In The News
Mining group fought for opposing El Salvador environmental rules
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
The Commerce Group, with its main office in Milwaukee at 6001 N. 91st St., a company that has tried to make money in the mining business for four decades and largely foundered, is seeking to revitalize its presence by forcing the government of El Salvador to pay $100 million for protecting its workers and environment.
A broad coalition of scholars, churches, environmental and fair trade groups is now calling on Commerce Group and its cohorts to withdraw that lawsuit seeking to use a much criticized clause within CAFTA (specifically the U.S.-Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement).
In mid-November, the Commerce Group citing the San Sebastian Gold Mine, a Salvadoran mine it owned but stopped operating in 1999 according to its own report, was willing to pay the $25,000 filing fee to force the government of El Salvador to mount its first defense ever of a decision to protect the country's environment. That decision several years ago halted gold mining due to environmental damage and health crises for citizens.
Sources report that Commerce Group also has a love-hate agreement with Pacific Rim, a huge transnational mining company based in Canada with connections through the Americas, including Salvadoran gold and silver mining operations attacked for years by anti-pollution activists. Pacific Rim's CEO has denied charges that it has been involved in the death of anti-mining activists murdered in El Salvador, but insiders say it is eager to see Commerce Group win its lawsuit. All of which just touches on the complicated issues of foreign mining companies their relationship to local governments.
What is clear is that there has been a free trade rush to allow multinational corporations to ride roughshod over local governments, CAFTA sought to protect foreign investors by sweeping statements about the trade pact's ability to limit local rules.
The plaintiffs hope the lawsuit will force El Salvador to compensate them with $100 million, but there is strong history behind the government's decision to step in.
The Commerce Group's mining ownership in El Salvador over the past 40 years has resulted in severe environmental and public health problems in the municipality of Santa Rosa de Lima, where the mine in question is located. The Salvadoran government revoked Commerce Group's mining permit on September 13, 2006, citing a level of environmental damage beyond what modern technology could address.
A 2006 study found that the river through the town is 100,000 times more acidic than uncontaminated bodies of water in the same region. The study also found levels of cyanide more than 10 times higher than the maximum allowed by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The Investment and Trade Research Center in El Salvador more recently filed a lawsuit against Commerce Group with the Salvadoran Attorney General to investigate the connection between mining activities and disproportionate rates of death due to renal failure in nearby communities from elevated levels of heavy metals in the San Sebastian River.
The CAFTA lawsuit is seen by critics as an attempt to deflect attention from Commerce Group's ongoing problems with the Salvadoran government.
The lawsuit, the critics say, "is a cynical attempt by an unsuccessful company to exploit international trade agreements to make money which they have been unable to make by legitimate means." Instead, they suggest, the Commerce Group "should be paying for the toxic legacy they have left behind."
The critics of the lawsuit have organized under the name MCALM, for the Midwest Coalition Against Lethal Mining. They are planning protests and group actions in this country, including in Milwaukee, the city where Commerce Group is headquartered.
Supporters of the developing protests include Milwaukee's Clean Clothes Campaign, Fair Trade Coalition, and Latin America Solidarity Committee; the Wisconsin John Muir Chapter Sierra Club, the Committee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador (CISPES), Global Economy Project, Institute for Policy Studies, the US -El Salvador Sister Cities Democracy Center, Jamie Moffett Media Design & Production, Canadians Against Mining In El Salvador (CAMES), The SHARE Foundation, the Atlantic Regional Solidarity Network. and the Centro de Estudios Inversión y Comercio (CEICOM).
Those who wish to fight the Commerce Group's attempt to use an obscure portion of CAFTA to penalize El Salvador can use several contacts:
In Milwaukee, contact Babette Grunow at (414) 447-8369.
In Washington, DC, contact Alexis Stoumbelis at (202) 521-2510.
In La Crosse, contact Al Gedicks at (608) 785-6782.
In El Salvador, contact (in Spanish) David Pereira at 011 503 2225-1906 Ext. 106.
In El Salvador ( in English), contact Sarah Bishop at 011 503 785-727-2252.
Posted December 9, 2010