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Honduras in Protest – Movements protest against the selling off of the country to mining companies*
19 jULY 2015. While Honduras rocks from a wave of protest against the corruption rife within his government and its business links, last week president Juan Orlando Hernández proudly hosted the “First International Mining Congress in Honduras”. The Congress invited international and Honduran business people and politicians to mingle with mining technicians and academics involved in the industry. It is the latest chapter in the government’s full-throttled attempt to convert Honduras into one of the most heavily-mined countries in the world – and convert the country’s land and environment into profit for politicians and big businesses.
Mining in Honduras probably provides the clearest example of the corruption, hypocrisy and destruction which accompany the so-called “development” brought by transnational companies and their political links. While the slogan at Hernández’s mining congress promises “Responsible mining and Higher economic growth”,1 the true legacy of his national mining project will be more desolation, disease, poverty and repression. I was with the indigenous organisation, COPINH, as it joined national NGOs and hundreds of people to protest outside the Congress and this is my attempt to get their side of the story heard.
COPINH provided two buses to bring a large number of their members half a day’s journey from the departments where they are based. As I wrote on July 7, our numbers reinforced the Indignados’ hunger strike camp, just as the police were starting to push in on the camp. Several of the COPINH members, including campesinos from San Juan, also visited the National Agrarian Institute, to maintain the pressure necessary to have their land rights cases taken seriously. I will follow up these issues in my final two blogs, but they aren’t independent of problems with mining. Honduras’ corruption and the commodification and privatisation of land inhabited by communities are factors that enable and support mining investment, and exacerbate the damage it has on locals. The struggle and anger of the Indignados, the anti-mining marches, and the land rights visits – they are essentially all one fight.
On the night of 7 July, after reinforcing the hunger strike camp, the COPINH group held an initial candle-lit vigil outside the Hotel Clarion, the Mining Congress’ venue, in time for the opening ceremony. As COPINH coordinator Tomas Membreño explained to radio presenters that night, the candles represented the 3,000 deaths attributed to lack of healthcare due to the theft of public money.
The following morning, Tomas also contributed to a press conference organised by the Platform of Social and Popular Movements of Honduras. The conference brought the anti-mining and anti-corruption voice to the mass media. In their press release, they stated: “We reject completely this [Mining Congress] which expresses the political, patrimonial corruption of the government, [which puts] the sale of our natural resources, the sovereignty of our territory and the destruction of the present and future of our communities into the hands of exploitative foreign companies.”2
Later that day, COPINH joined many other social and environmental organisations in a public anti-mining protest that saw a solid block of hundreds of people marching through the streets of the capital. The range of Honduran NGOs involved in the protest was impressive, with groups from all over the country and a wide range of stories of how mining had affected them. The march started from the Indignados’ hunger strike camp but was blocked by police and the military from going past the Presidential House. After a tense stand-off and shouts from the marchers of “Adelante!” (Forward!) against the police line, the march took an alternative route. Their new path increased their visibility even more as it went along the central highway of Tegucigalpa, to its end point, back outside the Clarion Hotel. There they made their presence felt to the Congress members inside and to the many Honduran news teams.
A Mining Monologue – No Regulations, No Complaints
The main organisation coordinating the march was CEHPRODEC – the Honduran Centre for the Promotion of Community Development. As the march was ending, their Director José Espinoza explained to me that the Mining Congress inside was attempting to paint Honduran mining as a scientific, technical process, with the extensive involvement of Honduran academics. However, he said, in academic terms the Congress is only providing a “thesis” – the only invitees are pro-mining industrialists and politicians. The “anti-thesis” – the hundreds of voices from communities damaged by mining, and scientific evidence of the negative impacts of mining – have been left outside in the streets. This one-sided debate mirrors the response the President is giving to the corruption crisis: while refusing an international, independent anti-corruption commission, he has initiated a national “dialogue” process to find solutions from within. But the only invitees to this dialogue are – say the Indignados marchers and Espinoza – those already within the corrupt system, the “dialogue” is simply an empty monologue that leads nowhere.
This lack of alternative voices is apparent in the legal framework that Hernández has created to support mining. In 2013 his New General Mining Law came into effect3. Mining is now seen as an activity of “national importance”, prioritised above concerns such as environmental or social impacts, or local consultation. In 2014 more than 50 Honduran civil society organisations were involved in an attempt to amend this law so that local consultation could lead to binding demands on companies, to be included in the contracts, but they never even received a response4.
In November 2014 Hernández introduced a “re-engineering of environmental licensing processes” which dramatically shortened the time required to obtain these licenses – effectively eradicating environmental protection in mining projects.5 As a result, mining concessions in Honduras have mushroomed. There are now at least 873 concessions being planned, which will concede a staggering near-30% of the country’s land surface to mining operations.6 Since then COPINH alone has filed 152 accusations of negligence against SERNA, the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment, for the meaningless environmental licenses it has handed to mining companies. Hernández has thrown Honduras’ doors open for zero accountability: transnational companies will be allowed to do whatever they please.
The True Cost of Mining – Valle de Siria and Beyond
So far, many of these mining concessions are in an early exploratory phase. The NGOs are trying to prevent the concessions being turned into full-blown mining, and they have plenty of examples of what is at stake. The best-known Honduran example is the San Martin mining project in Valle de Siria, owned by Canadian mining giant Goldcorp, which started in 2000. This open-pit mining project used explosives to blast the rocks in pits (up to 100 hectares in area) so they could be ransacked for ores such as gold, copper, aluminium and zinc. Before this process, the land was privatised and sold. The community of Palo Ralo was relocated 10 km away, and the forest cleared wholesale. As part of the standard mining process, the extracted rock was cleaned in huge open tailing ponds with water and cyanide. Despite all this, San Martin’s environmental impact study concluded that the long-term environmental impact would be “insignificant” – and this was before the environmental licensing procedures were made even more innocuous.
The anti-mining march flows from the hunger strikers protesting the corruption in Honduras, towards the site of the “First International Mining Congress”
In reality, the project’s huge demand for fresh water dried up 17 out of 21 of the water sources – streams and creeks – in the local area. The loss of farmland and water reportedly hit so hard the local agriculture that was providing food for the 7,000 residents in the area that their production dropped by 70%. Meanwhile, the toxic tailing ponds leaked into the ground water, and spilled several times in storms. In 2007 local drinking water tested positive for contamination, but the Ministry of Health suppressed this data until 2011. Some 40,000 people have been exposed to this contamination, which has led to widespread skin diseases, eye problems, birth deformities and cancer. Independent research published in 2006 showed infant mortality in the mine-affected region to be 12 times higher than the national average, and 33 times higher in families of mine workers. In 2008 the growing opposition against the mine led to its closure, but neither Goldcorp nor its local subsidiary Entre Mares has ever taken responsibility for any of the problems, and it retains the right to return to carry on working its concession.7, 8
Valle de Siria is the example that the anti-mining groups most frequently cite in their attempt to push back against Hernández’s open-door mining policy, but there were many more stories of mining damage at the protests. Benjamin de Sedeño is a member of CODDEFFAGOLF, the Committee for the Defence and Development of the Flora and Fauna of the Gulf of Fonseca. The Gulf links to the Pacific Ocean and several Honduran rivers empty into the Gulf, including the mine-contaminated rivers Goascorán and Choluteca. De Sedeño told me that the Golf is dying – its fish life has been decimated, destroying livelihoods and leaving the locals hungry. Big prawn farms – a staple business in the area – have shut down due to loss of their stock, taking away an important source of employment. His communities want development, he told me, but not at the price of the ecosystems that they rely on.
The indigenous Tolupanes, who took part in the Indignado hunger strike, told me how mining had affected them in Yoro department in the north of the country. Their communities have indigenous land titles that they gained in the 1800s, through the astonishingly prescient efforts of their forefathers. This should protect their land and its resources from privatisation in both Honduran and international law. Even so, it has not stopped mining projects stealing most of their drinking water and contaminating what remains, just as in Valle de Siria. Their communities have suffered skin problems and facial sores. They told me that they have only managed to keep one source of drinking water safe, and only then by fighting the mining companies to prevent the 20 hectares around it from being deforested or contamoated.
A Country for Sale – Exploitative Ideologies and The Global Perspective
The neoliberal ideology behind Hernández’s expanding mining project confidently predicts that it will bring money and jobs to the country, but these promises are empty. Mining projects promise jobs but, according to Honduras’ National Coalition of Environmental Networks and Organisations (CONROA), only 1,743 jobs in the mining sector have ever been registered. Meanwhile, by taking over land and water, mining usurps agriculture, which is the true mainstay of the country’s economy and employment.9
According to the 2013 New Mining Law, 6% of mining export earnings should be paid in tax to the government.3 This is a pathetically small payment for the devastation left behind, and almost a third of the country’s land area is already signed up for this fate. For Hondurans their oligarchy is selling their heritage off to transnational companies that care nothing for the development of the country. Even so, the legal deal is not good enough for the companies: the recent revelations have shown how corrupt politicians and businessmen work together to steal state money and siphon it off into personal bank accounts. As CEHPRODEC’s José Espinoza explained to me, Honduras simply doesn’t have the strong state bodies needed to enforce the laws to protect the country’s environment and people from the damage from mining. Its officials are either under-resourced, or corrupt and in cahoots with the companies, or simply restrained by the government’s pro-mining stance.
Hernández’s Mining Congress’ idea of “responsible mining” is a fantasy. Internationally, it is a lie used to gloss over the destruction left by vampire-like mining projects. And this is a strategy that is used throughout the developing world. These projects — and the neoliberal ideology behind them – lead to exploitation, poverty and the stalling of development. In Honduras, the repressive state’s lack of connection with the people makes it possible for this process to be taken to extremes.
Honduras is a long way from overcoming these problems but its people are up in arms against the exploitation. ENCA is currently running an on-line campaign to gather international support for their campaign. One of the goals is to persuade world leaders to put pressure on Hernández to allow an international commission into Honduran corruption. But it also asks our leaders to think again about the impact of the economic, trade and military relations we have with the Honduran government. Shining a light on the way these relations support corruption and fail the Honduran people is the first step towards reversing the exploitation we are inflicting on these countries. Please go to the ENCA action page to sign the petition in the UK, or for easy ways to do the same from other countries.
- Primero Congreso Internacional de Minería en Honduras – 7th to 11th July 2015 – https://congresodemineria.upi.edu.hn/
- Radio Progresso Honduras – 7th July 2015 – “Plataforma de Movimientos Sociales y Populares de Honduras Se Pronuncian Contra Congreso de Mineria Promovido por Gobierno” – http://radioprogresohn.net/index.php/comunicaciones/noticias/item/2217-plataforma-de-movimientos-sociales-y-populares-de-honduras-se-pronuncian-contra-congreso-de-miner%C3%ADa-promovido-por-gobierno
- Central Law Blog – 30th September 2013 – “Nueva Ley y Reglamento de Minería en Honduras” – http://www.central-law.com/_blog/Blog_Central_Law/post/nueva-ley-y-reglamento-de-mineria-en-honduras/
- Coalición Nacional de Redes y Organizaciones ambientales de Honduras (CONROA) – June 2015 – La Mineria Otro Acto De Corrupción En Honduras – http://www.cehprodec.org/index.php/noticias/42-mineria-en-honduras-otro-acto-de-corrupcion
- Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña, OFRANEH – 8th July 2015 – “Corrupción Generalizada y el Congreso Internacional Minería-Honduras” – https://ofraneh.wordpress.com/2015/07/08/corrupcion-generalizada-y-el-congreso-internacional-mineria-honduras/
- COPINH – 5th July 2015 – “Llamamiento del COPINH ante el I Congreso Internacional de Minería a realizarse la próxima semana en Tegucigalpa ¡A movilizarnos!” – http://copinhonduras.blogspot.it/2015/07/llamamiento-del-copinh-ante-el-i.html
- Sandra Cuffe – 25th April 2015 – “Mine-affected communities in Honduras defend public access to water sources” – https://www.beaconreader.com/sandra-cuffe/mine-affected-communities-in-honduras-defend-public-access-to-water-sources
- Giorgio Trucchi, Opera Mundi – 7th September 2014 – translated to spanish at “Actividad minera deja rastro de enfermedades, destrucción ambiental y desempleo” – http://nicaraguaymasespanol.blogspot.com/2014/09/actividad-minera-en-region-de-honduras.html
- Coalición Nacional de Redes y Organizaciones ambientales de Honduras (CONROA) – quoted 8th July 2015 – El Heraldo, “Honduras, sede de Congreso Internacional de Minería” – http://www.elheraldo.hn/pais/857123-214/honduras-sede-de-congreso-internacional-de-minería