Protestors rallied in front of World Bank headquarters in Washington, D.C. today hoping to persuade a tribunal housed there to dismiss a case brought by Pacific Rim Mining Corporation against the government of El Salvador.
Pacific Rim is suing El Salvador for more than 77 million dollars over the government's refusal to approve a permit for a cyanide-leach gold mining project along the Lempa River, which is the main water source for a majority of the nation's population.
"The case before the World Bank tribunal is a travesty," said Cecil W. Roberts, president of United Mine Workers of America. "A ruling in favour of the Pacific Rim gold mining company would represent a threat to workers' rights and the environment."
When initial explorations begun by Pacific Rim in 2002 turned up a promising vein of ore, the pro-business Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) government encouraged it to apply for a mining license.
But a grassroots movement of farmers and activists argued that such a project posed serious environmental and public health threats, setting off a major national debate. It is a discussion that should be left to that nation and its people, said the project's critics.
Pacific Rim, which has long insisted that it would use the most up-to-date environmental technology and methods to ensure the integrity and health of the river, brought its suit under an "investor-state" provision of the 2005 Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA).
That provision allows corporations to sue governments over actions that allegedly reduce the value of their investments. The provision and others like it were first crafted for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and are now included in dozens of U.S. trade and investment treaties.
The Bank-based International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) grew from these provisions and is the tribunal that is deciding the Pacific Rim case.
"This tribunal is illegitimate and it shouldn't exist," said John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies and a rally organizer. "It's an attack on democracy."
The World Bank protestors, numbering about 100 and accompanied by an 18-foot inflatable "fat cat", are supporters of 243 labour, environmental, faith and civil-society organizations representing millions of members. The group delivered an open letter to World Bank officials and ICSID members.
DR-CAFTA is an agreement strictly between the U.S. and Central American countries. Because Pacific Rim is based in Canada, which is not party to DR-CAFTA, it created a U.S. subsidiary in Nevada in 2009 to press its case before the tribunal, after it could not persuade the Salvadoran government to back the mining plan.
In that same year, the ARENA lost the presidency for the first time in 25 years to the centre-left Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), the former guerrilla organisation with close ties to the grassroots groups that have led the anti-mining campaign.
"Pacific Rim is using ICSID and the investor-state rules in a free-trade agreement to subvert a democratic nationwide debate over mining and sustainability in El Salvador," states the open letter. "These matters should not be decided by an ICSID arbitration tribunal."
Friends of the Earth-U.S. President Erich Pica denounced efforts by Pacific Rim and others who seek "super-national" rights. "The U.S. would never allow a company the ability to take a state or our federal government to a court at the World Bank" over such issues, Pica said.
Patricia Keefer, deputy director of international affairs for the American Federation of Teachers, added, "Our teachers and our organisation feel that it's the (Salvadoran) people who should be making the decisions about the environment, not having such dictates thrust on them by the World Bank."
Cavanagh told the protestors, "There's a set of people from the 'one percent' who don't think we should be here. But we're here to stand up for the democratic rights of people everywhere in the face of ever-expanding corporate rule."
Cavanagh and others decried the dire situation in El Salvador, which ended a bloody civil war only 20 years ago, for those who are leading a campaign against the mine.
Since 2009, four anti-mining activists have been murdered in the project area, the last one a student who was distributing flyers when he disappeared.
The Office of Public Witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA) added its own statement to the broader open letter. Calling the murders "an intolerable outcome," the church said, "We measure the impact of globalization by how it affects people and the creation."
"These mines will not create jobs, but will only bring more catastrophe to such a small country," Yanira Merino, immigration coordinator and assistant to the general president of the Labourers International Union of North America, told the rally.
"We do support trade, but it has to be fair trade: a trade that respects the workers and the civil society's voice."
According to Oxfam America, El Salvador is the second-most deforested country in the Americas after Haiti. Nearly all of its surface water is contaminated by industrial and agricultural pollutants.
Also participating in the rally were representatives of the AFL-CIO, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Farm Labour Organizing Committee, the Communications Workers of America, the Steelworkers, the International Longshoremen's Association and CISPES (the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador).
This article was originally published by IPS News.