Last week, more than 100 people gathered outside the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), which is housed in the World Bank in Washington, D.C. Inside, three individuals sat down to decide whether or not the government of El Salvador will be forced to hand over $300 million to a mining corporation for prioritizing community needs and clean water over a gold mine.
Oceana Gold–Pacific Rim Mining’s attempt to force its way into El Salvador against the wishes of the population cuts to the heart of the debate around corporate power, trade and whose rights are protected in the global economy. Members of the Salvadoran community came together with activists and organizations, including the AFL-CIO, Casa de Maryland/Casa de Virginia, Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, the Council of Canadians, Friends of the Earth, the Institute for Policy Studies, Oxfam, Public Citizen, the Sierra Club, St. Camillus Church and the Teamsters, to denounce the company and demand it drop the litigation.
Mining is unpopular in El Salvador. Existing projects have caused extensive environmental damage. At least 90% of the country’s surface water supply is contaminated, and communities near mines report higher rates of cancer, kidney failure and nervous system disorders. Speaking to the crowd gathered outside the World Bank, community advocate Lita Trejo described returning to the country of her birth to find rivers that ran orange with cyanide and arsenic. “We want water to live, not to die!” she told the raucous crowd, which roared back its approval.
Concern over safe drinking water drove broad public opposition to the mine. When Pacific Rim, a Canadian company that has since been bought by the Australian multinational Oceana Gold, failed to get approval of its environmental impact assessment, the company chose not to appeal the decision. It did not even complete necessary studies to legally acquire a permit or get the consent of local landowners. Instead, it launched a campaign of backroom dealing, lobbying top officials in the capital to do away with the requirements and pumping money to local politicians to support the mine.
The company’s aggressive campaign unleashed deadly violence. Five local anti-mining activists were murdered, including a pregnant woman and a student. While the corporation has not been directly linked to the deaths, its machinations fueled escalating conflict in a community still marked by a brutal civil war and intense political strife. “How many people have to die?” asked Lindolfo Carballo from Casa de Maryland/Casa de Virginia, as people waved signs and sang protest songs.
When it became clear a permit would not be issued, Pacific Rim continued to ignore the Salvadoran people and legal processes and instead turned to a little known but highly problematic provision in trade agreements known as investor to state dispute resolution (ISDS). ISDS allows corporations to sue national governments over policy decisions they feel violate the sweeping investor rights contained in controversial trade deals like the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Instead of using domestic procedures, investors bring their claims to private international tribunals. While these panels cannot reverse policy, they can order states to pay monetary compensation to companies when government decisions affect current or future profits. As Cathy Feingold from the AFL-CIO pointed out at the protest, ISDS is “part of a trade model that puts the needs of corporations before the needs of workers and the planet.”
The Salvadoran government did what a responsive democratic system is supposed to do: it listened to the desires and priorities of its constituents and acted accordingly. It is particularly appalling that a country with a long history of struggle against brutal dictatorships now has to defend its nascent democratic structures from private corporations. Oceana Gold–Pacific Rim is part of a worldwide push by corporations to gain power over national decision making through trade agreements that must be put to an end.