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HONDURAS
Still no mining law
Alejandro F. Ludeña
4/1/2011
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Mines advance despite a lack of legislation to regulate the industry.

The residents of Honduras´ Siria Valley have become the emblematic case for the country´s lack of a proper mining law. Dozens of residents in the village say accuse one of the world´s largest gold mining corporations of spilling toxic heavy metals into local water resources, sickening villagers and livestock.

It´s been over three years since the government began investigating, and there has been no resolution yet.

The villagers and other members of Honduran society say that if the country had a proper mining law that regulates the industry with set safety standards, the alleged contamination never would have occurred.

Toxic chemicals
After devastating Hurricane Mitch slammed Honduras in 1998, the country opened its doors to multinational companies, so much so that one-third of the national territory is concessioned off to mining companies, with a total of 157 permits for drilling.

One of the largest is the San Martín gold mine. The government granted it to Entre Mares, a subsidiary of Canadian mining company Goldcorp, the world´s third-largest gold producer. But fears over mining contamination grew out in the people of mineral-rich municipalities of San Ignacio, Cedros and El Porvenir, in the Siria Valley in Francisco Morazán department.

According to the local environmental committee in Siria Valley, mining there has contaminated water used for domestic consumption and farming.

Roger Escober, the committee´s vice president, said that the open pits of Palo Alto and La Rosa — two gold mines — are spilling toxic waste water that has reached the mouths of villagers, but he says law enforcement officials “have done nothing.”

Following the June 2009 coup, “we have lost confidence in the Attorney General´s Office,” said Escober. “Even though it knows there are very sick children, it has not acted as its duty dictates.”

Villagers have not ruled out reaching out to international bodies in search for justice.

Controversial law
Honduras´ mining law was approved in 1999, following similar legislation in other Latin American countries.

Pedro Landa, an internationally-known activist for clean mining, said the law responded to pressure by the Inter-American Development Bank and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean for countries to instate laws that “cut taxes and reduce environmental controls to attract investment.”

In 2004, several civil society organizations drafted a reform to the law along with government agencies that set up a framework for mining activities that included environmental regulations and regulations that aimed to ensure the health and safety of the local population. The bill was never approved.

Another bill, by Civic Alliance for Democracy, or ACD, was presented to Congress two years later, restricting much more the mining companies´ operations, but it wasn´t approved either.

In 2007, however, the Supreme Court found 13 articles in the 1999 mining law unconstitutional, including the tax break and the scrapping of the environmental impact study for concessions.

Currently, the law is only partly in effect.

Last year, left-leaning lawmaker Marvin Ponce tried to present a new mining reform that would declare all minerals property of the Honduran state.

The proposal was rejected by business leaders.

“We are 100% against this bill,” said Adolfo Facussé, president of the National Industries Association, adding that Ponce´s project “wants to close off job opportunities to thousands of Hondurans who need work.”

No consensus
Following the June 2009 coup, Honduras remains brutally polarized, both politically and socially, limiting the chances of a law passing that fulfills all sectors´ agenda.

Some members of civil society, including Pedro Landa, of the Honduran Center for the Promotion of Community Development, say that ACD´s bill is too ambitious to receive approval.

“The perspective has been lost by seeking the blessing of the National Popular Resistance Front [organization emerged against the 2009 coup and which today brings together the opposition to the current government] for any kind of social struggle,” told Landa to Latinamerica Press. He says big business is too powerful for a bill that could slow the industry to pass, and polarization among the population is too great, to begin with, that it prevents effective articulation of civil society.
In the meantime, the villagers of Siria Valley wait for their case to be solved.

“We should send this message to the population: Our struggle does not end here [with the resolution of their case]; we want a new mining law,” said Escober.

An opinion of the Attorney General´s Office favorable to the residents of Siria Valley, to prevent Goldcorp close and go quietly from Honduras, forcing it instead to compensate those affected, would probably be a first step to prevent that Honduras, centuries after being a colonial mining outpost, put again its natural wealth in foreign hands.”
— Latinamerica Press.


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One-third of Honduran territory has been concessioned off for mining. (Photo: CEHPRODEC)
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