The miners come to southwest Chalatenango
23 August 2006
In rural El Salvador, life is simple. Time goes by slowly. Each day resembles the next. This environment provides a sense of safety for the residents. This sense of safety is being compromised by the unsettling changes Pacific Rim stands to bring to several villages in southwestern Chalatenango, in northern El Salvador, if a mining project develops.
Little is known of the southwest corner of Chalatenango, near the Rio Lempa, the largest and most important river in El Salvador. The area is unknown in the travel books, and it is hardly ever mentioned in the newspapers. In fact, this area of Chalatenango has been asleep for quite a while. Nothing big has happened here since the war.
Ask anyone here what the government has planned for them, and they will reply that nothing is coming their way. They consider themselves "forgotten," or unknown by the country at large. But nothing could be further from the truth in the global sense.
When news began appearing about the nation's interest in mining, no one thought it would affect southwestern Chalatenango. When Zamora, a small rural village in the municipality of La Nueva Concepcion was mentioned in the nation's newspapers as a potential site for a mine, the villagers remained ignorant of such a development.
But a few people outside the community caught the news and decided to share it with Zamora and its surrounding villages. When the news was first delivered, people responded with incredulity. But as more information was given, and as people began sharing stories with each other of strange occurrences, their collective consciousness began to awaken.
"The mine may come, or it may not come; but we'll be ready in case it does," says a male resident of Pañanalapa, which is about a 20 minutes walk from Zamora.
Residents were left with the information to lay fallow in their minds. Many continued to think the mining project was a farce, or at the very least forgotten. That was the hope.
For almost three months since the potential project was brought to light, all remained quiet, as is normal in that corner of El Salvador, and that was good. "I don't like to worry. The mine project worries me," says a local mother of three.
A conversation this morning:
- "So what happened with the mining project? I haven't heard anything more."
- "The newspaper printed two articles one week apart. The first said the government was closing its doors to mining projects; the second said mines were good for El Salvador."
- "The government does that to confuse people. At least our people have been informed."
In these parts, one can't always count on people acting according to the information they have. Information can be forgotten, ignored, or treated as a joke.
A conversation this afternoon:
- "Have you heard any more about the mining project?"
- "No, it's been really quiet."
- "They came yesterday. They were looking for the people responsible for alerting the residents about their presence. They have gone to the different villages but haven't been able to get anywhere with the people. They are angry because everyone keeps telling them to get off their land. They went to chat with two of my neighbors."
One neighbor conveyed his experience with Pacific Rim:
- "I wasn't expecting them; they caught me by surprise. They seemed worried that they wouldn't be able to proceed with their project. They wanted to know what foreign entities there were present here. They were convinced that foreigners were 'spreading lies' about them and the effects of mining. I told them that the unity seen among the villages came from amongst us, not from an external influence. They tried to convince me that mining was good; that it would greatly benefit the people, and that no adverse effects would be seen in the environment. They wanted me to call a meeting for them so that they could explain all the good they come to bring. I told them I couldn't do that, so they told me they would be here the entire week working to convoke a large community meeting. They won't get anywhere. We are united in our interest to protect our families and our homes. It's a good thing they came looking for me, otherwise I would have never known who they are or that they were even here."
It is uncertain how long Pacific Rim, a Canadian mining company, has been working in the area. They have been here at least a year, maybe more. But until the last few months, they had remained undetected by these sleepy villages. The people in southwestern Chalatenango have learned that it's best to sleep with one eye open if they wish to retain their small piece of Salvadoran paradise, which they depend on for their livelihoods.
"This is the only home we have. We can't allow it to be taken away from us." This has been the common sentiment in the communities.