El Salvador's Congress approved a law Wednesday that prohibits all metal mining projects, in a bid to protect the Central American nation's environment and natural resources.
The new law, which enjoyed cross-party support from 70 lawmakers out of 84 in total, blocks all exploration, extraction and processing of metals, whether in open pits or underground. It also prohibits the use of toxic chemicals like cyanide and mercury.
Ninety percent of the country's surface water is polluted, according to the country’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, mostly due to the mining industry.
“This is a historic day for El Salvador and our right to decide our future,” said Oxfam’s El Salvador Country Director Ivan Morales. “The voice of the people has been heard. Mining is not an appropriate way to reduce poverty and inequality in this country. It would only exacerbate the social conflict and level of water contamination we already have.”
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The bill was approved under the pressure of more than 77 percent of the country’s population, according to a 2015 poll, environmentalist and human rights groups and the Catholic church, who handed over 30,000 signatures demanding the ban of metal mining earlier this month.
“This is an important precedent for communities around the world that are impacted by mining,” said Keith Slack, Oxfam’s Extractive Industries Global Program Director. “Governments and the mining industry need to recognize that mining is not inevitable and that the costs and benefits need to be weighed carefully.”
In October 2016, El Salvador unexpectedly won a case at a World Bank court against Canadian-Australian gold mining giant OceanaGold, which claimed that El Salvador interfered with its profits when the government pulled the plug on a proposed gold mine.
The conflict sparking the US$301-million lawsuit dates back to 2007 when El Salvador took a stand for national sovereignty and clean water by denying OceanaGold, then Pacific Rim, a new permit to extract gold in the Central American country. The court, in the end, awarded El Salvador's government US$8 million to cover legal fees and costs.
Oxfam has called on mining companies operating in El Salvador, including OceanaGold, to withdraw from the country, and avoid any action that might incite violence.