Some of the winners in the Goldman Environmental Prize. Photo Amanda Lopez

“You can ask any Salvadoran in any part of the country. We are in love with our country, our land and we will not allow this. Water is more important than gold.” —Francisco Piñeda, environmental activist

Francisco Pineda is fighting for the water. To him and his Salvadoran country people water is more valuable than gold. Rio Lempa is the longest river in El Salvador. Four million people rely on her to live and farm as they have for centuries. In 2002 Pacific Rim, a Canadian corporation, acquired the rights to begin mining exploration.

Piñeda, a family farmer in El Salvador, was content growing his corn and enjoying the fruits of his labor. But he was thrust into the role of environmental leader when a group of villagers asked for help in finding out why their river was drying up.

“So we went to the river and saw that the water from this river was being siphoned by Pacific Rim for their gold exploration upstream,” he told El Tecolote. Piñeda was in San Francisco this week to receive the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, the world’s largest prize for grassroots environmental activists.

Piñeda, who has a degree in sustainable agriculture, and group of community leaders, farmers and environmentalists started asking tough questions, educating other farmers about the health threats of mining, (miners use cyanide which eventually contaminates local water supplies). It changed the game for Pacific Rim. The company tried to bribe Piñeda and the others with jobs and high pay.

The organizers began getting phone calls. “They offered us a salary and work, $2,000 a month. For us, that’s a lot, but for what? Why were they offering? So we said no. After that they called and told us something could happen. Then they asked the lady that works in my mother-in-law’s home if she wanted to earn $2,000. She said ‘sure!’ They told her, ‘Okay we will pay you but you have to poison Francisco.’”

As a result of their activist work and organizing, a great public awareness of the mining project grew, leaving many of the country people angry over the mining exploration. In 2008, the Salvadoran government suspended Pacific Rim’s exploration permits.

In 2009 the killing of the anti-mining activists began. One of Piñeda’s friends disappeared, Marcelo Rivera. They kept him almost 10 days and “then we found out he was assassinated, with signs of torture. After that, another compañero, Ramiro Rivera (no relation) was attacked but he recuperated. Then on Dec. 20, I remember quite well because that was my daughter’s birthday, I was preparing to eat some cake with my daughter. At 3pm I get the call from Ramiro’s daughter and she says ‘We think they’ve killed my papa.’ It was hard for me to hear that. He had two police officers protecting him.”

“I called the priest and asked him to accompany me. We went with the family to identify his body. It was not easy. However, his words follow us because three days before, we had had a meeting and he said: ‘Look compañeros, one of us is going to die. But whoever remains standing has to continue to struggle.”

Said Piñero, “That’s a promise among ourselves, to keep on until the mining exploitation that menaces us stops.”

Six days after Ramiro was killed, someone murdered Dora Santos Sorto, wife of environmental activist Santos Rodriguez.

“She went with us to all the activities. She always had her small child in her arms. That day I was close to her house, visiting the widow of companero Ramiro, when we heard five gunshots” Someone realized that Dora was by the river. “We took off down the road. When we got to the river, we saw her body, her 2-year old son was at her side, and in her stomach was her baby, she was eight months pregnant, and the baby was moving so much in her stomach,” said Piñeda, tearfully.

So far there have been no suspects or arrests in the murders.

When asked how he deals with the specter of death, (he has 24-hour police protection) he said, “Yes, its true that our comrades have died but we know that after them come others. It could be me. It could be someone else. But there is a mountain of others behind us. Mining in this country is a risk for all of us. For that reason, anyone who is proud of being Salvadoran should be against the mining.”

He added, “These have been hard times but also they have made us angry. Us Salvadoreños have that. They have tried to intimidate us, run us off, and contrary, because for us, it fills us with pride to maintain the memory of our fallen comrades. We will do this until the government passes a law against mining, and that the corporations such as Pacific Rim, who come here and rob us of our resources, get out.”

Now Pacific Rim is suing El Salvador for $100 million in lost investments and unrealized profits for not allowing it to mine, saying the country is breaking the “investor rights” provision of the Central American Free Trade Agreement or CAFTA. Since Canada is not part of CAFTA, Pacific Rim created a U.S. subsidiary for the purpose of filing a lawsuit.

The corporation wants to reopen El Dorado gold mine, which stretches through Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador. San Ysidro is the nearest town. Most people there make their living by farming and many fear the mining would contaminate their water and then end their ability to farm.

Piñeda is incredulous over the lawsuit. “It’s as if I visit the home of a friend in the U.S. and I and say, hey, “I’m going to take everything in your house.’ And you say ‘no,’ so then I sue you because you said no. And that is what the Free Trade Agreement is.”

His children worry about him but he tells them if he doesn’t continue to struggle, “what will happen to your generation? And your sons? What will happen to them? What water will they have? What air will they have? So we have to fight. In El Salvador they say those of us who are environmental activists are crazy. I prefer to be called crazy rather than a traitor. Or, that I sold out my country.”

He adds, “I am Salvadoran. Why am I going to allow a foreign company run me off? My family, nor my compañeros have also refused to leave. Why? It is our country. And we have defended it as we did in the 80s, and if we did so then, why not now? Us Salvadoreños are quite romantic when it comes to the question of our land and traditions. So it makes us more dedicated to recoursos. You can ask any Salvadoran in any part of the country. We are in love with our country, our land and we will not allow this. Water is more important than gold.”

Goldman Environmental Awards: In 1990 San Francisco civic leaders and philanthropists Richard N. Goldman (1920-2010) and his wife, Rhoda H. Goldman (1924-1996) created the Goldman Environmental Prize. The Goldman Prize continues today with its original mission to annually honor grassroots environmental heroes from the six inhabited continental regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, Islands and Island Nations, North America, and South and Central America.

The Prize recognizes individuals for sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk. To read more about this years recipients go to and click on 2011.