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Contesting Extractivism: Gold, Water and Power in El Salvador


This research examines the political ecological processes that drive and resist extractivism. I use socio-ecological theory, mixed methods, and interdisciplinary critical analysis to better understand how El Salvador became the only country in history to ban metal mining. Though literally sitting on a gold mine, the Salvadoran government broke ranks with a continent-wide extractive imperative. However, far from a bastion of anti-extractive development or paragon of water rights, El Salvador faces a contentious battle over water privatization as non-metal mining extraction continues to drain and pollute the country’s most important water resource—the Lempa River. Through key informant interviews with mining and water experts, semi-structured surveys with anti-mining communities, archival research, and ethnographic participant observation I uncover how El Salvador’s conflicting extractive politics emerged. Political economic and historical institutional analyses underscore the relative unimportance of gold mining to Salvadoran elites and the national economy and the growing importance of non-metal mining extractivism. Landscape ecology and discourse analyses show how gold’s unique material-discursive relation to the Lempa river fueled “water over gold” narratives. These narratives highlighted the vulnerability of the national water resource to gold mining while obscuring how metal mining’s threat to water emerged in relation to heterogeneous non-metal mining extractive landscapes that continue to pollute the Lempa. Finally, a relational analysis of El Salvador’s anti-metal mining and water justice movements illustrates how El Salvador’s historic metal mining ban and ongoing struggle for water justice partially emerged from social movement leaders’ strategic decision to discursively and politically separate these movements. These overlapping analyses explain how the forces that propelled El Salvador’s historic metal mining ban simultaneously facilitated non-metal mining extraction and entrenched the current water crisis. El Salvador’s unprecedented anti-metal mining ban demonstrates the power of social mobilization, the importance of issue framing, and the potential to build unlikely alliances for environmental justice. The country’s ongoing commitment to non-metal mining agro-extractivism show how extractivism and its alternatives are not always diametrically opposed but can be mutually constitutive. Delving into the messy political ecologies that resulted in heterogeneous extractive and anti-extractive landscapes may not only inspire ongoing and future anti-extractivist movements across Latin America, but also inform how such political struggles play out, what constitutes success, for who, and at what cost.

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