Oct. 18th, 2011

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Gold or Water: The Fight Goes on in El Salvador

At this moment, unbeknownst to most of the world, the government of El Salvador is in the midst of a decision that could make it the first country in the world to ban gold mining. Corporate eyes are trained on this tiny nation, hoping it will decide that mining revenues are too lucrative to forgo. So too should those of us who believe that people and their ecosystems come first be doing our part to make sure that corporate interests do not determine what should be a democratic decision among Salvadorans.

Earlier this year, we traveled to El Salvador for The Nation to learn more about how the first progressive government (led by the FMLN party) in El Salvador in decades was deliberating over its choices. As part of its 2009 election promises, the government of Mauricio Funes had announced it would grant no new mining permits during its five-year term and that it was considering a permanent ban. Once elected, the Funes government initiated a major “strategic environmental review” to help set longer-term national policy on mining.

So, we found ourselves at the Ministry of the Economy, which along with the Environment Ministry, is leading the review. (Can you imagine the U.S. Treasury Department and EPA joining forces to do a collaborative review of U.S. policy?) With us was the man overseeing the review process from the economy ministry: engineer Carlos Duarte. Duarte explained that the goal was to do a “scientific” analysis, with the help of a Spanish consulting firm.

We pushed further, trying to understand how a technical analysis could capture the two sides of such a high-stakes issue. On one hand, El Salvador is a country of deep poverty, with people desperately in need of jobs. How could it not be tempted by visions of earnings from gold exports, especially now that gold’s price had skyrocketed from under $300 an ounce a decade ago to over $1,500 an ounce at the time of our meeting with Duarte? This view is perhaps best epitomized by former Salvadoran finance minister and mining company economic adviser Manuel Hinds, who said that “renouncing gold mining would be unjustifiable and globally unprecedented.”

On the other hand, there is the environmental cost. Here we quoted to Duarte from Maria Silvia Guillen, the head of the Salvadoran human rights group FESPAD: “El Salvador is a small beach with a big river that runs through it. If the river dies, the entire country dies.”MORE
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The Road Not Built: Redefining Progress At Home and Abroad

Local opposition to a proposed road in Trinidad brings new understanding of “progress,” and what it means to be rooted.

Most Americans love roads: Ours is a country of roads with a network of highways that rivals any other. So too does the U.S. government love roads. When the Obama administration passed its epic $787 billion stimulus plan just weeks after taking office, where did much of the money go? Into fixing and upgrading our highways.

When U.S. aid agencies look to poorer nations, they too love to fund the building of roads that can deliver crops to markets and ports and bring “progress” to remote areas. After all, who could be against a road?

In our stay in Trinidad and Tobago, the two-island nation off the coast of Venezuela, we discover that more people than we expected are opposed to a particular road. Their reasons turn the prevailing view of progress on its head and add to our understanding of “rooted” communities.

As we prepare to travel to Trinidad, we notice something strange on maps of the island: The coastal road that goes almost entirely around Trinidad stops for a 17-mile stretch in the center of the northern coast. Our research reveals that government promises and plans to complete the road go back to 1962 when the country gained independence. Some five decades later, still no road.

Not only does the couple not want a road, they want the entire mountain region to be declared a protected area to be stewarded by the people who live around it and in it.

This intrigues us. So we travel to three towns that surround the no-road area in part to see what life is like at the end of the road and to find out the “what,” “why” and “how” of the unfinished project.

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