Mining to Millions: The True Costs of Gold in El Salvador

After polluting the local water and soil with heavy metals and arsenic and having its mining permits revoked by the Salvadoran government, Commerce Group, a small multi-national corporation is using the Central American Free Trade Agreement [CAFTA] to sue for supposed loss of profit despite already losing the same case in the Salvadoran Supreme Court. This Milwaukee-based company is trying to use CAFTA’s “foreign investor rights” provisions to over-ride local environmental rules.

On October 17th, 2011, Kenia Margarita Ortez Alvarez traveled to Minnesota from her home country of El Salvador to speak about the impacts of mining projects like those of the Commerce group and the direct effects it has had on the environment, political system, and livelihood of Salvadoran society since 1904. Kenia is a woman who stands strong for the rights of her country. As a lawyer and a social programs manager, she travelled here representing the Santa Rosa de Lima Catholic parish and an environmental group where in both she is an advocate for the effects of environmental issues.

Having grown up in the town of San Sebastian, Kenia has personally experienced the exploitation of the people, environmental and social impacts from the mines. Her community is only an example of the many throughout the country that has suffered from the industry. Being the highest populated country in the Americas where the majority of the economy depends on agriculture, people are finding it challenging to live a healthy and sustainable life. According to a USESSC fact sheet, the average mine, like the one which rests in the mountain base of San Sebastian, uses about 90,000 liters of water an hour. This amount is equivalent to what a typical Salvadoran family would consume in 20 years, putting the country at the second highest on the water shortage index in the Americas.

What’s worse, the water systems are contaminated nearly to the point of no return. For the people of El Salvador this means no water for agricultural purposes, limited sources for drinking water, hygienic uses, transportation, and the functions of surrounding habitats.

With the livelihood of millions being jeopardized, the people of El Salvador are committed to working for a world without oppression and for social and economic justice. People are actively opposing the Pacific Rim’s $77 million CAFTA law suit against the Salvadoran government for not giving mining permits to the company. A country should have the right to protect the health of its environment and its people, but under free trade agreements like CAFTA it’s foreign investors that are granted greater rights, not citizens.

Salvadorans and people worldwide also are putting pressure on Commerce Group to take responsibility for the environmental and health damages it has caused in El Salvador. Their long term goals are to successfully improve the soil and water around the mines, clean up the contaminated waters, and obtain land titles for those who have built homes on Commerce Group owned property. They currently have a rain water collection project to help families get safe drinking water.

Free trade and investment protection agreements such as CAFTA are a new way for companies to steal profits they anticipate to have from other countries. In the case of El Salvador and Kenia’s community, companies are claiming damages because a sovereign government halted the operations of these multinational corporations to enforce laws and regulations to protect the environment and public safety.

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Help make sure foreign investor provisions stay out of future trade agreements such as the currently-being-negotiated nine-county Trans Pacific Free Trade Agreement.

For more information about trade and environmental sustainability, visit Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.

For more information about the resistance to mining and Commerce Group, visit , or