El Salvador made history earlier this year when it became the first country in the world to outlaw all metal mining. But as the ban begins to take effect, experts are warning that organized crime groups may seek to move in on this newly illegal industry.
El Salvador's Legislative Assembly approved the law prohibiting metal mining on March 27. The law prevents the government from issuing new mining concessions, and it requires all active metal mining to cease -- with an exception for small-scale "artisanal" miners, who have been given two years to wind down their operations.
The ban on mining came as a response to the extreme environmental degradation that the industry has brought to El Salvador. The use of dangerous chemicals has been linked to pollution of the country's water supply, which is in an already-percarious state due to heavy deforestation.
Nearly 80 percent of Salvadorans supported the metal mining ban, according to a study conducted by the Central American University (Universidad Centroamericana - UCA).
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El Salvador's mining ban appears to be a well-intentioned effort to deal with the very real environmental consequences of mining in the country. However, authorities should be wary of the possibility that criminal groups could take on a greater role in what will soon be a completely illegal industry.
El Salvador's artisanal miners will likely be the most susceptible to criminal encroachment on their business, said Marcello Veiga, an expert on artisanal mining who formerly worked with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization. Veiga told InSight Crime that the risk of criminalization will increase when the two-year transition period for artisanal miners ends.
"The ban will likely force previously legal artisanal miners to work with organized crime groups," he said.
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Veiga's comments were echoed by Cristina Villegas, a program manager at the development organization Pact who has worked extensively in Latin America. Villegas told InSight Crime that she has seen similar bans fail in other parts of the region, including Ecuador, because governments have failed to provide viable alternatives to artisanal miners being forced to find new ways of making a living.
"Unless the government has a plan with specific industries to transition people into, it will fail because where can they go? In Ecuador, for example, when the mining ban took place, people would tell me they had a choice between illegal mining and illegal logging," Villegas said, referring to Ecuadorean authorities' attempts to outlaw artisanal mining operations.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Mining
Changes in mining regulations have also increased criminality in other mining sectors throughout Central America. In Costa Rica, for example, after changes to mining regulations in 2011, reports suggest that illegal gold mining and the associated trafficking of mercury are on the rise. In May of this year, 25 illegal extraction points were identified along Costa Rica's border with Nicaragua.