Friday, February 04, 2011

Water is worth more than gold.

Friday, February 4, I went to Mass in San Miguel, La Unión, Copán, with Monseñor Luis Alfonso Santos, bishop of Santa Rosa de Copán, together with a group of representatives of committees to defend the environment from the departments of Choluteca and Valle in south east Honduras.

This was not the first time I went with the bishop to the site of the San Andrés gold mine. The last time was a lot more tense – or, as they say here, caliente. Read my account of that visit here.

This time we passed through the company town of San Andrés Minas and went to a town that is in a most precarious place. We had a chance to pass by some of the processing plants and saw the leeching pools in the distance.

The San Andrés Mine, owned by the Canadian company Aura Minerales, is an open-pit gold mine. As I understand it, the company scrapes the earth with bulldozers and other heavy equipment. The company is seeking to expand the land that they can mine. That will affect the villages nearby. This will increase what looks to me like an eye sore.

To extract the gold ore from the rock Aura Minerales use a process called cyanide leeching. Yes, cyanide. Combined with water it is used to separate the gold from the crushed rock. There have been cases of cyanide releases under previous owners of the plant. There is continued concern about the release of heavy metals from the plant.

But, to make matters even more problematic the mining companies in Honduras have a sweat heart deal which includes unlimited use of water, some tax breaks, and only a small tax of 1% to the municipality. There may be some other taxes but this is nothing compared to the taxes that we pay in Honduras when buying something in a store or eat in a restaurant – 12.5%. Of course, we usually don’t see it since it’s a value-added-tax.

And so the mining companies do very well, while poverty exists in the region.

Just consider how well Aura Minerales hopes to do this year. Their third quarter 2010 report reads:
“The Company expects annualized production of between 85,000 and 90,000 ounces of gold in 2011 with cash costs at or below $500 per ounce due to the higher throughput and increased recoveries resulting from the improvements completed in 2009 and 2010.”
For your information, gold is now selling at $1349 per ounce. If we discount that by $500 per ounce for processing costs that means the company expects to get at least $72,165,000. Not bad!

The concerns the people have are many.

There are health concerns and so when the bishop said at Mass that life is worth more than gold, he was referring to concerns about heavy metals in the water and other health and environmental concerns. Of special concern is the proximity of the mining facilities to the communities. I have heard that the cyanide leeching pools are 100 meters from the school in San Miguel.

But there is also the concern that Honduras’ wealth is being exploited by international companies while the needs of the country go unheeded. Who owns the gold? Who is profiting from this?

And then there are the people who live here – and were born and raised here. They are being pressured to sell their land. The mining company has even approached the diocese to buy the church in San Miguel. About 320 families – 1500 people – live in Azacualpa. There are at least 15 families who live in houses that are about to cave in. Among some residents there may be some willingness to move but if they are not moved to a secure place, I was told, “we are not going to let the company expand.” (This is the community that spurred on the blocking of the road referred to in my September 2007 post.

Bishop Santos presided over the celebration with Father Iván, the parish priest from La Unión, and preached a strong homily.

People have the right to say yes or no to mining and hydroelectric projects. He warned about mayors who may have been bought off by the mining companies.

He talked about the new mining law that is being proposed by opposition groups, such as the ACD, la Alianza Cívica para la Democracia – the Civic Alliance for Democracy. Their proposed law has been handed personally to the president of the National Congress, Juan Orlando Hernández. Hernández has said that a new mining law should be approved in the first three months of this year, but it appears that this proposal from the grassroots will be ignored in place of a law that the mining companies will find more congenial. All this is related to a proposal of President Pepe Lobo to hold a meeting in early May on “Honduras abierto a la inversion – Honduras open to investments.” It's not that the bishop is opposed to investment; a serious question is whether the investment will ever reach the people in need to villages like San Miguel and Azacualpa.

And so Monseñor Santos and others, especially the Alianza Cívica, are continuing their efforts to stop open pit mining.

For Monseñor this commitment flows from his faith. Commenting on the first chapter of Genesis which was read at Mass, he noted that the earth was given to humans to “dominate.” (This needs another post on what “dominate” in Genesis means; that’s for another day.) But he asked, “What dominion do the people have here, with children full of worms and amoebas? We are dominated by the earth.

He also quoted the Honduran Bishops 2006 pastoral, paragraphs 64 and 65:
The municipal community and the national community ought to conserve, protect, and use rationally natural resources: land, water, forests and mines; since we have populations affected by the lack of water, the devastation of forests, and the poor use of the available land.

Mineral exploitation ought to leave most of the profit to Honduras and protect the ecological balance for the good of present and future generations. For this, it is necessary to reform the existing laws or replace them with others which are more just and adequate which above all take in consideration the common good and not the enrichment of a very few.
And so the struggle over mining may heat up – but, as the bishop mentioned, “When you want to, you can.” But act with prudence he added.

And so I continue to be proud of my bishop and I’m not the only person with that opinion. In the morning before we went to San Miguel the bishop met with the people from Choluteca and Valle, as well as with other folks. Pedro Pinto, who is on the governing board of the Alianza Cívica, told how the people in La Labor, Ocotepeque, managed to turn back a mining company, with the bishop’s help. As he said, “If Honduras had five bishops like Monseñor Santos, Honduras would be different.”


Addition on Sunday: Other photos of the mine and the Mass are in a set on my Flickr site.

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