Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Eye of the Storm

Yes, Hurricane Felix – the “happy” hurricane – is passing by Honduras, but yesterday, September 3, I was in the middle of a quite different storm.

Monseñor invited me to join him on a visit to San Andrés Las Minas Monday afternoon. We went with two members of the regional Human Rights Office and several others. A group of people had taken over the road there and were preventing mining vehicles from passing. The local police had received calls to remove them but didn’t want to remove them since there were women and children. So the bishop and the Human Rights office went to see what they could do.

As we left the main highway I noticed the shacks along the side of the road. This was the poorest area that I had seen - shacks of mud and bamboo. I was moved by the intense poverty - as we were going toward a gold mine!

When we got to San Andrés Las Minas there were probably about 40 people - mostly women and children - standing in a narrow road with a rope across the road with a Honduran flag and a hand-lettered sign. The bishop spoke with them but soon after he and three others went with the leaders for a private discussion to find out what their concerns were there. I stayed at the blocked road, observed, and spoke with the people.

I found out that there was also another group of people from a community closer to the mines – Azaqualpa – whose lands would be taken with the mine expansion., They were also blockading the road further up the road, closer to the mine, demanding that they be moved and get compensation for the move.

What amazed me at the blockade was that every car was allowed through, including one that almost surely was driven by someone from the mining company. They even let the security guards through, though the guards got off their truck and walked through the blockade. But across the valley there was another group of people, some of them employees from the mine but also people who had been brought in from other places; there were also people from Yamana Gold, the mining company, with them. Whereas the opponents of the mine were firm but respectful, the others were being revved up to a fury, probably by the company leaders. Whenever someone they thought was on their side came past them they screamed.

The people protesting the mining company had taken the road for a number of reasons. Most had been moved from their homes to the present town when the mine was established nine years ago. The mining company is planning to extend the mine to within 700 meters of the town. Some folks believed the company had not followed up on its promises when they were relocated in 1998; they wanted to be given land and homes in another place. Others were concerned about what the mine expansion would do to the local environment. There were even some who wanted the mine closed. They had a few demands but the company and the mayor had not negotiated with them.

After almost three hours, the bishop and the others returned. But to get back to Santa Rosa we had to pass the crowd who supported the mining company. Thanks be to God the police had passed by the blockade and had stopped by the pro-mining crowd.

As our van approached with the Human Rights office director driving and the bishop in the front seat, the people crowded around the van and began banging on it, preventing us from going forward.

The crowd was ugly, obviously whipped into a fury. At one point they opened the back door of the van and began shouting and hitting the floor. It was a very tense moment but I took a picture. Looking at it later many of the people didn’t appear to be angry, but appeared as if they were just “having fun” by trying to terrify us. This was my first experience of a real mob and it was ugly. The police intervened and closed the door. The police slowly opened up a path for us, even while the mob banged on the windows. But as we slowly progressed, we noticed several people walking beside the van. The people from the blockade were walking beside the van. They had come to protect their bishop. What courage!

As we left the bishop said that he had thought of getting out of the car. Thank God he didn’t; he would probably have been beaten, at the very least.

I was a little shaken up – but more than that I have a sense of gratitude for having had the chance to accompany the bishop, the human rights office, and the people.

When you touch an electric wire, your get a shock. Obviously the bishop has touched a live wire, speaking out so forcefully about the mines. And the mining companies have responded in some very underhanded ways; this was one of the most blatant.

Yet the bishop continues to speak out!

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