Honduras: Demonstrators Push for a New Mining Law

Mid-July in Honduras has been a tumultuous time, as citizens have taken to the streets to make their voices heard in a struggle to gain more legal control over their land and resources and prevent the creation of further open pit mines.

Across Honduras, major demonstrations took place on July 17, 2007, when six major road blockades were erected to protest the possible advancement of a watered down reforms to the General Mining Law. Although the demonstrations were peaceful, and included priests, peasants and journalists, police violently removed people blockading in the 6 de Mayo neighborhood and in Siguatepeque.

According to a press release by the Civic Alliance for Democracy, one of the groups behind the July 17th actions, “Repression included beatings, tear gas, high pressure water, and, more seriously, the use of guns, leaving dozens of people wounded and/or detained. Furthermore, police confiscated photographic and video cameras used to capture images of the abuse of authority.” Fifty-nine people were arrested and released without charge, and 17 demonstrators and one police officer were injured.

In October of 2006, 13 articles of the General Mining Law of Honduras were found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Reforms to the law which have been proposed are widely considered to be too weak, and a central demand on July 17th was that the proposed reforms to the mining law currently on the table be withdrawn and that the General Mining Law be rewritten completely.

Demonstrators were demanding that the new mining law ban open pit and metallic mining, revoke mining permits from companies who are contaminating the natural environment and cancel concessions in national parks and reserves.

Canadian companies operating active mines in Honduras include Yamana Gold, who operates the open pit, heap leach San Andrés gold mine in the department of Copán, Breakwater Resources, who operate a lead/copper/gold mine known as El Mochito in the Northeast of the country, and Goldcorp, who acquired the controversial San Martin mine from Glamis Gold in 2006.

The San Martin mine is an open pit, heap leach operation which has been in operation since 2001. Goldcorp reports that more than 529,088 ounces of gold have been extracted at the San Martin mine since that time.

Residents in the Siria Valley, where the mine is located, are experiencing what some have termed a “public health crisis” due to the mining operation.

Sandra Cuffe, who works with Rights Action and has lived in Honduras for the last four years, visited Ottawa in June and said that “reoccuring skin problems are the main issue, there are respiratory problems, in the communities closest to the mine there have been high rates of miscarriage, birth defects – especially in Palo Ralo, the community that was relocated by the company.”

In addition to health problems, according to Cuffe, “the local economy has taken a huge hit.” She explains that because of water shortages caused by the mining operation, “what the farmers in the Siria Valley used to export in agricultural products to Tegucigalpa, today has to be bought from the city and brought back to the Siria Valley.”

Local organizing in the Siria Valley, particularly by environmental groups, has contributed greatly to the national level movement rejecting large-scale metal mining in Honduras.

Luis Alfonso Santos, the Bishop of Copán, has stated that “The poor come first. The law should prevent further open pit mining, and it should be adopted without any bloodshed.”

The people have spoken. It remains to be seen how the government will act.