In March this year, 77 organisations united to issue an international global appeal calling on their respective governments to take action against Brisbane-based multi-national mining giant, OceanaGold. Both the Australian and U.S. Sections of the Freedom Socialist Party backed the call to action which was supported by signatories from six countries — Australia, Canada, El Salvador, Aotearoa-New Zealand, The Phillipines and the United States of America. These are the countries where the gold and copper miner has operated. Amongst the other Australian signatories are the Australian National Campaign on Mining in the Philippines, AIDWatch and the Maritime Union of Australia Victorian Branch. Signatories from the United States include Earthworks and Friends of the Earth.
OceanaGold has long generated controversy and attracted opposition everywhere it goes. Notorious for environmental devastation, the company also faces complaints of mistreating First Nations people, underpaying workers, human rights violations and failing to pay its local tax bills. Formed three decades ago, the Australian company expanded in 2013, when it took over Canadian miner Pacific Rim.
Finish the win in El Salvador. In 2002, with gold prices rising, Pacific Rim zeroed in on Cabañas, a region with known gold deposits in the north of the country. But its planned mine failed to win the legally required consent of 87% of the local landowners. Implementing the project would be based on diverting the water supply — essential for farming. The use of toxic cyanide and arsenic also jeopardised drinking water.
Bribes could not but off the growing group of local anti-mining activists. Then the offers of cash failed, vicious intimidation was the next tactic. Three mine opponents were murdered, including 32-year-old Dora Alicia Recinos Sorto, who was shot in 2009 by hitmen as she returned from washing clothes in the river. Rather than retreating, protests spread from local to national to international. Mass opposition swelled around the slogan “water, not gold.”
The protracted battle against big gold in defence of the nation’s water not only costs lives. The epic fight almost bankrupted the nation of El Salvador. In 2009 Pacific Rim went to the arbitration court of the World Bank and demanded that the Salvadoran government give the mine a green light or compensate the company for the loss for future profits. OceanaGold took over Pacific Rim while this litigation in progress, hoping financial incentives might pave the way for the mine. But with the population mobilised and strongly opposed to the mine, the government stood firm. In 2016, OceanaGold lost the lawsuit. A year later El Salvador, a country where miners had been dumping toxic chemicals in rivers for decades, made history when legislators passed a law declaring the country free from mining to protect its precious water supply from pollution.
This win — a huge victory for the water defenders — sealed the fate of the OceanaGold project. Important as this win was, reforms are only ever temporary. When the balance of forces change, they can be wound back. In 2023, just six years after mining was halted, the law is under grave threat. The populist government has made investment and infrastructure top priority. It established a new agency — the General Directorate of Energy, Hydrocarbons and Mines — to oversee extractive projects, and it is in discussion with mining companies.
Amongst the demands raised in the international appeal is that the Salvadoran government uphold the ban on mining. Local communities need justice as well as compensation for the violence and environmental impact of exploratory drilling by OceanaGold.
Sustained resistance in The Philippines. The story is similar in The Philippines, where resistance to an OceanaGold project in the province of Nueva Vizcaya has remained fierce since it was first mooted in 1994. It was 2013 before the company was able to extract its first gold and copper. The mine is the mountainous area of northern Luzon, the lands of the First Nations Ifugao and Tuwali people.
The mine has literally destroyed the village of Didipio, which is now surrounded by huge ponds where mine tailings, filled with toxic waste — cyanide, sulphur, mercury, arsenic and radioactive materials — are dumped. The mine has had a devastating impact on biodiversity as well as surface and groundwater. With agriculture no longer possible, many locals now work at the mine, where they are paid half the wages of those from Manilla.
The fight to close the mine has never waned. In 2019, when the company began operating on a temporary license after its 25-year mine lease expired, local people — with support of the provincial government — put up a blockade to prevent the entry of fuel tankers and other service vehicles. The blockade, which forced the company to suspend operations, continued throughout 2020, even during COVID lockdowns.
Women have been key leaders in the community resistance for more than two decades. On International Women’s Day in 2020, Tuwali women danced the Tayaw, a traditional dance, to show unity and power in the face of threats and to convey their opposition to the mine. Their strength was on show every day during the blockade, where they guarded the picket line that maintained a round-the-clock schedule. These women have boldly faced off against ten-wheel trucks and backhoe loaders. Other First Nations women, organised through support organisations such as LILAK (or Purple Action for Indigenous Women’s Rights), stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Tuwali women.
Blockaders face violence and harassment. Many have been subjected to “red-tagging,” an intensive form of red-baiting common in The Philippines where activists face risk to their lives after being publicly linked to communist organisations. Human rights organisations report that The Philippines is the deadliest country in the world for environmental and human rights activists, with the numbers killed, reaching into the hundreds.
Despite the intensity of opposition from both local people and the provincial government, and being named by the Commission on Human Rights of The Philippines as having abused the rights of mining-affected communities in its mining operations, OceanaGold secured a 25-year-permit renewal for Didipio in July 2021. In February this year The Manila Times reported that the Didipio mine had returned to full production.
For almost three decades the people of Didipio have made their voices heard. Their call: OceanaGold out! The new international declaration supports the call for the mine to be shut down and affected communities paid reparations.
All about profits. Despite some temporary wins for communities along the way, OceanaGold continues to rake in profits. Since it lost its $250 million lawsuit against the Salvadoran government, it has expanded its operations in other places, including Aotearoa-New Zealand and the United States.
In Aotearoa-New Zealand, there’s opposition to a new mine on the Coromandel Peninsula, a conservation area with high biodiversity value. In the United States the company operates the Haile Mine in South Carolina, where there have been repeated breaches of toxic emission standards.
The company, which is listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange, reported net profits of $133 million last year and increased gold production by 30 per cent. This result was based on ramping up the Didipio mine and massively increasing production in Aotearoa-New Zealand, where it runs the largest gold mine in the country.
Not a rogue company — just a capitalist one! OceanaGold is clearly a mining outfit that has little regard for First Nations, workers, local communities or the environment. But this is nothing more than business as usual, when the key driver is the bottom line.
When Rio Tinto knowingly destroyed the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge caves in Western Australia, some argued that the mining company was an outlier in the industry. In contrast, we argued that Rio Tinto had prior form and that putting profits before Aboriginal cultural heritage or the environment or the livelihoods of local communities or workers’ safety is what it and every other capitalist mining company is inherently programmed to do. (See: “Destruction of Sacred Indigenous sites. Mistake from a rogue company? No, just business as usual,” Freedom Socialist, June 2021). OceanaGold and RioTinto are cut from the same cloth — like BHP-Billiton, which presided over the infamous Ok Tedi environmental disaster in Papua New Guinea, or Resolution Copper, which has zero regard for the San Carlos Apache fighting to save their sacred site at Oak Flat in Arizona.
What’s needed is to build a powerful ecosocialist alliance of workers, environmentalists and First Nations people to create a new society where the needs of First Nations, the environment and workers prevail. Nothing short of getting rid of capitalism will achieve this permanently.
The people of El Salvador and Didipio understand the urgency of the fight to protect their water and save the environment. Every local fight against a big polluter, like OceanaGold, will help more people understand what we are up against and commit to root out the problem at its capitalist source.
Let’s fight for improved accountability mechanisms with teeth, celebrate every win achieved along the way and fight to hang on to every reform we extract from the system. Winning the demands in the urgent appeal to the six governments will take international solidarity and tenacity. To save our environment will require ecosocialism.