Environmental Courts Still a Distant Dream in El Salvador

  • by Edgardo Ayala (san salvador)
  • Inter Press Service

The Supreme Court, which is to provide the infrastructure, staff and financing for the special courts, and the environment ministry have discussed the mechanism for introducing the new courts for the last 14 years without being able to set this essential instrument in motion.

'It definitely has to do with the budget... The Supreme Court's priorities are oriented in a different direction,' lawyer Salvador Nieto, a legal adviser to the environment ministry, told IPS. The amount of funds needed has not been announced.

The new courts are to try cases of pollution and environmental crimes, which in the meantime are handled by the ordinary courts.

The attorney general's office has an environment unit run by specialist prosecutors, and the national civil police have an environmental division.

But environmental law is complex and also requires special courts and expert judges devoted exclusively to this area, Nieto said.

El Salvador is one of the countries of the Americas where deforestation has wreaked the greatest havoc, to the extent that now only 2,655 square kilometres remain forested, including mangroves, equivalent to 12.6 percent of the country's territory, according to a study carried out in 2007 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the environment ministry.

Another study, 'Situación de los recursos hídricos en Centroamérica: hacia una gestión integrada' (Water Resources Situation in Central America: Towards an Integrated Management), published in April 2011 by the Global Water Partnership (GWP), found that El Salvador is the only country in Central America with a shortage of water.

Salvadorans have access to an average of 1,700 cubic metres per person per year, which is the threshold for the definition of water shortage.

The environment ministry found last year that only two percent of the water in the country’s rivers is suitable for drinking, irrigation or recreational uses.

There have been few judicial cases involving environmental matters in El Salvador, owing to decades of indifference to the environment among those in power. And the cases that have been filed, which have been few in number as the public is generally unaware that damaging the environment can be a crime, have moved at a snail’s pace through the courts.

It has not helped that the Salvadoran justice system has been mired for decades in rampant corruption, as the U.S. State Department indicates every year in its reports on human rights in El Salvador.

But despite the slow pace of environmental legal proceedings, some cases have nevertheless managed to make headway.

One of the most notorious is the trial currently under way against Baterías Récord, a local company that was closed down in 2007 by the health ministry and charged with aggravated environmental pollution.

Local residents of Sitio del Niño, a small subdivision of San Juan Opico in the western province of La Libertad, together with environmental groups, denounced in 2004 that lead from the battery manufacturing and recycling factory had polluted river and well water, as well as the soil and air.

As a result, 150 people were recorded as having high blood lead levels.

Currently standing trial are engineers Hugo Rehnaldo Trujillo, Arturo Marenco and José Edgardo Brito, while the three owners of the company are presently fugitives from justice.

The attorney general’s office announced in early January that the damages from lead pollution caused by Baterías Récord amounted to four billion dollars.

'The worst harm was to the soil and to local residents, as many people will have to undergo lifelong treatment to remove lead from the blood, at a huge cost to the state,' the attorney general’s office said in a Feb. 3 communiqué.

Another high profile case was the trial against agricultural chemicals sales company Agrojell, which closed its doors in 1998, simply abandoning 92 drums of toxaphene, an insecticide banned as toxic in 1990.

In 2009 the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling to set free José Manuel Gutiérrez, the firm's legal representative.

As for the suspicions that powerful economic groups or international corporations may be quietly applying pressure to block the creation of the environmental courts, a Supreme Court prosecutor said it would be difficult to prove.

'The greatest destruction of the environment is not caused by ordinary citizens, but by companies... Firms may have an interest in not having a judge who is competent in environmental issues who could prosecute them in court,' Yanira Cortez, the assistant prosecutor for environmental issues, told IPS.

'We view this with a great deal of concern,' added Cortez, who works in the human rights prosecutor’s office.

Meanwhile Nieto, the legal adviser to the environment ministry, said he had no knowledge of any such pressure against the new courts.

© Inter Press Service (2012) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service