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Native view: On metal mining, Minnesota can learn from ... El Salvador?

A close-up photo of police lights by night

It's bizarre that a country known for the l980 killing of Archbishop Oscar Romero, six Jesuit priests, and thousands more in the El Salvadoran Civil War — the "dirty wars" — would take a world lead for the environment. But on March 29, the El Salvadoran legislature voted to prohibit all mining for gold and other metals, making El Salvador the first country in the world to impose a nationwide ban on metal mining.

Winona LaDukeDeclaring that El Salvador's fragile environment could not sustain metal mining, legislators across the political spectrum approved the ban. It even had broad support across society, particularly from the influential Roman Catholic Church, as the New York Times reported.

"Today in El Salvador, water won out over gold," Johnny Wright Sol, an El Salvadoran legislator from the center-right Arena party, wrote, according to the Times.

"Mining is an industry whose primary and first victim is water," Andres McKinley, a hydrologist and mining specialist for Central American University in El Salvador, said, the newspaper reported.

In El Salvador, the second-most environmentally degraded country in the western hemisphere, 90 percent of surface water is contaminated due to agricultural runoff and deficient sewage processes, according to El Salvador's Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources. El Salvador is the most densely populated western hemispheric country.

The World Bank reports a fifth of its population drinks from wells or lacks a public water system. According to the World Bank, the development of large-scale metallic mining would further contribute to the deficiency of fresh water due to acid mine drainage, which has serious effects on the environment.

Open-pit metals mining, it turns out, is the most energy-intensive and wasteful mining in the world. For instance, PolyMet estimates the ore reserve at its proposed NorthMet mine in Northeastern Minnesota at 694 million tons, grading at .074 copper equivalent.

Copper mining is the most inefficient big dig. It takes 1 billion tons of material to recover 1.6 tons of copper. That means an immense amount of waste and water threats. Considering that the General Accounting Office reports the federal government spent at least $2.6 billion to remediate hard rock mine sites from l998 to 2007 and considering that President Donald Trump seems to all but want to eliminate the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, metal mining poses interesting liability questions for Minnesota.

Nationally and internationally, countries are beginning to ban the use of cyanide and other toxins in mining, but El Salvador has taken a major lead.

"El Salvador has taken important steps in recent years to recover from its history of political violence and establish democracy and the rule of law," 10 members of the U.S. Congress wrote in a letter to the National Assembly of El Salvador.

Not everything is simply stopped, however. The country is being sued in an international trade tribunal by Canadian mining company Pacific Rim for not granting a mining permit since a presidential suspension on mining licenses was adopted in 2009. The suspension preceded the March 29 prohibition. Some 75 percent of the world's multinational mining corporations are Canadian, and they have been aggressive. Many have charred human-rights records, including in El Salvador, where, in recent years, mining opponents are believed to have been assassinated by industry cronies.

"Large-scale mining can cause environmental contamination and contribute to the violation of the rights of local communities to protect their personal security and livelihoods," the letter from the 10 Congressional members further read. "In recent years, many countries of Latin America have experienced violence and conflict related to mining."

It is, it seems, time to say no.

Any lessons to be learned, Minnesota?

Winona LaDuke lives on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota. She has written six books on environmental and Native American issues and directs Honor the Earth, a national Native American environmental foundation. She wrote this for the News Tribune.

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