El Salvador’s Metal-mining Ban

El Salvador’s Metal-mining Ban Guarantee Basic Rights and Responsibilities

In 2017, El Salvador became the first country to ban all activities of metal-mining within its borders. Mining metals is an intensive process that requires large amounts of water to extract the minerals. It also causes pollution and water contamination. As the most densely populated country in Central America, with rich metal resources, but scarce water sources, 90% of El Salvador`s surface water is polluted and not fit for consumption even after it is chlorinated or filtered. There is a danger of extreme scarcity if no preventive measures are taken.

As a big step towards protecting the existing water resources, and improving the health conditions of the public, El Salvador banned metal-mining on 29 March 2017, with a legislative decision that united the entire political spectrum of the country and received support from 77% of the population.

At a Glance

“No to mining, yes to life”

Slogan of anti-mining protests

  • El Salvador officially banned metal mining on 29 March 2017 unanimously, 69 to 0, with every party voting in favour of the ban.
  • Being the most densely populated country in Central America and possessing scarce water resources, El Salvador chose to protect its water supply and chose not to exploit its rich metal resources.
  • The ban united different groups within the country and set an example to other countries with similar problems.


Policy Reference

Connected Policies
Selection as a Future-Just Policy

El Salvador banned all metal-mining activities within its border by passing the legislation unanimously in March 2017.

El Salvador is a water scarce country, with 90% of its surface water polluted. It is also the most densely populated country in Central America which magnifies the water supply problems. The climate of El Salvador is also a factor. Tropical storms and hurricanes that typically occur often spread the chemicals used in mining.

As a country that has engaged in metal-mining for centuries, El Salvador’s decision to ban all metal-mining was not reached easily. It was a grassroots movement led by local communities who experienced health problems and scarce clean water that led the Legislative Commission to pass the ban. After the increasing environmental damage and a highly publicised international law suit by a foreign firm demanding millions of dollars unless allowed to continue its damaging activities, the people of El Salvador decided to ban metal-mining, with an overwhelming 77% of the people supporting the ban.

The creation and implementation of the Metal-mining Ban are in line with the Future-Just Policy criteria.


Future-Just Policy Scorecard

Our “Best Policies” are those that meet the Future Just Lawmaking Principles and recognise the interconnected challenges we face today. The goal of principled policy work is to ensure that important universal standards of sustainability and equity, human rights and freedoms, and respect for the environment are taken into account. It also helps to increase policy coherence between different sectors.

   Sustainable use of natural resources

  • In El Salvador, 90% of the surface water is polluted in a way that it is not fit for consumption even after the water is boiled, chlorinated or filtered. The quality of the water is not the only problem, since the quantity of water supplies is very limited.
  • Metal-mining requires large amounts of water and there is evidence suggesting that it causes acid drainage. San Sebastian River contained cyanide levels nine times above and iron levels 1000 times above the maximum allowable limit according to a test conducted by the El Salvador Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources.
  • The ban will provide much needed protection for the remaining water supplies and will improve the existing water supplies and health problems associated with mining activities.

   Equity and poverty eradication

  • The ban upholds the human right to water and provides protection against irresponsible exploitation of natural resources.
  • The voice of the local communities is heard, empowering them in the process of decision making, which could have a spill-over effect to other policy areas.

   Precautionary approach

  • Given the existing problems with water resources, El Salvador took the necessary step to protect its water resources from further damage.
  • The ban is the result of public opinion and concern over the dangers of metal mining; the public decided that metal-mining was not worth risking further damage to precious water supplies.

   Public participation, access to information and justice

  • The creation and implementation of the ban was achieved due to powerful demands of the local communities.
  • The public was the determining force in the decision to ban all metal-mining, a high degree of public participation was achieved.
  • The ban was perceived by the public as a just resolution to long term unjust activities.

   Good governance and human security

  • The relation of the ban with some controversial provisions of free trade agreements highlights the need for just and democratic governance.
  • Public health has been prioritized over short term financial gain and the ban contributes to securing the future generations` access to clean water.
  • The ban improves both the water supplies and the health problems associated with mining, thus improving the overall conditions in the affected areas.

    Integration and interrelationship

  • The ban addresses an environmental problem which was also causing inequality and a sense of injustice within the community.
  • The unfair consequences of free trade agreements were also addressed because the ban affirms El Salvador sovereignty on its own resources.

   Common but differentiated responsibilities

  • The Legislative Assembly took responsibility in reflecting the local reality by turning the demands of the local communities into official legislation.
  • The ban was passed by the parliament due to efforts from both NGOs and the broader public.
  • Groups with different political views were united with the aim to implement the ban after the country experienced an unjustly filed law suit and the murders of local activists.


Context

After the devastating effects of the civil war, El Salvador tried to improve its economic stance by pursuing developments in the mining sector. In 1996, the Congress approved a law to promote foreign investment in mining and welcomed international investors. However, when scarce water supplies started to deteriorate and health problems such as dermatological, ocular, nervous and respiratory problems caused by contaminated water became widespread, local communities began opposing the existence of mines and a bottom-to-top growing awareness against mines reached high levels. Strong demand from the public urged the government to stop issuing metal-mining permits in 2006.

In 2009, a foreign mining firm filed a law suit against the country, demanding around 300 million USD in damages, for refusing to allow its mining activities. The highly publicized case increased the opposition and awareness amongst the public and the murders of local environmental activists fueled the sentiment against international mining firms even more. With the additional support from the Catholic Church, the public was able to influence the Legislative Commission towards the direction of passing the ban and the official ban was declared in 2017.


Objectives

The objective of the metal-mining ban is to protect El Salvador`s clean water supply and avoid the further pollution of its scarce water resources.


Methods of Implementation

The government stopped issuing and renewing mining permits in 2006. The existing mining firms could have continued their activities until their permit expired but this measure was dissuasive for both existing and potential newcomer firms, since the permits would not be renewed.

The legislation officially banning metal-mining within the borders was passed unanimously by the parliament in March 2017.


Impact

The environmental impact of the policy is yet to be seen but the ban will stop the pollution of water supplies. Health problems caused by metal-mining will also decrease due to less pollution, improving the overall living conditions for local communities.

The ban has empowered both the local communities who were faced with the negative consequences of metal-mining and the local civil activists. The successful grassroots movement proved to the locals that other issues can be resolved by raising their concerns and becoming more involved in decisions affecting their lives. Women were particularly active in such activities, which makes the implementation of the ban especially empowering to women.

The success of the co-operation of local communities is inspiring and creates a potential transferable model, especially for neighbouring countries experiencing similar problems due to metal-mining.


Potential as a Transferable Model

The policy set an example to countries with similar environmental circumstances. Partial bans on mining, such as banning the use of cyanide and open pit mining do exist in countries like Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Turkey, Costa Rica and Colombia, but El Salvador is the first country to introduce a blanket metal-mining ban. Therefore, positive results of this policy have the potential to influence many other countries. Additionally, the high degree of public participation in the process will inspire local communities, who live in problematic mining areas in other parts of the world, to act against destructive mining activities.


Additional Resources

Ford Foundation “Choosing Water Over Gold”

Oxfam America, ‘“Members of Congress urge El Salvador to protect environment and communities from mining”‘.

Oxfam International, ‘“El Salvador takes historic step with national ban on mining projects”‘.

Almendares, J., Epstein, P., Climate change and health vulnerabilities, State of the World, W.W.. Norton Company, New York, 2009.

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