Gold Mining in El Salvador

Last month, despite outcries from leftist government officials, environmental advocacy organizations across the globe and even condemnation from bishops in the Catholic Church, the Salvadoran legislature voted against an amendment that would declare clean water a basic human right. Though the proposition has been introduced once more, and the next legislature will vote on it in a few months, the Salvadoran government will need to dedicate itself wholly to the people, not mining corporations, if it wishes to save the water it has left.


In March, Sisters Anne Marie and Marie met a Salvadoran anti-mining activist at a service commemorating Oscar Romero at American University.

The water in El Salvador is unclean. It is important to understand how this came to be.

The impoverished nation, which the UN designated the “third most unequal country for access to water” in 2010, has been facing a clean water crisis ever since it opened its doors to mining companies across the globe approximately fifteen years ago.

It is true that an estimated 1.4 million ounces of gold reside underneath El Salvador’s cities and rural communities. Due to language of the Dominican Republic–Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA), mining companies were able to file 29 exploratory permits for gold mining in El Salvador by 2008. These companies have done, and will do, anything to access this lucrative wealth of gold—even if it means polluting the few clean rivers there are left. 

For example, mining practices irreversibly damaged the San Sebastian river. The river, which once provided water to its surrounding populations, was found to contain 1,000 times the acceptable level of iron and 9 times the acceptable level of cyanide in 2012. It turned a bright orange color very suddenly. This color and contamination change came about because of the practices of a local gold mine: gold cyanidation, a process during which miners use cyanide to extract gold from soil, was being abused nearby. Gold cyanidation is not banned in El Salvador as it is in Hungary and the Czech Republic, though the example of San Sebastian shows it should be. 

The contamination issue is not going away. According to a report by Tanya Hoogerwerf, called “Sustainable Rural Water Supply in El Salvador,” over 90% of El Salvador's surface water is contaminated, hugely due to the fact that only 2% of all municipal and industrial discharges receive some form of treatment before reaching a water body. 

Gold mining, and gold cyanidation in particular, have severe health impacts. Not only do these practices contaminate the water, but they also cause unusually high incidences of kidney failure, cancer, and nervous system disorders in surrounding populations. Infant mortality rates skyrocket. The people of El Salvador, who already experience the health risks associated with dense populations and high rates of poverty, cannot afford to be ignored because of the guise of free trade liberties provided by the DR-CAFTA.

A court in Washington, D.C. will soon test how far the DR-CAFTA can go. The court will decide whether Pacific Rim, a transnational mining corporation, has a legitimate right to build mines in El Salvador despite its history of environmental abuse. Salvadorans who value their environment and health are hopeful that this court case sways in their favor. 

Water is usually understood to be a basic human right. It is up to the Salvadoran government, and the courts in Washington, D.C., to reiterate that principle.