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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 387 | Octubre 2013



Mining exploitation is as harsh as the dictatorship

The new Mining Law will flood Honduras with 300 mining exploration concessions. In the words of Monsignor Luis Alfonso Santos, emeritus archbishop of Santa Rosa de Copan and founder of the Civic Alliance for Democracy, which actively struggled against mining extractivism, “With the new law the mining investors give us crumbs so they can earn the most at the least cost. And with the same damaging practices: open-pit mining is again permitted. We’re selling our future.”

Jennifer Ávila

In western Honduras a hard-fought struggle is going on between those who apply the law of the jungle to impose their will and those looking for an impartial application of the laws to protect their rights. There are towns in which the law has been crushed by the strongest because they control the local institutions or are part of illicit power networks. This means that in the absence of a rule of law and with the existence of very weak institutions in the hands of the corrupt powers in office, the weakest have no alternative but to turn to resistance.

This is the dividing line between those who use the state institutions for their own ends and those who are refusing to obey them. It’s the conflict between legality and illegality. This is what one finds in the municipality of La Unión in the Copán area. There seems to be freedom of movement in the urban center but as soon as we reached the smaller hamlets of San Andrés, San Miguel and Azacualpa, we began to sense the need to prepare for another fate.

Eyes and ears watch from everywhere. The further we go into the area the more we feel we’re no longer masters of our own shadow. We seem to have become the property of those who give the orders in the streets, houses and vehicles, who control everything that enters or leaves. It’s the power exercised by the mining company that took over the whole surroundings.

In what was once Azacualpa

Virginia comes out of her house, having heard sounds that aren’t usual for Azacualpa, which has few visitors. These sounds mean something. Her small town was becoming isolated by the transnational mining company’s operations in the San Andrés area. The company began working in its outskirts until it became a high-risk area due to landslides caused by the mining activity.

Minerales de Occidente (MINOSA) is a subsidiary of Aura Minerals, a Canadian transnational that’s operating a concession granted by the Honduran government to extract metals in a 300-hectare area that has been expanding over time. At the present time, according to its own web page, MINOSA extracts some 344,000 ounces of gold a month in open-pit mines. National authorities don’t know the exact amount.

The Department of Copán is one of the poorest in Honduras. A report by the Secretariat of the Presidency states that
15 of its 23 municipalities recorded high rates of extreme poverty. Paradoxically it’s one of the departments most coveted for its gold and silver deposits, exploited by foreigners since the 18th century.

Virginia’s family home is very picturesque. Plastered on the walls are dozens of little stamps of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Jesus and other saints together with photos of her four children, all born in the same house. The decoration isn’t just a religious expression; it also helps cover the cracks in the wall made by the mining company blasts only a few yards from her house.

MINOSA is doing open-pit mining, considered one of the most aggressive mining methods for the environment. It began by removing all the top soil in the area to be mined as well as the surrounding areas. Using explosives it extracts the rocks containing the minerals. To separate the gold from the rock, water with cyanide is used, a leaching process also used by another Canadian mining company, Entremares, in Valle de Siria, causing major health problems to people living there and serious environmental damage.

Virginia knows little about that but a lot about what her community has lived through. Now they’e making her leave her home in this town. Offering us a fruit drink she tells us, “The mining company says they’ll build larger houses for us on a lot with another bedroom.” Hers is the last community the mining company will have to relocate to a new site. The local government accepted the plan so what was once Azacualpa will be no more.

Desolation and
explosions in San Miguel

When we went up to San Andrés, we had seen a piece of empty land where it looked like something was going to be built. But what exactly? We later learned that this will be the new Azacualpa… right below the mine. Both the original San Miguel and Azacualpa were in the high part of San Andrés. Only 7 of the 76 former houses in San Miguel still remain. The church, which is still intact, is right in front of what is now the leaching area, where water laced with cyanide daily flows through sprinklers. The mining company paid some people for their property but those who didn’t want to sell now live there in isolation.

This is what happened to María, whom we found playing silently with her children. Silence and loneliness have taken over the surroundings of these few families. A little shy, María tells us she grew up in this house. Now everything is laid waste and they can’t even leave. Her husband works in the mine like the husbands of many other women in the area.

That silence seems to me a death threat, but suddenly it becomes a deafening roar such as I’d never heard before. The sudden change is caused by the mine explosions.

Quintín’s case

Quintín Miranda worked in the San Andrés mine from 1982 until 1997. They fired him when he could no longer work due to a life-threatening respiratory illness. He strongly opposed the devastation of the woods in the upper mountain and the displacement of his community when the mining company expanded its production. At that time the company was Greenstone, also Canadian.

Quintín always opposed the mining company. He now keeps to himself and seems to have let down his guard. No wonder—one swallow doesn’t make a summer. He tells us that when several civic leaders got together to try to stop the cutting of the hill and displacement of families, the mining company gave gifts to the other communities so they would turn against those who opposed it. Now divisiveness reigns in La Unión.

“Before people fought for the forests but now they don’t want the mine to leave because if it does all these communities will disappear. At the beginning I blamed the mine for everything, but no, the people are to blame too for not thinking of their future.” He tells us people began leaving the organization when they felt they “were closing in on us.” As he’s telling us this story he keeps looking from side to side, aware of the private security guards and other mine workers who constantly pass in front of his house.

The mining company says it employs about 800 community residents. Quintín insists there aren’t so many because there are no skilled workers in the community. He says that with one or two family members working in the mine the families feel confident and stop working in other productive activities.

Purificación Hernández, a member of the Association of Nongovernmental Organizations (ASONOG), who was in the area between 2002 and 2008, says the lots they’ve been given by the company are much smaller than the ones they had
in the old San Andrés and the land isn’t fertile. He laments that they no longer have a place to tie up their horse or keep their animals.

“When the mine goes…”

A little nervous and making sure no one hears him, Quintín recounts, “We used to be at 1,200 meters high, which was cool. Here it’s hot. They made the houses of cement blocks but the lot is smaller. This bothers us a lot because we haven’t been able to improve our lives; the only thing here is the mine.” This sun-weathered peasant speaking in a low voice tells us that “just as there was a campaign against the mine, there was also a campaign against me. They told all the workers who were making good money not to buy at my little store because I was trying to get rid of the mine.”

In 2002 the mining company was legally reported for two cyanide water run-offs into the Río Lara, one of the most important water sources in the area. Following this, agreements were signed to improve the quality of life of the residents and respond to the damages caused.

In this community leader’s opinion, the mining company had been taking over responsibility in the community since 2006, when the price of gold kept rising daily in the international market. That same year Yamana Gold Company sold out to Aura Minerals for $200 million and San Andrés joined the list of large mines in Latin America, with San Francisco and San Vicente in Brazil at the head of the list.

The company boasted of having invested millions of lempiras in health and education in the area. The personnel hired by the company usually defend it, saying it pays very well. Other sources, however, told us many people suffer from headaches, problems in their bones and joints and respiratory illnesses, and nobody gets why. Quintín is pleased that the mine is taking responsibility for curing the illnesses since the public health center isn’t functioning. He says that “when the mine goes, neither the mayor nor the government will be able to handle this town because the mine is like a central government here.”

Arturo’s case

Arturo Peña lives alone—really alone. His only “neighbors” are the foundations of the houses where his cousins and friends used to live in the now disappeared community of Platanares, right in the center of where the San Andrés mine is now getting the gold and silver out with those terrifying blasts Arturo and his family feel.

Arturo remembers very well what the mining company lawyer told him: “We’re the law.” As he recalls: “I complained about the failure to fulfill the agreement we had made about my properties and that I had nowhere to go. I didn’t want money, just the houses they promised me and that they hadn’t made good on with anyone. The lawyer told me clearly, ‘If you don’t want to leave, we’re going to call the police on you.’”

Arturo says he filed a charge with the National Human Rights Commission (CONADEH), but it did nothing and even advised him to accept the gifts the company was offering even though they weren’t fair compensation. “I was president of the local community board but it didn’t stand by me. And now they seek me out asking for help when the mining company doesn’t carry through on its promises.” The community abandoned him. choosing the gifts over Arturo’s dignity but he continues to resist leaving his patrimony.

Arturo and Quintín fought together on the community board. Together they faced the power saws that threatened to leave them without forests. Now everything has changed; nothing’s the same. Even the deer have disappeared. It’s terribly hot because what used to be a green area is now desert. These two men are still standing: Arturo with his head high and Quintín with his head bowed.

As they tell it, “We were afraid that the hills behind us would slide down when they got rid of the trees. We met with the previous mayor and he promised us he wouldn’t give his permission until we had reached an agreement with the company. One day I wasn’t there and they started cutting down the trees. They said the mayor had already signed the permission paper and they were going to put up a protection wall to prevent mudslides. But they never did.”

After the passage of the new nining law the authorities assured us that the problems of informed community consent had been resolved and that cases like that of San Andrés and Platanares wouldn’t happen again. The law accepts complaints against a concession but establishes that the opposition must follow the requirement of presenting the complaint 15 days after the solicitation for a concession has been published in a national newspaper.

The price of conscience

According to ASONOG President Juan Ramón Ávila, the government keeps using methods to draft laws that don’t consult the people in the communities affected; that only benefits the mining companies, which have both the law and economic power on their side. He warns that “the mining companies have their methods and have started using smoke and mirrors with people in the communities. They offer them work and with this trick buy off the community leaders; they also get them involved in negotiations in which the mining and governmental authorities collude. This will keep happening with the new law.” Ávila recognizes that Honduras’ institutionality was further weakened with the 2009 coup against President Zelaya and that this has led to the country being handed over to the transnationals on a silver platter.

New San Andrés and the displaced community of Azacualpa are examples that people’s conscience has a price and the mining companies have paid it. When people refuse to sell their conscience, the risks and consequences are very high. This happened to Francisco Machado, ASONOG’s former director, who had to leave the country so prevent the powers that be from making good on the many threats to his life.

Is gold worth more than water?

According to ASONOG, an ”accident” occurred at night in January 2003 in which 300-500 gallons of sodium cyanide solution was released into the Río Lara in 10 minutes, causing the death of 18,000 fish, frogs, crabs and dragonflies, among others. In March 2009 the same thing occurred again, with approximately 150 gallons of cyanide-polluted water. The Río Lara empties out into the Higuito River which in turn supplies the entire municipality of Santa Rosa de Copán.

The company claimed a worker had left the faucet handle of the leaching basins open and that information disclosed by ASONOG was false and part of a campaign against the mining company. However, a 1997 environmental impact report had warned of precisely this danger, given that the basins were less than 100 meters from the river, which overflows in winter. That in effect is what happened.

CONADEH and the municipality of Santa Rosa de Copán asked an independent consultant to measure the impact of the mining operation and the use of cyanide in the area. That research confirmed damages to the community and pollution of the water sources. This forced MINOSA to appear before the Latin American Tribunal on Water, which sentenced it to pay a fine of 1 million lempiras (just under US$49,000) for its offenses. Nevertheless, environmental organizations report, the company’s conduct remains the same if not worse than before the fine.

The San Andrés mining company
uses 20,000 liters of water an hour

Santa Rosa de Copán is 40 kilometers north of the San Andrés mines and has become a center of opportunity in the last 20 years. It has five universities, five local cable TV channels and the population has grown rapidly. However, the infrastructure hasn’t kept up with this population growth, including supplying the residents’ water needs. Today about 60,000 people live here and they only have access to water eight hours a week.

The person in charge of Santa Rosa de Copán’s Municipal Environmental Unit, Amer Cruz, says that this city’s water is among the most expensive in the country. There are those who pay 400 to 1,000 Honduran lempiras ($19-49) per month for it. Cruz explains that ”we as a municipality have one of the best labs in western Honduras but it’s not certified by the institutions in charge. A daily analysis is made of the water that comes into the plant here; it’s treated by chemicals to remove any heavy metals and other types of contaminants such as fecal matter.”

This civil servant recalls a discharge from the Minerales de Occidente mining company in 2009. “We were present when the complaint was filed but unfortunately there was no follow-up by the authorities, and no recompense for damages, just a great number of dead fish. The problem is that I can’t issue a statement saying there was pollution because it wasn’t scientifically proven at the time.” Now no authority dares say there was real contamination or that there still is.

According to Cruz, the new mining law establishes that mining projects can use all the water they need both for their workers’ personal use and for mineral extraction, which is an irrational use of this resource. He maintains that “the laws contradict themselves because the potable water framework law says water is a common good and the State must ensure it. But that law is useless now with the mining law giving the benefit to the mining companies.” This is confirmed in the case of the San Andrés mine, which consumes at least 20,000 liters of water per hour.

Who rules when there’s no government in power?

Juan Carlos Elvir was mayor of Santa Rosa de Copán from 1998 to 2006. The open-pit mine in San Andrés was a year old when he began his first term. Elvir says that during his time in office the mining company couldn’t get more influence because as time went they were detecting not only the central government’s ”lack of patriotism” but also the negative impacts these projects have on the environment.

According to Elvir, “In the case of the San Andrés mine we’d already foreseen the potable water problem but the government never took responsibility for monitoring it. On at least one occasion I strongly criticized organizations like ASONOG for turning a deaf ear and not concerning themselves to seek ways to fortify the country’s institutionality.”

Elvir was active in the complaint process regarding the mine’s cyanide run-offs into the Río Lara, but he fell into the same error he had criticized ASONOG for. Instead of demanding that the national government do a study of the environmental damages, he showed his displeasure with the environmental organizations for refusing studies financed by the mining company. “The company was ready to put in money to strengthen the team so it could do the water studies. But the environmental organizations kicked up a fuss. Meanwhile, the mining project is continuing and has caused irreversible damage because the methods established in the mitigation plan weren’t done.”

Asked who in the end rules in the area, Elvir recognizes that it’s the one with the weapons and money and that there are things one can’t change. He’s currently a Liberal Party legislative candidate.

Mining companies
and drug trafficking?

We asked Elvir if he knew of any case in which drug traffickers had investments in the mining industry and this was his answer: “No one can ignore that laundering assets is the way to demonize drug trafficking. But there are people here who launder money stolen from the government and no one demonizes them. In the end the harm is the same or worse. These are tendencies one can’t avoid. Superman doesn’t exist.”

Uncertainty is the common feeling in this area. Most people know that those governing aren’t the elected authorities
but rather those with the guns and money. Carlos Guzmán from ASONOG says complaining against the mining company is risky and this influences the social activists in his organization. The population is alone and seems to have no other remedy but to go along. To this is added the local media, which instead of raising their voices in complaint, knuckle under to money or are quiet due to fear.

Danilo Osmaro Castellanos, a journalist from Copán, has been the object of several threats by the mine’s communications spokesperson. He expresses his belief that “in this area the mine is a forbidden topic. And with the heightened violence we’re experiencing, it’s not good to risk so much.”

Monsignor Santos:
“They give us crumbs”

Monsignor Luis Alfonso Santos, emeritus bishop of the Santa Rosa de Copán diocese, founded the Civic Alliance for Democracy, which today is reduced to an office without staff or resources. In 2007 this organization headed a fight against the mining interests in the area. Today Monsignor Santos says that fight is no longer a priority in the diocese, downplayed by the new Catholic Church authorities.

The Civic Alliance for Democracy pushed for a new mining law that would assure full community participation and preserve the environment, thus replacing the terms of the law in effect after 1998. Santos says they have “given us crumbs” since “the new mining law continues with the same mistakes, always in favor of the mining investors to get the most investment with the least cost. They again permit open-pit mining, like we have in these hills, in which the company opens huge craters then tries to fill them up. The new mining law legitimizes these same practices.”

Monsignor Santos, one of the few who dares mention the word pollution when speaking of MINOSA, says “someone who worked in the mine said the company mixes water with cyanide and when the storms come, mainly in August, this pollution isn’t only in the water but also the ground and the air.”

Rolando Milla, human rights commissioner for the northwest, seconds what the bishop says. He adds that no organization, either legal or private, has ever existed that is able to monitoring the large transnational corporations’ mining operations. As a result, it’s impossible to prove the harm caused by the San Andrés mine.

According to Milla, there’s no political will to ensure that mining exploitation is established on an equal footing with the government and community or that it generate wealth for the community rather than harm the environment. ”The only word that carries any weight around here is what the mining company says,” adds Milla. ”And we don’t trust the results of contamination tests offered by its Executive Directorate of Mining Promotion (DEFOMIN).”

300 mining concessions

Purificación Hernández, from ASONOG, has experienced firsthand the national government’s ineffectiveness and the economic power of the mining companies. He recounts that when the first cyanide water run-off into the Río Lara happened in 2002, they carried 12 pounds of dead fish to the Public Ministry and filed all the appropriate complaints. A few weeks later they were told that the ministry lacked the reactive agents needed to do the tests and the fish had rotted in the government warehouses. The evidence was erased and those who filed the charge were left with their hands tied.

For Donald Hernández, of the Center for Community Development, the national government’s inability to deal with the mining operations in only three metal mines in the country is a clear warning that, with the 300 concessions that will flood Honduras following the new Mining Law, the situation will be totally out of hand.

The collusion between the mining companies and the public offices responsible for oversight and protection of the environment has impeded the complaint process from moving forward. This is what happened in both the Valle de Siria in the Francisco Morazán area and in San Andrés in Copán.

Aldo Santos, who went from being DEFOMIN’s environmental attorney, i.e. representing the national government in defense of the environment, to being hired as a director of an institution identified with the mining interests, insists that the problem isn’t the State’s civil servants He sees it as the fact that the same entity is defined as both a watchdog and a promoter of mining activity. In practice, Santos points out, that situation benefits only those with more power and money. He also explains that the budget assigned to DEFOMIN is almost entirely to cover salaries, leaving little for operations. This exposes it to dependence on economic support from the mining companies.

Monsignor Santos tells us that the State has never known the value of minerals taken from Honduras ”because a helicopter lands in La Union to carry out the gold; they’ve told me they’re carrying a quintal (100 pounds) and off they go. There are no police to check it and no one even knows where it goes. We Hondurans are victims of the plundering of our minerals and just to have a plate of beans now we’re selling our future and that of our children and grandchildren. Everything is carried off.”

From a desert to paradise

Going from San Andrés to La Labor in the department of Ocotepeque brings a complete change of scenery. It’s like going from a desert to paradise. You pass through the heavy damage caused by the mining process into the Guisayote BioReserve, where the air is clean and pure water flows freely.

According to the Forest Preservation Institute, this reserve, only a few kilometers from the San Andrés mines, covers more than 14,000 hectares. It has pine forests, broad-leaf forests and cloud forests.

At one time this reserve was also threatened by multinational mining operations. In 2002 it was turned over to Maverick, a Canadian company, to extract gold and silver. Neither the authorities nor the company executives, however, calculated that an entire people would rise up against them. That year, hundreds of citizens from La Labor and the surrounding municipalities, including Santa Rosa de Copán, took over the roads for three consecutive days until they succeeded in starting negotiations to defend the reserve.

Juan Carlos Elvir, who at the time was mayor of Santa Rosa, joined the struggle until they cancelled the concession. He says the Canadian company demanded 200 million lempiras from the government for reneging on its contract. Pedro Pinto, a respected leader of La Labor, was the most solid pillar in organizing the grass roots against the mining activity in the area. He recounts that when they started to see the machines coming into their mountain they grabbed their machetes and their old pistols to protect the reserve.

Municipalities ”free
of mining exploitation”

Pinto tells how “there were two years of peaceful struggle, of negotiations with the company. They painted pretty little birds in the air for us, offering us piñatas, candy, projects. One Easter Week they surprised us again: large posters appeared offering us jobs in the mining operations. We again called all the people together and that’s when we began the protests and charges. The people’s marches continued until 2004. During this time we learned about the San Andrés and Valle de Siria experience and saw that what the companies say isn’t true because there’s destruction of the forest, contamination of the water and waste. We brought all this experience back to our community. Many things happened. Germán Rivas, a journalist from Santa Rosa who accompanied us, was killed. His murder remains unpunished and we still don’t know if it was because of his work with us but he had become an ally against the mining company. He wasn’t able to see what we have today—a municipality free of mining exploitation.”

Municipalities like La Labor, which have declared themselves ”free of mining exploitation,” feel in danger from the power of the multinational mining industry, their own corrupt government and now the new 2013 mining law, all in the midst of the convulsion Honduras is going through.

A change of mayor could possibly affect La Labor. Pedro Pinto says that in a political forum held in April 2013 the National Party candidate told them the mining company had offered $250,000 if he won and let them exploit the Guisayote Reserve. The communities of Llano Largo, Santa Lucía, El Ingenio and La Labor, in the reserve nucleus, are on alert.

Pinto says “We’re already beginning to feel this with the upcoming elections. I still refuse to sell out but there’s a population that could end up doing so. We hear that MINOSA is financing some candidates’ political campaigns. We’re coming up to a tenacious struggle but starting with the Civil Society Coordinating Body we’re starting to prepare actions. Hopefully the people won’t be masochists.”

Anything’s possible
when there’s corruption

Municipalities “free of mining exploitation” are also in danger because article 49 of the new mining law says ”territorial areas permanently or temporarily excluded from the mining process cannot be established without completing the corresponding legal procedure.”

Even though the Guisayote concession is illegal, nothing’s impossible when there’s corruption. For Juan Ramón Ávila, the hope is in laying good foundations, declaring the municipalities ”free from mining” while safeguarding them with international laws and uniting the whole region, which continues to be a victim of plunder four centuries after the colonial period.

”Now the most important thing is not to let the companies in because once they enter they’ll do away with this paradise,” says Ávila. “With the new mining law and the Special Development Regions Act, Honduras is giving away its national sovereignty and that will make the struggle an uphill battle.”

Resisting along with the pine trees

Pedro Pinto fears for his life. He already suffered an attempt on it and now, with the climate of impunity and violence, it’s even more difficult to swim against the current. Pinto says the violence they’re living with in Ocotepeque is equal in aggressiveness to the violence in San Pedro Sula. However, the lack of government presence in the area means that no one is aware of the gravity of the situation. “We know we’re running a risk here and we many have deaths and attempts to buy off community leaders. We already know that if one community starts to weaken, we’ll go the way of San Andrés.”

In Guisayote, Pinto and his community are preparing to continue the struggle and they still believe in the strength of community resistance. In San Andrés, María and Virginia, trapped in their loneliness and silence, watch the machines pass by and don’t dare stop them. But even Quintín with his head bowed by so much pressure, is still upright like the pine and sweet gum trees, symbols of resistance in the face of the oppression by this looting mining company, as harsh as the dictatorship.

Jennifer Ávila is a journalist with Radio Progreso and with the Jesuits’ Reflection Investigation and Communication Team (ERIC) in Honduras.

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