The reddish gravel road sloping upwards over the nearest mountain was dotted with silhouettes of a group of people from the community of Nueva Esperanza. They were climbing to the summit, via a road cut out by the Minerales Victoria Mining Company, to show visiting international human rights observers the aftermath of the mining company’s activity.
As the group slowly climbed the road, the mine’s lingering presence became more pronounced. While it is no longer active, it has left an indelible mark on the landscape: the verdant mountainside was branded by patches of reddish-brown overturned earth that no longer produced anything green. The scars on the land were indications of mining activity completed under a phase of ‘exploration’ – but the physical evidences showed destruction more aesthetically similar to exploitation.
The company’s ‘exploration’ activity began without the approval of the community members, and in spite of strong local opposition to the destruction of their land.
Even though a 2004 moratorium on metal mining is still in effect in Honduras, Minerales Victoria was able to obtain a concession in Nueva Esperanza (an area rich in iron oxide, coal, and gold) via a legal loophole: the 2013 Mining Law, which allowed for relaxed controls and loose classifications of types of metals and their uses after extraction.
Community members faced increasing death threats and intimidation as a result of the mining company’s presence in the region. Many residents worried about potential environmental effects and impact on community health, as the mining activity could lead to contamination and destruction of the land and water that sustain their livelihoods.
Nueva Esperanza’s situation is, in many ways, emblematic of Honduras’ history as a victim of resource extraction.
Honduras has always been affected by the resource curse,” says Kevin Coleman, a history professor at the University of Toronto. “The country has natural resources and that becomes a reason for exploiting it.”
What is happening in Nueva Esperanza and throughout the country is not new; it has just been exacerbated by the coup and, Coleman adds, “decades of extracting natural resources – silver, bananas, timber, pineapples and shrimp (depending on the decade) – while neglecting the fundamentals of investing in public education, health care, and upholding Honduran laws designed to protect the country’s people and land from rapacious profit-driven enterprises.”
As in Locomapa de Yoro and other communities throughout Honduras, local authorities were not concerned with the mining company’s legal infractions. In fact, evidence suggests that local state authorities were actively colluding with the mining company. Local policemen escorted armed men affiliated with the mining company into the area and actively participated in acts of aggression against community members, including firing shots at the feet of local community members.
Local policemen were also absent from their post on the day two members of PROAH, a human rights accompaniment organization, were kidnapped. Several months of increasing intimidation and threats against community members who had voiced opposition to mining activity came to a head when armed men trespassed onto private territory and held two PROAH members captive for several hours.
Only after this kidnapping — and the subsequent international pressure — was there any response from the Honduran authorities.
A lingering presence
Yet even with Wilfredo Funez, the kidnappers’ ringleader, arrested and awaiting trial and the mining company gone, the community still faces threats to its safety, as representatives of the mining company have built structures on community members’ property, thrown trash in families’ yards and even fired gunshots close to specific houses.
Other lingering effects are found in the land and landscape itself. The summit of the mountain was stripped and overturned during the ‘exploration’ phase. The community’s roads have been ruined, and they have already noticed issues with water contamination.
These concerns become even more worrisome during the rainy season, as contamination will only spread with heavy rains and flooding. The unprotected road cut out of the mountain will likely be prone to mudslides, causing accessibility issues that did not exist with the roads created by community members, which followed the natural contours of the land.
On July 3, 2014, two Nueva Esperanza community members were kidnapped along with PROAH team members. Two of the victims had accompanied the community in their resistance to the mining project, and were also beneficiaries of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) precautionary measures, which are intended to protect people whose lives are at risk.
Two months later, on August 30, the community voted to declare their territory a mining-free zone. Though the lack of an investigation into the kidnapping has made it impossible to determine if there was a link between the crime and the community’s opposition, the fact that the two targets were beneficiaries of official protective measures — and were still kidnapped anyway — demonstrates the ongoing threat to people who dare to engage in, or support those engaging in, open resistance.
In spite of the continued aggression, the community members still defend their position against mining in their community. Their demands are simple: they want the right to their territory, and development under their own terms.
Yet even these basic requests may be too much to ask — at least in Honduras.
As Daniel Langmeier, a human rights observer with experience in Honduras, says, “There is an absolute lack of freedom, as we understand and treasure it, over one’s life to decide…[they are] confronted with these horrible situations all the time and feel trapped.”
Read more of Erika’s dispatches from Honduras: