[News] Resisting the New Conquistadors

Anti-Imperialist News News at freedomarchives.org
Thu Dec 1 12:56:17 EST 2005

Resisting the New Conquistadors


Salvadorans Mobilize Against Gold Mining

By Sean Donahue
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

December 1, 2005

Special thanks to Meredith DeFrancesco of WERU 
Community Radio in Blue Hill, Maine, who taped 
and transcribed many of the meetings and 
interviews cited in this report. Her radio 
documentary on mining in El Salvador can be found 
at <http://radioactive.libsyn.com>http://radioactive.libsyn.com.

In the fields above Carasque, you can still find 
shrapnel from bombs the Salvadoran Air Force 
dropped on the village in the 1980s. Early this 
fall, signs of a new threat began appearing on 
the mountainside – survey tags left by a Canadian 
mining company searching for gold.

Benigno Orellana, the community’s representative 
to the Municipal Council in Nueva Trinidad, says, 
“Right now, the permission is for exploration, 
later it will be for exploitation.” He’s worried:

“If the mining companies come in, it will be 
worse than the twelve years of war. This is a 
project of death for our communities and a 
project of wealth for those who exploit us. They 
will leave behind a desert where we can’t sustain 
our crops, can’t feed our animals, and can’t get water to drink.”

That’s a fate people in Carasque aren’t willing 
to accept – after surviving decades of violence 
and repression, they are not about to allow a 
mining company to force them off their land.

Earlier this year, the Salvadoran government 
granted two Canadian companies – Au Martinique 
Silver and Intrepid Minerals – licenses for gold 
exploration in the department of Chalatenango, 
near the Honduran border. 
Martinique’s website promises investors that “El 
Salvador has the lowest risk profile for 
investment in all of Central America.” But what 
they haven’t taken into account is the region’s 
strong history of community organizing, and the 
lengths its people are willing to go to defend their land and their livelihood.

A Project of Death

According to 
America, “Gold mining is one of the most 
destructive activities in the world. The 
production of one gold ring generates 20 tons of 
waste.” Cyanide, used to separate gold from ore, 
can be deadly in small doses. It leaches into 
groundwater and soil where it can persist for years.

Most people in Chalatenango are subsistence 
farmers, growing what they can in poor soil, and 
supplementing their meager earnings with money 
sent by relatives living and working in the U.S. 
Debt has already driven many families off the 
land, and with cheap imports from subsidized 
farms in the U.S. driving crop prices down, many 
more will have to leave the land in the years to 
come. Water and soil contamination from gold 
mining could deal the final blow to communities 
like Carasque that are already struggling to survive.

Community leaders don’t believe the mining 
companies’ promises of jobs and prosperity. 
Ortega, a legendary organizer from the town of Arcatao, says:

“They tell us they are going to bring employment 
to our community, but based on the investigation 
we’ve done on the experiences of other 
communities around, they say that, they give 
employment to a few people for awhile, and then 
when they decide it’s time to bring machinery in, 
it’s just the specialists, the people that can 
run the machinery, and they kick all the other workers out.”

Though life in the countryside is hard, rural 
poverty has advantages over urban poverty – 
people have food to eat and a close-knit 
community. Maximino, the legal secretary for the 
Carasque’s community council, says:

“If the mining were to happen on our hillside, we 
would be forced to move to other parts of the 
country. After living in this community, and 
having our land to work, relocating to huts, one 
next to another, would be very hard.”

Reports from neighboring countries confirm the 
fears that people from Carasque express. Another 
Canadian company, Greenstone Resources Limited, 
carried out mining operations in Honduras in the 
1990s. In a 
report published by the human rights group 
Project Underground, Honduran activist Miguel 
Miranda describes his community’s experience:

“Our community has existed on this land for 
nearly 200 years. When the company Greenstone 
came they offered us employment and promised to 
leave our road, the cemetery and surrounding 
lands intact. But we were fooled. The company’s 
explosions shake our homes and their open pit is 
swallowing our homes, causing landslides and 
cracks in our walls and foundations. They close 
our road so we have no access to our homes and 
their heavy equipment put our children’s lives at 
risk. When we complain, the Mining Department 
says that we have to understand that this is for the good of the country

Mayan communities in 
are facing similar struggles. The conflict over 
Glamis Gold’s mining project in the San Marcos 
highlands turned violent in January when the 
military and police deployed to the region to 
suppress protests and help a Canadian company 
move new equipment into an indigenous community. 
Security forces killed at least one man.

Benigno Orellana forsees a similar situation in 
Chalatanango, “Besides facilitating the miners 
with whatever permits they need, the government 
will give them security through the military and 
police.” But the people of the region are no 
strangers to confrontation, and won’t back down.

A History of Resistance

Chalatenango was and still is a stronghold of the 
FMLN, the former guerrilla movement that has now 
become El Salvador’s main opposition political 
party. In her book Insurgent Collective Action 
and Civil War in El Salvador, New York University 
political science professor Elizabeth Jean Wood writes that during the war:

in Chalatenango, guerrilla leaders encouraged 
residents to participate in local organizations 
called poder popular local (local popular power). 
The purpose of these organizations was to provide 
food and health to local residents as well as 
guerilla forces, typically through cooperative 
buying of seeds and fertilizers and marketing of 
surplus as well as the cultivation of some land for cooperative consumption.”

At the height of the war the FMLN blew up the 
main bridge over the Rio Sumpul leading into 
Chalatenango to prevent the military from 
attacking these organized communities.

Wood notes that “their infrastructure was 
destroyed and participants widely dispersed 
during the intensifying bombing campaign that 
began in 1984.” In the summer of 1984, a group of 
displaced people in San Salvador formed 
(then called the Christian Community for the 
Displaced of El Salvador, now the Association for 
the Development of Rural Communities of El 
Salvador) and began helping refugees return from 
camps in Honduras and Nicaragua to 
their communities and reconstitute the community 
councils the FMLN had established. Those who 
returned faced severe violence and repression 
from the Salvadoran military, but persevered with 
the help of solidarity movements in El Salvador 
and the U.S. The community councils – which 
include representatives of the church, the health 
sector, women’s groups, youth groups, the 
schools, and the agricultural cooperatives – 
continue to form the basis of local government in 
Chalatenango today. The Association of 
Communities for the Development of Chalatenango 
(CCR in its Spanish initials) pulls together 
representatives of these community councils to 
work together on common challenges.

In the fifteen-odd years since the end of the 
war, the CCR has helped communities resist 
threats ranging from the government’s attempt to 
shut down Rio Sumpul, the community radio 
station, to a campaign visit from presidential 
candidate of the ruling ARENA party, which has 
strong links to the death squads that murdered 
thousands of Salvadoran civilians in the 1980’s. 
Santiago Serrano of the CCR says:

“In Chalatenango, we’ve always tried to defend 
what is ours. They tried to take away our 
community radio station, before it was a legal 
station. The police came to try and take away our 
equipment and take away our station. In the 
community we all came out, and we occupied the 
station and we didn’t let them take it. They 
tried to arrest community leaders, the community 
came out and defended them, and they weren’t able 
to take them away. The ARENA presidential 
candidate came into our communities trying to 
cover us all with lies, in the last presidential 
campaign, we got him out with rocks and bees, and 
we even got him all out of the whole province of 
Chalatenango. So we even got a candidate out of 
here. Now the mining companies come in and we 
hope that everyone together will kick them out 
too. They had to airlift the presidential 
candidate out of there, because people were so angry.”

Echoing Serrano’s words, Esperanza Ortega says 
that the mining companies need to know that

“If they come into this zone they are going to 
have a lot of problems, because remember we are 
dealing with people from these communities who 
survived the war, and there some us, when we lose 
control, we don’t even know what we can do.”

Organizing Against Mining

People in Chalatenango have been organizing 
against the mining companies since the first 
prospecting teams began to arrive in the region 
earlier this year. Serrano explains:

“First they came into the municipality of San 
Jose Las Flores, and met with community council 
and the mayor’s office to say that they wanted to 
explore the area. And so the community leaders 
said, let’s talk to the entire community, and all 
the population and then we’ll tell you. And they 
came back again. And they got their answer, that 
‘No means no.’ But then they kept coming into the 
community, this time without permission from 
anybody and started doing some explorations.”

Farmers began removing the concrete markers and 
metal tags the mining companies left on their 
land. And as the miners moved into new 
communities, resistance began to spread. 15 
mayors and virtually all the parish priests in 
Chalatenango have come out against the mining projects.

At the national level, social movement 
organizations are working with attorneys and 
legislators to mount a legal challenge to the 
mining licenses. They have also pulled together 
key organizers to study the example of the 
movement in Cochabamba, Bolivia that succeeded in 
defeating water privatization in 2000 in order to 
develop new strategies for road blockades and mass demonstrations.

The CCR has now mobilized people in 100 
communities to oppose the mining. Serrano says:

“Throughout the whole northeast region of 
Chalatenango, people are getting to know about 
the impacts of the mining projects and all of the 
owners say they are not going to sell. This is a 
historical province of the country, lots of 
people died on these lands and the owners are not about to sell them.”

And in October, Au Martinique Silver and Intrepid 
Minerals saw for the first time the lengths to 
which Chalaticos are willing to go to defend their land.

Confronatation on the Highway

On the morning of October 15 a team of workers 
from Au Martinique Silver drove up the Northern 
Highway toward San Jose Las Flores and Guarjila. 
When members of the CCR spotted the miners, they 
rang the church bells in the two communities, 
and, in Serrano’s words, “people came running like ants.”

Before long, several hundred people had gathered 
and were completely blocking the road. Ortega reports that:

“There were people who were so excited and so 
angry that they got their matches out and wanted 
to start and set fire to the cars. We said ‘No, 
wait. This is the first time they’ve come.’ Then 
one of the war wounded got up on the cab of the 
truck, stood on the cab of the truck, and said, 
‘Listen, Sirs, I am a survivor of the war
,’ ­ 
and his hand, he’s missing his arm ­ ‘I am a 
survivor of this war, and I know these lands very 
well. I know them step by step, and I am going to 
defend them. We need a society that’s 
uncontaminated. We need a society that’s safe for 
our children, for our grandchildren. And I 
struggled and gave my life to these lands and 
this struggle. And so I’m not going to let you take then now.’”

After about an hour, people pulled together all 
the cars and trucks in the two communities and 
formed a caravan to follow the miners back to the 
departmental capital, the city of Chalatenango, 
and make sure they didn’t return.

A month later, on November 16, the anniversary of 
the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests, their 
housekeeper, and her daughter by the Salvadoran 
military, the MPR-12 (October 12 Popular 
Resistance Movement), a coalition of labor 
unions, farming cooperatives, and community 
groups that came together to oppose the 
American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) organized 
coordinated demonstrations around the country, 
and thousands turned out in Chalatenango to block 
the main highway again. The MPR-12 sees the 
mining project as part of the same corporate 
agenda that drove the trade agreement, and the 
demonstration in Chalatenango focussed largely on 
the mining issue and on the construction of 
hydroelectric dams being built to generate 
electricity for factories in Honduras and Nicaragua.

Jesse Kates-Chinoy, a solidarity activist from Maine, reported that:

“In Chalatenango, approximately 2,000 people 
gathered under the intense sun to occupy all four 
lanes of the Northern Highway, stopping traffic 
for a full two hours. The Northern Highway is 
used heavily for land transportation of products 
from the U.S. and Mexico to points south, and for 
the two hours that the protesters had the road 
closed, the line of tractor-trailer trucks grew in both directions

“Perhaps the issue which ignited people the most 
was that of the proposed open-pit mineral mining 
in the Chalatenango province. Canadian mining 
companies have come into communities throughout 
the northeastern region of Chalatenango, and 
begun to conduct explorations, preliminary 
excavations, and lay markers for mines from which 
they say they plan to extract gold, silver, and 
other valuable minerals. The communities, 
however, are adamant that they will not let the 
companies into their communities to exploit their 
lands, and they will defend their rights at all 
costs. ‘Mineral mining by foreign companies in 
our lands is foreign intervention in our 
communities’ declared Lisandro Monje, historic 
leader from the community of San José Las Flores, 
one of the communities in the sights of the 
mining companies. Mineral mining in Central 
America has a dark history, and the organized 
communities of Chalatenango are familiar with the 
process of bribery, pressure, threats, violence 
and displacement that the mining projects have 
brought to other communities. The Chalatenango 
communities are determined to not let it happen 
to them. ‘The moment that these Canadian 
gentlemen try to come into our communities, we 
are going to show them the true strength of the 
organized Salvadoran people,’ Lisandro continued, 
‘and if it becomes necessary to take the measures 
that nobody wants to take in order to defend our 
communities, then we will have to do so.’ Coming 
from communities of people who despite 12 years 
in a war zone under the Scorched Earth military 
strategy came to reclaim their lands, and coming 
from Lisandro, who led the early stages of 
organizing the armed resistance movement to 
defend their families, these are strong words.”

The mining issue has mobilized people in an area 
with a long history of fierce struggle, creating 
a sense of urgency not seen since the end of the 
war. Word is spreading to other parts of the 
country affected by mining. Ortega says, “People 
from Calaienes, people from Cuzcatlan, who are 
also facing mining projects have said, if you 
start the struggle, we’re going to join it, and we’re going to continue it.”

Au Martinique Silver and Intrepid Minerals are 
already beginning to see that gold mining in El 
Salvador may not be the safe business prospect 
they expected – and the struggle has just begun.

Read more of Sean Donahue’s work at 

The Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 863-9977
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