2004, the water completely stopped running and everyone was very worried, so we went to talk to the Mayor and complained that they had a responsibility to make sure that we always had water. The Mayor said there was nothing they could do and this is when we began to organize.
Q. How did you gain the support of the community?
A. We traveled to Honduras, where mines had operated for six years and we saw the illnesses they caused and how they dried out rivers. They gave us videos of people sick from the chemicals and we went throughout the community showing the video and having discussions so people could see the damage that was caused.
We also visited Pacific Rim's website where they had information about their environmental impact study that showed how much cyanide they would use in comparison to how many jobs they would create. They said there were going to give 848 jobs but there are only 1,500 people that live in our town. The work is highly technical and there is no one in our community that is educated in that way so we realized it wasn't going to bring any jobs, but it was going to poison us and dry up our rivers. Everyone agreed that it was much more important to have clean water and soil, to have food security is more important than gold.
Also, this is a very religious zone so it's very important what the church says and the error that the mining company committed is that they made a presentation to the Bishop and when the Bishop asked what they would do about the cyanide in the water, the mining company said that after they treated it, the water would be cleaner than the bottled water in the city. They didn't realize the Bishop was in fact a chemist and he got pretty mad and now the people in the community know that Pacific Rim tried to lie to their Bishop.
Q. Some of your closest colleagues have been brutally murdered for their work against Pacific Rim, and your life has been threatened as well. Considering the risk, what is your personal motivation to keep fighting?
A. My work is as an environmentalist; this is the principle for my life. When I began to understand the impact of the mining exploration, I couldn't stay quiet. When we started the resistance we realized it was big and that some of us might die in the struggle. In Guatemala and Mexico many anti-mining activists were killed, so we knew the risk. Three days before (my colleague) Ramiro was attacked and killed, we were in a meeting and he said no matter what happens to any of us, we can't stop this fight. It's a promise and commitment we all have made. The person left standing has to keep fighting. It would be a lie to say that I'm not afraid. I'm very afraid. I have a wife and I have children. Any time if I get home later than 8pm people call me and get nervous – they're afraid something has happened to me. And something could happen to my family. One of my colleague's, his wife Dora, she was 8 months pregnant and they killed her. We knew the risk wasn't just for us but for our whole family.
Q. Do you know who is behind the attacks?
A. There are nine people that were captured and are in jail. Some are from the community but those people are just the puppets, not the people pulling the strings. We suspect that they were sent by the mining company, because before the mining company came we didn't have any problems in this community. I know that a worker from a mining company offered a person from my mother-in-law's house $2,000 to kill me, to try to poison me. So we think they could also be involved in the other assassinations. We don't see how a worker in a company could get $2,000 when he only earns $300 a month so we think it's the mining company that's trying to break us up and create fear. And the authorities, like the Mayor of this municipality, they have made clear public statements that they support the mining projects.
Q. What will you do if the International Courts rule in favor of Pacific Rim?
A. We are very worried. Our concern is that many in the community have said they'd rather die than give up their homes and land, so if the court favors Pacific Rim we fear a confrontation. That's why from the beginning when they discussed the free trade agreement we were against it. We didn't think it was a transparent process– they just talk about the business, not the rights of the people in the communities and we feel they are violating our human rights.