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Abandoned mines cause serious problems for local communities

Water pollution caused by acid drainage is one of the biggest problems for people who live in and around mining areas. Vladimir Pacheco Cueva, PhD and assistant professor at the School of Culture and Society, Aarhus University, is the co-author of a report calling for government action to tackle the impact of mining on a rural community in El Salvador.

2016.03.16 | Johanne Vejrup Nielsen

The water in the river in San Sebastian area is orange from acid mine drainage (Photo: Pedro Cabezas)

Vladimir Pacheco Cueva talks to the local community in San Sebastian about environmental and health risks. (Photo: Xenia Marroquin)

Despite its high price bottled water is seen everywhere in San Sebastian. (Photo: Vladimir Pacheco Cueva)

Different gangs of artisanal miners dig up their own holes with simple tools and use mercury to extract gold from the rocks. (Photo: Vladimir Pacheco)

Vladimir Pacheco Cueva, together with two NGOs and Tara Van Ho, a postdoc at the Department of Law at Aarhus University, has recently produced a report on the mining community of San Sebastian, El Salvador. The report was approved and published by the Human Rights Ombudsman in El Salvador in January 2016, and it especially points out the lack of clean water and the risk of heavy metals contamination from an old nearby mine:

“When rainwater falls on the tunnels that have been opened up inside the mine, the water seeps through mineralized rock, comes out to the river and releases minerals which then change the pH value of the water so it becomes acidic. This water is not drinkable. The minerals in the water are dissolved and include iron, copper, aluminium and heavy metals such as lead and cadmium. Heavy metals accumulate in the tissue of living organisms at the bottom of the food chain. Heavy metals travel with each step up the food chain and end up in animals that people consume. Once in the human body, heavy metals can contribute to a number of health problems but it may take years for them to show up,” explains Pacheco Cueva.

The lack of clean water in San Sebastian means that the locals have to buy water that they would otherwise obtain from the river and wells, for free.

Who should clean up?

The gold mine in San Sebastian was closed by the government and has left a pollution problem that’s hard to solve. The Salvadoran government argues that it does not have the money to pay for cleaning up the mine, and the American mining company that operated the mine has, until now, not assumed responsibility for its environmental liabilities. Around the world, old and orphaned mines cause environmental as well as socio-economic problems:

“In the US, for instance, there are hundreds of old, abandoned mines that leak acid. In Australia there are an estimated 50,000 abandoned mines with a negative environmental legacy and in Canada the accumulated value of the legal liabilities related to the environment has been estimated at one billion Canadian dollars. Cleaning up after closure is one of the most persistent problems in mining” says Pacheco Cueva.

Research used as a political tool

According to Vladimir Pacheco Cueva, the goals of his research were to generate data and thus inform the government and, just as importantly, to guide the community in San Sebastian about how to change their situation:

 “We went back to the community and told them what the report shows, and also talked about the need to organise. Only through organisation of the community will they be able to act on things. I said to them: Try to understand this report, study it and use it as a tool. Not many communities have the luxury of having a 120-page report at their disposal, as evidence of what’s going wrong in the community. So hopefully they will use it to their own advantage,” says Pacheco Cueva.

 “We went back to the community and told them what the report shows, and also talked about the need to organise. Only through organisation of the community will they be able to act on things. I said to them: Try to understand this report, study it and use it as a tool,” says Vladimir Pacheco Cueva, PhD, assistant professor at the School of Culture and Society

Knowledge is a necessity

Besides the lack of clean water, there are other serious health issues surrounding the abandoned gold mine in San Sebastian. Local people have started to mine in the area, using rudimentary tools and a process involving mercury to extract metal from the rocks. The heavy metal is often used close to people’s homes, where their families inhale the toxic vapours.

Apart from encouraging the community to organise and achieve political changes, people in the area are also in serious need of research-based advice on health issues:

“Many people in the community don’t know that mercury is highly toxic. In the past it was used as traditional medicine to treat diarrhoea. So people still think it has medicinal properties and are not afraid to use it. But mercury is like a ticking time bomb. Just because it doesn’t show signs of anything in the short term, it doesn’t mean it is harmless,” says Pacheco Cueva

In the future, Pacheco Cueva says that many tests are needed in San Sebastian, not only on people but also on animals and the soil. He plans to collaborate with colleagues from AU who are experienced in testing mercury levels in humans.

Facts from the report: Expensive clean water

According to the report, local citizens in San Sebastian spend around 15-20% of their income on water, compared with people in the capital, San Salvador, who spend approximately 1-2% of their income on water.

This expense also means that the rural population consumes less water than people living in the city on the same income level. Whereas San Sebastian households consume an average of 6m3 per month, those in the capital consume an average of 22m3.

Read a summary of the report (in English) 

Read the full report (in Spanish)

The report was funded by the two NGOs Salvaide and Asprode in collaboration with the Department of Culture and Society.

Vladimir Pacheco Cueva, PhD, is an assistant professor in international studies at the School of Culture and Society, Faculty of Arts, Aarhus University. His research is focused on the impacts of non-renewable resource extraction in Greenland, Latin America and the South Pacific.


Vladimir Pacheco Cueva

Email: vpc@cas.au.dk

Tel.: +4587162217

Research, Globale Studier