Opposing a Guatemalan gold mine threatening El Salvador's water

In 2017, El Salvador's Legislative Assembly passed a law banning metallic mining throughout the country. Today, there is a new mining threat, because an open pit gold mine being developed just on the other side of the border in Guatemala could have a profoundly negative environmental impact on El Salvador's largest watershed, the Lempa River.  

The planned mine in question is the Cerro Blanco mine, owned by the Canadian gold mining company Bluestone Resources.  The mine is located in southeastern Guatemala near Lake Guija.

The lake's waters flow into the Lempa River, El Salvador's most important river, which supplies  people throughout the country.

Bluestone Resources acquired the mining rights from fellow Canadian mining company GoldCorp in 2017.   In 2021, Bluestone revealed that instead of an underground mine, this operation would be an open pit strip mine, where cyanide is used to extract the gold from the surrounding rock and soil.

The environmental degradation caused by open pit gold mining around the world has been documented by Oxfam and other environmental groups.

Bluestone asserts that once open, the mine will bring thousands of jobs and millions of dollars to the Guatemalan economy and that opposition to the mine is coming from persons outside of the region who are spreading misinformation.  But in June 2022, mayors from 12 impacted municipalities in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador where the Lempa River flows, signed a public statement to their national governments asking that the mining project be stopped. 

Water defenders and environmental activists in El Salvador are highly concerned about the potential consequences of mining operations at Cerro Blanco.  According to Omar Flores of El Salvador's National Roundtable Against Metallic Mining:
Cerro Blanco could seriously and aggressively contaminate the waters of our main source of drinking water supply, which is the Lempa River basin, which runs through almost all of El Salvador. But we are not water self-sufficient, because these waters are generated in our neighboring countries of Honduras and Guatemala. The river serves to supply water to more than a million and a half people and to the rest of the communities that are along the banks of the Lempa River, and so it is a great concern. 
In a recent referendum, residents of Asunción Mita, where the mine is located, overwhelmingly rejected metallic mining in their municipality:
The vast majority of participating voters rejected metallic mining projects in the referendum held on September 18 in Asunción Mita. Residents are concerned about the impacts a Canadian-owned gold mining project would have on local water sources and a major river downstream in nearby El Salvador. Following the vote, however, the mining company, Guatemalan Ministry of Energy and Mines and industry groups have all contested the legality of the referendum.

Casting their ballots at the same six polling stations used in general elections, 87.98% of participating registered voters in Asunción Mita rejected mining.


The referendum was monitored by national and international observers, including dozens from El Salvador where the outcome of the voting was closely watched.  

Like the successful campaign against mining in El Salvador, the effort against the Cerro Blanco mine has been a years-long, grass roots effort according to an article at the environmental news site Mongabay:
Asunción Mita residents have been organizing against mining for well over a decade and the Catholic church in the region has played a pivotal role. The pandemic slowed everything down for a while, but people sprang into action when they learned the company was trying to move forward with open-pit mining, according to María del Carmen Cifuentes, who founded a local school decades ago and is heavily involved in church activities.
The referendum is hardly the end of the battle.  The Guatemalan Ministry of Energy and Mines rejected the balloting on the grounds that the municipality lacks any jurisdiction over the issuance of mining permits.

In a statement, Jack Lundin, the president and CEO of Bluestone said:
This referendum is clearly unconstitutional and filled with irregularities. We are disappointed with the actions of these groups who use these biased referendums to create doubt and uncertainty around responsible mining projects such as Cerro Blanco. Our goal is to continue to develop Cerro Blanco and provide socioeconomic benefits that transform communities through employment and economic opportunity, while operating in an environmentally safe and socially responsible manner.
Meanwhile local community members are organizing to defend the results of the referendum and to demand that the Guatemalan national government not authorize the opening of the mine.

A coalition of Salvadoran environmental groups issued a statement defending the integrity of the referendum process and demanding that the Salvadoran government become involved in protecting waters which cross national borders.

Adriana Ramirez, from the Ecofeminist Movement of El Salvador, stated:
We recognize the courage of the Mitec people to make this consultation possible and we recognize the legitimate will of the people, because although Guatemalan government authorities say that it is not valid, it is.