The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

The Scarlet Macaw in the Gold Mine

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Protests in Copán Ruinas.

A new online map allows Hondurans to see all official mining concessions and claim their right to know and decide if mining is done in their community.

This blog was co-authored by Benjamin Fash from Clark University. 

Last April, at a celebratory event to declare Honduras’ Copán Ruinas “The Sacred Valley of the Scarlet Macaw,” locals spoke up and challenged the Vice-minister of Environment, Energy and Mining.

Sir, there’s a protest tomorrow against some potential mining concessions here–” a local TV reporter began.

I am aware that there are solicitations for new mining concessions in practically all 298 municipal districts of the country, and that Copán Ruinas is no exception,” he responded. “And the law clearly states the ways, the mechanisms, to obtain more information and make decisions as a community.”

He’s right. The only problem is that in Honduras – and in many other places around the world – it doesn’t always work that way.

Researchers from Clark University, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras (UNAH), and Oxfam recently joined to study the current and potential impacts of mining on livelihoods in Honduras (full report forthcoming), and created a new online map that displays all mining concessions in the country.

With the government recently declaring Honduras “open to mining,” Oxfam commissioned this research to help communities know and decide the future of their resources—no easy task in a country where those who speak out against such projects are threatened, and too often killed, for doing so. Given the weak mining laws, the instability of Honduran institutions, the persistent impunity protecting those who threaten citizens for speaking out, mining’s well-documented irreversible impacts on water security, and, quite simply, mining’s marginal contribution to Honduras’ poverty reduction efforts, it is fair to question the benefits of Honduras’ dramatic expansion of mining concessions –especially since the total area under concession has more than doubled in just over three years .

Our research team visited Copán Ruinas in February last year. The region was chosen because four metallic mining exploration concessions were approved the previous May, over 3,789 hectares rich in biological and cultural diversity. This region includes 14 villages (including indigenous Maya Chortí peoples), a watershed that supplies water to most of the district’s 40,000 residents, subsistence farms, high quality coffee and cacao cultivation, tourist attractions, and ancient Maya ruins, not to mention, a bird rehabilitation center, the town of Copán Ruinas, and the ancient Maya city of Copán (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) are less than two miles downstream.

Honestly, we were also curious why no one in Copán Ruinas had voiced concerns about the proposals.  With cyanide spills, health problems, displacement, miner deaths, murders of environmental activists including Berta Cáceres, massive protests, and more, the image of mining in Honduras doesn’t exactly shine like gold.

Turns out, nobody really knew about the proposal. More than nine months earlier, Minerales Chortí, the company leading the exploration, released public notices in Honduran newspaper, La Prensa, and on Radio America. But perhaps the fact that the tiny notices were hidden in the classified ads and used technical geographic coordinates rather than a map contributed to them slipping by unnoticed.

Photo caption: Public notice of one of the four mining concessions over Copan Ruinas. Photo by Benjamin Fash.

In the months following our visit, the simple map we produced helped spread the word, and communities in Copan started organizing. Local activists launched the Facebook page “No to Mining in Copán Ruinas,” which attracted more than 800 followers in one day. The page included a simple map (viewed 35,000 times) showing the boundaries of the concessions and their proximity to (and overlap with) villages.

Local water committees voiced their concerns, and shortly after, the Mayor of Copán and the Chamber of Tourism and Commerce added their voices. In April, thousands of Copanecos held an all-day march, led by Maya Chortí organizations. Local water council leaders formed a new environmental coalition and more than 800 Copanecos voted to declare the area mining-free at a community town hall meeting. The following day, the President of the coalition received a death threat, but vowed to continue leading the struggle. In May, the Coalition raised funds from its 22 communities to rent a bus and make the 8-hour trip to Tegucigalpa, where they filed a formal complaint against the government for failing to secure the Maya Chortí’s right to free, prior and informed consent. While in Tegucigalpa, with help from OFRANEH, they finally gained access to more than 300 pages of key documents held by the Mining Ministry, including maps and exploration plans (accompanied by a proposed exploration budget between $2.7 million – $4.7 million).

The documents revealed that, in Honduras, you can comply with the law and leave those who stand to be most affected by new mining projects in the dark. Honduras’ mining law does give the local municipality 60 days to approve (or deny) via a town hall vote an application to begin extraction. Trouble is, by then companies have typically already invested millions in exploration (opening them to massive risk), and if the exploration reveals a viable extraction project, it opens the door for the smaller exploration companies to sell rights to extract at extremely high profit. This alluring prize can drive its seekers to use coercive strategies like threatening dissenting voices, falsifying documents, and buying off numerous key actors.

If there is to be a process for soliciting new concessions at all, a lot of work needs to be done to make it actually transparent. Not least of which is guaranteeing the safety of those who claim their right to know and decide. Companies and governments alike must also make concession data publicly available, allow more time for consultation, and ensure information about proposed projects actually reaches those likely to be affected.

We ran these ideas by a Copaneco, who responded, “Even if this process were actually safe [for communities], transparent, and nobody was bribed, do you think any local community would approve a new concession?” Hard to say.

Yet, in the span of a few months, armed with a simple map, individuals in Copán formed new alliances to analyze the risks and potential benefits of mining, and mobilized en masse. The Coalition has joined the Platform of the Social and Popular Movement of Honduras alongside OFRANEH and COPINH, and testified before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. One of the four exploration concessions was cancelled in May 2016 and up until now, exploration has halted without any signs of moving forward. Coalition leaders have begun to form new visions for sustainable futures with alternative economies and improved waste, water, and land management. The Sacred Valley of the Scarlet Macaw may indeed come to support human and non-human lives better than before the chaos that ensued from the concessions.

Our forthcoming research report uses spatial analysis to visualize how the potential expansion of mining in Honduras is likely to change patterns of access and control over lands and waters, illustrating also those downstream lands that are at risk through water contamination if mining activities are not properly managed.

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