The community of La Nueva Esperanza, in Atlántida department, is fighting to protect this piece of tropical paradise in the mountains just inland from Honduras’ Caribbean coast, in the face of a new mining concession granted to Minerales Victoria to exploit iron deposits. The company’s owner is Lenir Pérez, son-in-law of Miguel Facussé, the major – and notorious – businessman and landowner, and it operates through Pérez’s company, Alutech, part of Inversiones EMCO, based in San Pedro Sula, which specializes in making steel structures.
MADJ and MAA denounce the intimidation of the community
In a joint statement1 released by MADJ (Movimiento Amplio por la Dignidad y la Justicia – Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice) and MAA (Movimiento Ambientalista de Atlántida – Atlántida Environmental Movement), which are supporting La Nueva Esperanza and other nearby communities affected by the project, have reported an alarming escalation of intimidation since the beginning of 2013, and especially in recent weeks, by Lenir Pérez’s company and the police and armed civilians who support it. Two community leaders, César Alvarenga and Roberto García, both members of MADJ, are already beneficiaries of precautionary measures granted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), having received death threats texted by Pérez in August 2012.23 Father César Espinoza, the community’s parish priest, a Guatemalan based in the nearby town of Arizona, who has been active in defence of the community, has also been the target of similar attacks, receiving threats from ‘supposed mining workers’ on his mobile phone in January this year4.
PROAH visited the community at the end of May and mid-June by invitation of the community itself and MADJ so that we could see the situation at first hand.
The classification of iron oxide – a legal loophole
Due to the moratorium on metal mining for environmental reasons, still in effect,5 the company obtained the concession for non-metal mining – iron oxide – though everyone in La Nueva Esperanza knows that in addition to this mineral (and coal), the hills surrounding the small community are rich in gold, with panning for gold in streams forming part of their tradition. The application for a non-metal mining concession is one of the loopholes that allow companies to circumvent the moratorium. Under DEFOMIN (Dirección Ejecutiva de Fomento de la Minería – Mining Development Executive) and now under the new Mining Act (Ley de Minería)6 (more details below), the classification of iron oxide mining as metal or otherwise depends on what the company which has gained the concession states it is going to use it for, that is, if it is for metal products, the oxide is classified as a metal, but it is enough for the company to say that it will use it to produce cement, for example, to have it classified as a non-metal concession.
As well as allowing them to avoid the moratorium, such a classification means that mining companies can obtain a concession with fewer requirements, fewer environmental controls and lower taxes. Furthermore, once the concession is obtained, by simply notifying the authorities, companies can take up metal mining, a much more profitable operation for themselves and with a far greater impact on the environment and health of the inhabitants. (The extraction of iron oxide can also have profound impacts on the environment and health of the inhabitants of the communities living near the mine, but its advantages over gold mining, for example, include the fact that chemicals such as cyanide are not applied to extract the metal and nor is as much water used).
The concession at La Nueva Esperanza
Minerales Victoria, Lenir Pérez’s company, obtained a concession for 1,000 hectares, although it applied for 11,0007. The area subject to the concession includes 16 communities which, because their economy is based on farming, would lose their livelihood through the depletion or pollution of streams and springs. They are therefore resolute in their opposition to the entry of the company onto their territory. According to the patronato (community council), only 3 of the 45 families of La Nueva Esperanza support the mining company because they are already involved in its operations. Although the villagers refuse to sell their land, the attempts by the company, supported by the Mayor of Tela, continue, and many are receiving threats and pressure to sell their plots. In addition, the company has already begun work on land owned by residents of La Nueva Esperanza, according to information provided by the patronato. It has fenced land, cleared woods and started exploration at various sites, including at the edge of a creek that provides water to the community.
Increasing harassment of the community and environmental damage
The local tension has been gradually increasing in recent months. To prevent the passage of the company’s vehicles, in February the community put a chain with a padlock across the road near the home of Don Enrique, an elderly man who is emblematic of the community’s resistance. However, on the night of the 13th of the same month, police shot at the chain, breaking it and destroying the lock. The officers involved in the events had no identification. In response to the complaint filed with the Public Prosecutor’s Office (Ministerio Público) by members of the community, the authorities publicly acknowledged that they had acted illegally. Despite this, the police continue to go the community without identification, which is giving rise to doubts about their true identity. There are suspicions that the men, although in uniform, are actually private security guards for Lenir Pérez’s company. Since then, attempts to promote a dialogue between the people opposing the mining project and the mining companies have not achieved any results. On the contrary, the threat to the community continues to intensify.
For example, on Saturday 25 May, when they assumed that the villagers would be at the carnival parade in La Ceiba,workers from the company tried to enter the concession area with two truckloads of machinery, with a police escort. However, the people were in the community celebrating a birthday, and with a collective effort, prevented the trucks from entering. Following this incident, which was reported on Radio Progreso, on Sunday 26 May there was a meeting in the banks of the creek that separates the community of La Nueva Esperanza and the land under concession to plan protests on a national scale, given the lack of response from the company.
Despite the community’s resolute stance, the harassment and threats have multipied in recent weeks. On Monday 3 June, a group of policemen entered the community, approaching the concession area and, in response to the villagers’ protests, fired their guns, fortunately without causing any injuries. Shots were also heard that night. Then, on the night of 5 June, a group of about 20 men, dressed in civilian clothes, with no identification and heavily armed, entered the community to spread terror among the people through repeated death threats. Faced with this dangerous situation, the villagers are suffering a “state of siege” that continues, forcing them to stay locked in their homes for safety. The community’s schoolmaster decided to suspend classes, and the village’s security situation is increasingly difficult.
It was in the face of the gravity of the incidents and the risk of worsening violence in the community of La Nueva Esperanza, that on 7 June the villagers, backed by MADJ and MAA, denounced and condemned the constant threats by employers in the aforementioned statement, which calls on local and national authorities, as well as national and international civil society, to intervene and demand a cessation of the violence related to the mining project. The community reiterated its opposition to mineral extraction on its territory, and demanded the cessation of these activities and the definitive departure of the company.
However, the harassment continues. On 14 June, three men from the community were in a house when they received a phone call warning them that armed men were approaching. The three decided to flee, but were pursued by the armed men who opened fire. The three, fortunately unharmed, were forced to hide until the armed men went away8. When PROAH volunteers attended mass in the community on 19 June, they saw two men armed with guns near the church, one of them trying to hide.
Meanwhile, there is an increasing amount of damage to the community’s environment due to the so-called ‘exploration’ activities. Minerales Victoria workers are making illegal roads, breaking down private fences without the owners’ permission and felling trees at the roadside which are the community’s heritage. A particularly painful blow to the community has been the destruction of El Manguito, a mango tree located halfway up the hill between La Nueva Esperanza and El Carmen where all travellers used to rest and then continue on their way, enjoying the breeze and its cool shade. In addition, the effects of the operations on water sources are already beginning to become apparent: a creek that used to be clear has become muddy, contaminated by soil excavated during road-building and other works.
The new Mining Act and open cast mining
In Honduras, La Nueva Esperanza is another piece of the mosaic of communities opposed to mining companies operating in the country without the consent of affected communities. With the new Mining Act9, adopted on 23 January by Congress (although still suspended due to lack of implementing regulations10), at least 300 new concessions are expected, corresponding to about 15% of the country’s land area. According to social movements and the spokespeople of the communities affected by mining activity, the views of affected populations have not been taken into account. Rather, the law was written with the input of corporations with a direct interest, and foreign embassies. One of the most striking examples is open cast mining. Although according to a 2011 survey11, 91% of Hondurans were opposed to it, the Mining Act, by not even mentioning this type of mining, does not put any restriction on it, but instead makes its continuation implicit, as argued by the CNRA (Coalición Nacional de Redes Ambientales – National Coalition of Environmental Networks)12. While countries like Costa Rica have banned open cast mining throughout its territory, and in many other Latin American countries the debate is in progress13, Honduras is retaining a practice devastating to the environment and which also offers very little employment for local people.
Other serious weaknesses of the new Mining Act include: the possibility of populated land being subject to concessions (with the consequent risk of eviction of entire communities); businesses being granted priority in the use of water sources; lack of protection of communities’ water sources, unless they are located in a ‘water producing area’ already designated as such; the lack of access to financial and technical information, which remains in the hands of businesses and the lack of free, prior and informed consultation of indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, as provided for in Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization (ILO), ratified by the government of Honduras14. Under the new Act, the consultation of all communities, whether indigenous or not, is scheduled after the initial exploration phase, ie when the company will have already obtained a first form of concession, occupying communal territory and investing its capital. The opposition of a community could give rise to legal countermeasures and financial penalties imposed on the State, under international treaties ratified by Honduras15. There is already a precedent for this with Pacific Rim, the Canadian mining company, with its multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the Salvadoran state.16
In response to the concerns of journalists and the communities affected, the authorities maintain that the engine for Honduras to escape its current state of poverty is the extraction of its hidden wealth, left mostly untapped by the Spanish conquistadors. The Ministry of Natural Resources (Secretaría de Recursos Naturales) estimates that over 60% of the national territory is potentially suitable for mineral extraction, both metal and non-metal. Santos Gabino Carvajal, president of ANAMINH (Asociación Nacional de Minería de Honduras – National Mining Association of Honduras), said that, once the new Mining Act enters into force, it will begin to attract investment into Honduras from industrialized nations such as China, Canada and the United States which could ultimately amount to up to US $4 billion17.
Despite these high expectations, it should be noted that both the canon territorial (the rent paid per hectare for the concession) and the taxes that the state will raise are very low. In addition, the taxes are subject to self-assessment by the companies. Under the new law, the total tax for metal mining is 6% of the value of sales18, (even lower – 2.5% – for non-metal mining) of which 1% is destined for the mining authority, 2% for the municipality where the mine is located, and 1% for ‘development projects’ managed by COALIANZA (Comisión para la Promoción de la Alianza Público-Privada – Commission for the Promotion of Public-Private Partnership). The remaining 2% takes the form of a security tax. That means that, apart from the 1% for COALIANZA projects, there is no other mechanism that allows a form of national distribution and socialization of the wealth produced by mining19, but instead the strengthening of the security forces in a country which has already embarked upon a disturbing process of militarization.
1 Joint statement by MADJ and MAA (7.6.2013) http://madj.org/content/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=273:comunicado-madj&catid=56:rrnn&Itemid=117
2 IACHR precautionary measures – PM 342/12 of 3 October 2012 – César Adán Alvarenga Amador and Roberto García Fúnez, Honduras. http://www.oas.org/es/cidh/decisiones/cautelares.asp. (in Spanish only)
3 P.1 of the MADJ and MAA statement.
4 Ibid. P. 2.
5 A ban on new mining concessions was originally imposed in August 2004 by the Minister of Natural Resources, Patricia Panting, for two reasons: 1. The Siria Valley Environmental Committee (Comité Ambientalista del Valle de Siria) and the Civic Alliance for the Reform of the Mining Law (Alianza Cívica por la Reforma a la Ley de Minería) proved that DEFOMIN (Dirección Ejecutiva de Fomento de la Minería – Mining Development Executive) was granting concessions to Goldcorp without complying with the legal procedures and 2. The National March for Life (La Marcha Nacional por La Vida) which demanded the cancellation of all mining and logging concessions. The Minister also sacked DEFOMIN’s director. The current moratorium on metal mining was imposed by President Zelaya in February 2006, through Executive Decree PCM-09-2006, citing in the preamble the need for ‘rational exploitation of the nation as well as the least impact in the environment and reuse of mined areas for the benefit of the community’. Under the decree, the moratorium would remain in force until the introduction of amendments to the 1998 Mining Act (Ley de Minería de 1998). Although the controversial new mining act was passed in January 2013, it has not so far entered into force due to the lack of implementing regulations. As a result, the moratorium remains in place for the time being. (Executive Decree PCM-09-2006 published in the Official Journal, La Gaceta, No.30,928, 14.2.2006. Also available at http://www.pgrfa.org/gpa/hnd/files/compendio_de_legislacion_ambienta_abril-2011.pdf)
See also the report of the Commission of Truth P.57-58
(All documents cited are in Spanish)
6 The 2013 Mining Act: http://www.defomin.gob.hn/2013pdf/LeydeMineria02042013.pdf
7 19 metal mining concessions have already been granted in Atlántida Department, most of them in Tela municipality, amounting to 24,600 hectares (6% of the department’s land area) and 14 non-metal mining concessions have been approved (Source: CEHPPRODEC (Centro Hondureño de Promoción para el Desarrollo Comunitario – Honduran Centre for the Promotion of Community Development) Situation as at 16.6.2013)
8 Report No. CEIN-PROV-0101-2013-04187
9 The 2013 Mining Act: http://www.defomin.gob.hn/2013pdf/LeydeMineria02042013.pdf
11 Survey by CESPAD (Centro de Estudio para la Democracia – Study Centre for Democracy) – September 2011 http://cespad.org/sites/default/files/Encuesta%20de%20mineria%20en%20Honduras-2012.pdf
12 CNRA Press Release (23.1.2013) ‘Nuevo atentado contra la población de Honduras: Ley de minería entrega territorio y población como mercancía’ (‘A fresh assault on the Honduran population: Mining Act hands over territory and populations like commodities’) (Available at http://periodicoecovida.com/?q=node/167)
18 Article 76 of the 2013 Mining Act.
19 Particularly worrying when one takes into account the damage mining operations can inflict on the environment and health of people outside the municipality where the mining is taking place, and even to transport infrastructure. See for example: http://www.elheraldo.hn/Secciones-Principales/Al-Frente/Exportacion-de-oxido-puede-colapsar-el-puerto-de-San-Lorenzo http://www.elheraldo.hn/Secciones-Principales/Al-Frente/Oxido-de-hierro-acelera-destruccion-de-red-vial