Goldman Prize Winner Francisco Pineda Risks His Life to Battle Gold Mining Operation


Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize

The Goldman Environmental Prize for South America this year went to a man who has so far been able to stop a Canadian company from coming in to mine gold (a toxic, ecologically destructive process) in El Salvador. His battle is a tough one because, thanks to CAFTA, the foreign company is able to threaten El Salvador's sovereignty and ability to refuse the mining plans. Canada is not actually party to the CAFTA agreement, but Pacific Rim used an American subsidiary to file a $100 million lawsuit under CAFTA against El Salvador.

Francisco Pineda says the CAFTA lawsuit is like saying to a friend: "I'm going to steal everything from you. But if you don't let me steal everything, I'm going to sue you."

Pineda lives with constant police protection after several of his colleagues—and the pregnant wife of one who his assassins couldn't find—were killed and after more than one attempt has been made on his own life. I spoke with Pineda while he was in the U.S. to receive the prize. Here are the highlights of that conversation. You started mobilizing the community after realizing that officials' claims that the mine would create development opportunities were false. How did you come to realize that?
When we went to the Pacific Rim website, we saw they were saying that mining operations would last for 10 years, and that they were offering 848 jobs. But we saw that the type of work in this company is highly technical, and most people in the area where they were planning to develop the mining operation have a high school education at best.

The national university of El Salvador doesn't even have a department of mining or geology. All the professionals would come from outside of El Salvador. In our community, there's many that can't drive, so they couldn't even get jobs as drivers. So we don't see what kind of development they're talking about if we can't have access to those jobs.

The other thing is they offer to pay taxes—two percent over profit. Now what can a country do with two percent of profit? But on the other hand, they're going to contaminate our waters and dry up our rivers. The gold, they will take with them.


Francisco walking to a first-anniversary vigil of the assassinations of his colleagues in the battle against Pacific Rim
Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize
When you started going door to door trying to mobilize the community, what were people's reactions like initially?
Some people believed that mining would cause harm. That company has a lot of money. They would come into communities and offer things like soccer balls, toys for children. They paid for television advertising, calling their mining "green mining." They also bribed some people in the community, and some politicians, including mayors. They were fooling the population.

But at the same time, they made a lot of mistakes. For example, when they were exploring, they dried up water sources. They dried up the San Francisco River, which is where I live. This made people realize that what we were saying was the truth. Now they believe in us and that's how our organization started growing.

We also took many of the leadership to Honduras, where we could see the mining operations that had been in that country for six years. We saw dried up rivers and people ill from the effects of arsenic and lead. And people complaining that they had been taken out from where they had been living in order to work in mining.

What kind of "green" claims was the company making?
They said they were going to use advanced technology, that's why it was green. They were going to build a reservoir where they would keep the waste coming from the mine, and they would plant trees around.

You can't believe they would be friendly to the environment given the enormous quantities of cyanide they use. And all the mining operations, they want to set them up where the Rio Lempa gets its water from. And the Lempa River provides life for four million inhabitants. What they will do to the river is destroy it completely. That means it will kill us all. We have sufficient scientific evidence that show mining operations in the country are not viable.

And how did you discover the political bribes that were being made?
That was very easy. We all know each other very well. I have a copy of a check where they've provided $1600 a month to buy sports uniforms, so that the mayor would give those uniforms to all the sports teams in the area.

We have interviews with the mayor in the newspapers where he is saying he's very sure that the mining operations are not going to pollute. But he formed an environmental committee, and a representative from the company is part of this committee. I also have copies of all the projects that the company has financed for the mayor.

It's projects for the community, but it's a way of deceiving the community. It's like showing a candy to a child—which child is not going to want the candy?

But the mining has not started yet, correct?
Because of our struggle and people's resistance in Central America, there is no project in operation right now. We would not allow to metal mining operations because in our opinion, this place is at risk—all life including the next generations. Its main impact is on the water. There is no living being that does not need water to continue living. It's also about how it affects the air. And who doesn't need to breathe to continue living?

We consider this a struggle for life. That's why we don't want mining.

Can you talk about the police protection that you have?
We got protection from what had already happened. First, there was an attempt to poison me. An employee at my mother-in-law's house was offered $2,000 by a worker at Pacific Rim. And three of our comrades have also been murdered: one of them a woman, Dora, who was 8 months pregnant.

We see this and we know that they're not playing around. We demanded from the state that it defends our right, and sort of to wash its hands of it, it offers us protection. But this changes and upsets all our lives.

For example, I had to remove our daughter from her room so the guards would have a place to sleep. To have people I don't know in my own house, that's not the solution, it's not what we want.

What we want is the approval of a law that would prohibit mining operations in El Salvador—because our problems started when the mining companies came.

And you're now facing the CAFTA lawsuit?
That is the main problem at the center of all this. We never agreed with the way that CAFTA was signed in El Salvador, because this free trade agreement goes over the primary laws in our country. It goes over the political constitution of our country.

It violates our sovereignty and our rights as Salvadorans. So that's where companies see they have the chance to do whatever they want, such as the lawsuit filed by Pacific Rim against El Salvador and the ICSID [International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes]. We're talking about $100million—which is a sum much higher than the Ministry of Health or Ministry of Education has for the children of our country.

That's very hard on us. It's sort of like if I go into a friend's house in the U.S. and tell him, I'm going to steal everything from you. But if you don't let me steal everything, I'm going to sue you.

That's how we see these companies behaving, under cover of this treaty. But these people don't only want to steal the gold from us, they want to steal our lives.

The previous government, after being voted out of office—it had been a very right-wing government—said at the end that it was against mining operations. The current president, Mauricio Funes, says that he is against mining, but this doesn't help us as long as he or the assembly don't push for approval of a law that bans mining operations. If there is a law allowing mining operations, you cannot forbid mining companies from coming in.

Words don't have any value. What has value is what is written and signed.

More on the Goldman Environmental Prize:
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Goldman Prize Winner Thuli Makama Defends Conservation Against Private Interests in Swaziland
Cuban Folk Singer Wins Goldman Environmental Prize

Tags: Activism | Communities | El Salvador | Goldman Environmental Prize | Latin America | Rivers | Water Conservation

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