By Sophie Hares
TEPIC, Mexico, April 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Standing in El Salvador's Congress as the Central American state voted to become the first in the world to ban metal mining, Vidalina Morales' elation was muted by the memory of four activist colleagues killed during a 12-year campaign.
With its "No to mining, yes to life" banners and yellow skull-and-crossbones signs, the long push to win support for a ban and to protect fragile water supplies from damage by OceanaGold Corp's El Dorado mine in Morales' home department of Cabañas showed grassroots groups can have a national impact, she said.
"The image of our colleagues came to my mind - they would have been feeling the same emotions as we were, of happiness, of satisfaction to see that our fight had not been in vain," said Morales, president of the Economic and Social Development Association of Santa Marta, in Cabañas, east of San Salvador.
"The threat we saw from mining was that it would generate catastrophic consequences," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, listing the names of her colleagues whose deaths have been tied to their anti-mining activism.
Experts said last week's vote to ban mining and the use of toxic chemicals like cyanide and mercury – following a failed attempt by OceanaGold to sue El Salvador – could pressure mining companies to protect water sources and embolden other countries to restrict mining in environmentally sensitive areas.
The ban, actively supported by the powerful Catholic Church which was able to bridge deep political divides, could also give momentum to a much-needed water law for the densely populated country that has lost much of its forest cover and declared a drought emergency last year, experts said.
Some 90 percent of El Salvador's rivers are polluted by industry, municipal wastewater and agricultural chemicals, while many areas suffer water rationing and shortages, and farmers in places like Cabañas cannot grow enough food crops.
Australian-Canadian mining firm OceanaGold undertook only exploratory work at El Dorado. But full exploitation would have sucked up vast amounts of water in the parched area, and risked polluting waterways that feed into the Lempa, one of the few uncontaminated rivers providing water to over half the population, said experts.
"It became a national movement because the water for all the population would have been further polluted," said Manuel Pérez-Rocha, associate fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies. "It is clear to people that there is very little benefit, and the trade-off is too much in terms of the environment."
BENEFIT NOW, PAY LATER
A 2015 Central American University poll showed that almost 80 percent of the Salvadoran population wanted to ban metal mining, which can contaminate water with harmful chemicals such as the cyanide used to extract gold and silver from ore.
After El Salvador blocked mining permits in 2008, OceanaGold sued the small, cash-strapped country for around $284 million in compensation.
In October 2016, the World Bank's International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes found in favour of El Salvador. The government was awarded $8 million to cover legal costs for the claim, first brought in 2009 by Vancouver-based Pacific Rim Mining, which was acquired by OceanaGold in 2013.
After last week's vote, OceanaGold said in a statement the El Dorado mine was "not part of the business strategy at this time".
While no other country has instituted an outright ban, Costa Rica already prohibits open pit mining, Argentina bans mining in sensitive glacial areas, and Colombia is moving to prevent gold mining in parts already awarded for exploitation.
"Countries are starting to say... these mining companies might give us short-term benefits for 10 to 20 years but then they're going to leave and we're going to have these environmental impacts that really can never be resolved," said Robin Broad, professor at the American University in Washington.
Ahead of the El Salvador vote, the governor of Nueva Vizcaya in the Philippines travelled to Central America to highlight the impact of mining by OceanaGold in his province, where he said excavation had wrecked the landscape with thousands of trees felled, homes demolished, vital springs exhausted and few local jobs created.
"Whatever income our government gets from the mining company, I think (it) is nothing compared to the expenditure we may incur in order to address the destruction brought about by their operations," said Governor Carlos Padilla by telephone from San Salvador.
WATER LAW NEXT?
Campaigners hope the ban will hike pressure on larger mining companies to use more expensive technology to control damage, and to take responsibility for the degradation caused by the small-scale prospectors they often buy up.
"All mining causes some kind of environmental impact," said Keith Slack, global programme director for extractive industries at Oxfam America.
"In a place like El Salvador and Cabañas, where you already have water issues... it's hard to see how you could do it in a way that would be responsible," he added.
Some hope the Catholic Church - whose nuns and archbishops took to the streets to back the ban - will now help build support for a national water law.
"Within the country, it gives a lot of hope and inspiration for what's possible politically, as you have support from both the left and the right," said Paul Hicks, a water advisor for Catholic Relief Services in Latin America.
(Reporting by Sophie Hares; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/)
The Thomson Reuters Foundation is reporting on resilience as part of its work on zilient.org, an online platform building a global network of people interested in resilience, in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation.