An obscure tribunal housed at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. will soon decide the fate of millions of people.
At issue is whether a government should be punished for refusing to let a foreign mining company operate because it wants to protect its main source of water.
The case pits El Salvador’s government against a Canadian gold-mining company that recently became part of a larger Australian-based corporation. When OceanaGold bought Pacific Rim last year, it identified the Salvadoran mining prospects as a key asset, even though gold prices have sunk by more than a third from their 2011 high of more than $1,900 an ounce.
The case’s implications are chilling. If the company wins, this small country will have to either let the company mine or pay hundreds of millions of dollars.
This summer, we returned to northern El Salvador. That’s where the Pacific Rim mining company started to dig its exploration wells about a decade ago.
via Meet the Company Suing El Salvador for the Right to Poison Its Water – FPIF.
And Prof Paul Tyler, also a biologist, of the National Oceanography Centre, warned that unique species would be at risk.
“If you wipe out that area by mining, those animals have to do one of two things: they disperse and colonise another hydrothermal vent somewhere or they die.
“And what happens when they die is that the vent will become biologically extinct.”
However, marine chemist Prof Rachel Mills, of the University of Southampton, called for a wider debate about mining generally on the grounds that we all use minerals and that mines on land are far larger than any would be on the seabed.
She has carried out research for Nautilus Minerals, a Canadian firm planning to mine hydrothermal vents off Papua New Guinea.
“Everything we are surrounded by, the way we live, relies on mineral resources and we don’t often ask where they come from,” she said.
“We need to ask whether there is sustainable mining on land and whether there is sustainable mining in the seas.
“I actually think it is the same moral questions we ask whether it’s from the Andes or down in the Bismarck Sea.”
This debate is set to intensify as the reality of the first mining operations comes closer.
David Shukman presents a documentary on deep sea mining on Discovery on the BBC World Service