By Tomás Andréu
Fourteen years have passed since the Environment Law was approved, establishing the creation for agro-environmental courts to hear cases involving contamination and environmental damage, but so far, this has not happened.
The Supreme Court, which would be responsible for creating the new chambers, has failed to create them.
“We still don’t have those courts in El Salvador,” said Lourdes Palacios, a lawmaker with the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN and a member of the Legislative Assembly’s Environment and Climate Change Committee.
“We’re still waiting,” she said. “There was a project financed by the European Union to train judges on environmental issues so these courts would be set up. We don’t know what happened.”
For its part, the Supreme Court said that the project is still alive but that there is no time-frame.
In the meantime, contamination and environmental damage cases are sent to regular courts.
This is a major problem, environmental and other civil society organizations say, arguing that these cases require specialized courts.
They are proposing that the government reform the law to ensure that environmental damage does not go unpunished.
“There are no appropriate legal procedures to address the issue of environmental justice,” said Ángel Ibarra, president of the Salvadoran Ecological Unity, a nongovernmental organization.
“Where are you going to go when there is an environmental crime? No one tries those who pollute or degrade El Salvador,” said Ibarra, who holds a doctorate in public health.
The FMLN is heeding those calls and plans to propose reforms to the law, which was passed in 1998, when the Legislative Assembly meets again in May.
The activists and FMLN are trying to change the language of the law, which calls for the creation of agro-environmental courts, which they argue does not make sense in a largely urbanized El Salvador today.
“With 60 percent of the population living in cities, the agro-environmental issue is a forced one,” said Ibarra. “Not all of the environmental problems are linked to the countryside.”
They are also pushing for the norm to follow international environmental law, under treaties that El Salvador has ratified.
El Salvador is full of contamination. One of the most emblematic cases is that of Record Batteries. In 2005, residents of Sitio del Niño, in the central department of La Libertad, were found to have high blood-lead levels because of the company’s operations. Some 550 blocks around the factory were affected by the soot spewed out by the chimneys, which covered homes, crops, water resources, subsoil and the blood of the residents.
Director of the societal interests arm of the Attorney General’s Office, Julio Adalberto Arriaza González, said there have been more lawsuits from this case with 1,000 people affected than any other in the body’s history.
Even though the factory was shut in 2008, only three employees are charged. Others, including its owners, have fled or have international arrest warrants out against them. The Attorney General’s Office has charged them with environmental damage.
The environmental courts would hear cases relating to neglect by government authorities in such a case, something that the current court system doesn’t address.
The pollution in Sitio del Niño could have been avoided by previous governments, said Deputy Health Minister Eduardo Espinoza.
“The previous administrations were very lax in giving permits to operate without any control or regulation,” said Espinoza. “That allowed that industry to develop and work without any norm or measure to counter the impact of the lead fumes, for the slag it produced.”
Given the threats that mining could present to the environment, mining has long been a contentious issue in El Salvador.
President Mauricio Funes has said that the government will not grant any mining permits during his term. He introduced a law in the current legislature, which is about to end, that would prohibit metallic mining but it did not have enough support to pass.
The Environment and Natural Resource Ministry and the Economy Ministry rolled out a national environmental evaluation policy last April, which would be the basis for a mining policy.
“We haven’t approved any mining project in the country,” said Deputy Environment Minister Lina Pohl.
Pohl said the mining that would come to El Salvador would likely by junior mining companies that are “not capable of monitoring environmental issues and their implications.” As a small, low-income country, large-scale mining does not make sense for the nation, she said.
Still, social organizations say the government is taking a passive approach, without any real intentions of cutting off the industry.
“We have shown that mining is highly contaminating,” said Cidia Cortez, a biologist at the non-governmental Center for Research on Investment and Commerce. “The companies have had a place to intervene in government policies, so we tell the people in our training sessions not to vote for those who say ‘yes’ to mining.”
Cortez added that she does not believe in the government’s environmental evaluation programs.
“The real intention is to get mining for El Salvador,” she said. “It is a breather for the transnationals.”
For his part, Ibarra said that Funes has made a public promise to not authorize mining projects, “but that political will can only be reflected by policies and laws.”
Funes’ words “must be backed up by a law that prohibits mining, but this government isn’t working on that,” he said.
In 2010, the government denied permits to Pacific Rim, a unit of Canadian mining of the same name, which has been in El Salvador since 2002. The company runs El Dorado mine, but the government denied its permits due to potential cyanide contamination of water resources.
The miner took the case to the World Bank’s International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes.
The company was suspected to be behind community conflicts between 2009 and 2011, in which four activists were killed in the department of Cabañas, but has not been formally charged. The company has denied any involvement in these cases.