Wednesday, February 23, 2011


In an article by a person I do not know who is volunteering for a time in Santa Rosa he writes, “I am not sure who is to blame for this unfairness nor am I sure that it matters. Every minute spent pointing the finger of blame is a minute not extending a hand to help.”

From the article I can see that he is concerned about the situation, but his vision is limited by North American individualism, an overemphasis on works of charity, and as well as by the approach of thinking we North Americans have the solution.

Some might called this approach apolitical but it is highly political because it accepts the situation of sin and only tries to alleviate the symptoms. It reflects what I consider a type of blindness.

The situation in Honduras is sinful.

About 66.2 percent of the population lives in poverty – 21 percent in relative poverty and 45.2 percent in extreme poverty.

Eight out of ten campesino [small country farmer] families own no land or less than ten acres of land, mostly on hill sides. In contrast, 1% of agricultural producers own a third of the cultivable land, mostly in valleys.

Only about 33% of the children go past sixth grade.

Yet there are major concessions offered to businesses. The mining industry only pays about 1% in taxes. They and the owners of franchises like McDonald’s and Wendy’s receive major tax breaks and business incentives.

There is blame because there is injustice. One does not waste time by pointing out injustices if one is also seeking to transform the unjust situation. In fact, to ignore the injustice and just help individuals might ensure the continuation of the injustice.

I believe one must be involved in support of structural transformation as well direct contact with the poor, assisting them in need. Thus while I volunteer with Caritas of the diocese of Santa Rosa and support its efforts at transformation through its political formation programs that empower people, I also help a bit at the lunch program for kids in Santa Rosa founded by the bishop.

Giving isn’t enough; empowering people isn’t enough; working for structural changes alone isn’t enough. It’s a question of transformation – from the personal level to the structural level. It’s a question of love – personal and social – translated into deeds and structures.

Some years ago, the recently deceased retired bishop of Chiapas, Mexico, Samuel Ruíz explained it well.
It’s a very well known saying that if someone offers you a fish, you don’t take it. You ask him to teach you how to fish.

So, Pedro learns how to fish. He goes to the store and he says, “I want to buy a net and I want to buy a hook,” And the owner of the store says, “Uh, what’s going on here, Pedro? You learned how to fish?”

He says, “Yeah, I learned how to fish.” Then the owner says to him, “OK, but what you didn’t know is you have to sell me a portion of your fish.” And Pedro says, “OK,” and he goes out and starts fishing.

He’s on the edge of the lake and soon he feels somebody tapping on his shoulder and somebody is standing there, telling him, “What’s going on here? You can’t be fishing here. This is private land.” And so they push him off.

Pedro has been given a skill, but that’s not enough. You can work on the “development” of the individual person, but the other half of that is working on the structural injustices.

The only question at the end of our lives is about entering the Reign of God: the reign prepared for those who visited the least of their sisters and brothers in jail and who fed them when they were hungry, the reign which those who reject the poor will not enter.

So the ultimate question is not a question of orthodoxy [right belief] but of orthopraxy [right practice]. The final question is not was I right or wrong but did I love my sisters and brothers or not. Whether I was loving my brothers or sisters or not — that is the only question.

(The quote from Bishop Ruíz was taken from the Catholic Peace Ministry Newsletter, June 2000)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Small steps

The last two days have been significant for me in small ways.

Franciscans -

Today, Saturday, a young Honduran woman took temporary vows as a member of the Franciscans Sisters of [Mary] Immaculate, the sisters who live down the street from me. The profession was during a Mass at the church of San Martín up the hill from where I live.

The sisters’ congregation was established in Spain and works with the poor, including with lepers in India. Here the sisters – three Spaniards and one from India – work with a variety of people in various places, from rural villages seeking electricity to the local prison where they helped start a carpentry shop, to a project for mentally and physically handicapped children that’s just starting.

Here in Santa Rosa they also house twelve girls from the countryside who are going to school here. Without this help most of these girls would probably never have the chance to get a good middle school and high school education. Lilian who made her first vows today was one of these girls.

The sisters have welcomed me here and helped me find a place to live on this street. I feel almost as if they have “adopted” me. They have made me feel at home and I feel comfortable dropping by every once in a while – and they also want to give me something to eat when I drop by. Typical hospitality.

Sister Nancy, a Dubuque Franciscan sister serving in Gracias, was also at the profession. We had spoken a bit before the Mass – always a blessing – about a number of concerns in the country as well as about our lives. Nancy is responsible for me being here in Honduras, introducing me to the bishop and inspiring me with her commitment and she has been a great friend and support here. Another sister, Brenda, is also in Gracias and they have a young Honduran postulant living with them. It's always a joy to spend some time with them - talking, playing dominoes, and eating some of the good food and desserts (especially chocolate treats).

It's a blessing to have them near.Another blessing is that I am in the process of becoming an associate of their congregation – returning to my Franciscan roots.

A pilot project

Friday I had gone to Dulce Nombre for the Parish Council meeting. About thirty people were there. I had a short time at the end of the meeting to get their input on a process we’re hoping to start up.

Though I’ll continue my work with the diocesan Caritas office and my helping in training of pastoral workers in the parish of Dulce Nombre, I’ll be working with two or three of the poorest villages of the parish. I had been thinking of this and Padre Efraín had also been thinking of something in the same vein.

The idea is to work with the villages in an integral way – from strengthening base communities and religious education to eventually projects to improve the lives of the people in the villages. We’ll go in with no money and no preconceived ideas of what projects to do. It's a long term process.

My hope is that the people will deepen their sense of community and commitment and work together to decide what they will do.

Where will we work?

Padre Efraín had an idea of which villages to choose, but I insisted that we should have the parish council choose. Last month I asked the parish council members to go back to their zones and decide which villages to suggest for the project.

The councils of the three zones made some suggestions which were shared at the parish council meeting yesterday. Then I had them break into small groups and prioritize the list of communities.

I’m not sure they all understood what I was asking them to do but the process worked out well. I was surprised at the result. It seemed clear that two villages that are close to each other – but quite far from the parish center – were their choice. I had expected another village to be chosen since it is extremely poor, but their decision was for these two villages. It's a hard decision since almost all the villages are very poor, but they made it.

After checking this choice with Padre Efraín, I’ll start by going out and meeting folks.

This is for me exciting, though a little daunting. I don’t know exactly what I’m doing, though I do have an idea about the way I’d like to approach this.

But going in without money may actually be quite liberating. We, the people in the villages and I, need to recognize the gifts we have and the successes that the people have already accomplished, and go from there – dreaming of a better village and trying to make that dream real.

So, I’m embarking on a new adventure, something I really look forward to since I love working with the people in the countryside, people with great faith and resilience.

For me this is another way to return to the vision that inspired me to come here – to be of service to those most in need. Now I hope to accompany these villages – in deepening our faith in God and in the service of building a just society.

Pray that we may do this well.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A town traumatized

I’ve been in a meeting all week with representatives of six diocesan Caritas offices who work on participation and governability projects financed by Caritas Norway.

But Thursday morning was different. I had tried several times to reach Padre Efraín Romero, whom I work with in Caritas Santa Rosa and in the parish of Dulce Nombre. Finally he initiated a chat with me on Facebook, but with some bad news.

He was in Dulce Nombre and about to go to the town of Dolores for a funeral of Francisco, a twenty-year old young man who had been shot and killed. He also told me that Mauro, a young man who works with a parish agriculture project, had also been shot.

I decided to go the funeral. I’m glad I went. It is important to accompany the people in times of grief.

When I arrived Padre Efraín had not arrived and they had not yet moved the body to the church. So I went to visit with Mauro. He and Francisco had been traveling at about 6 am 11 am on Wednesday on a motorcycle on the road to from the village of Candelaria. All of a sudden two masked men came out and shot them. A bullet passed through Mauro’s lower left arm, missing the bone. He seems to have fallen off the motorcycle and is badly scraped all over his body. The driver got three bullets in the chest; finally losing control of the motorcycle, they hit a pole and were thrown over a barbed wire fence. But Mauro was not killed as was his companion and friend, but suffered multiple scrapes and cuts on his body. And the killers did not rob anything!

ADDITION: Francisco worked for a cellphone company and was returning from San Agustin. He probably had a significant amount of cash from the sales of cards but the assailants did not rob him. People from the outskirts of Candelaria who had heard the shots came. Police later came and Mauro was taken to the hospital, treated, and released.

After visiting with Mauro, I went outside the church and waited while the casket arrived. Many people were in tears as they carried the bodies into the church. The church was filled with people from Dolores and other nearby villages. There were quite a few young people.

Salvador, one of the pastoral workers in Dolores, welcomed people and remarked that the Mass is in one sense an act of solidarity with the grieving family.

Padre Efraín’s homily covered a wide variety of concerns. Not only did he seek to comfort the family and friends, he called on those gather in the church – and the authorities – to really respect life, noting the increasing number of violent deaths, especially of young people. He noted the ungovernability of the country and the failure of the government to protect the people. People here do not have much expectation that the police will investigate the crime and arrest anyone. Nevertheless, Padre Efraín called for justice but he also warned against vengeance – which is the cause of so much violence. We must replace the lex talionis – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – with the law of love.

I stayed around a little after Mass but didn’t go to the cemetery. One young man I spoke with expressed his grief at the loss of such a young man.

I have read and heard of the increasing violence in Honduras. (In the list of cities with the highest percentages of violent deaths, San Pedro Sula, Honduras, is number three and the capital, Tegucigalpa, is number six.) I had seen the coffin of the delegate of the Word who had been killed in November. But this violence touched me more – especially since I know and have worked with Mauro.

Violence is all around, but it touches the poor much more.

As I listened to Mauro's relatives, I sensed some resignation, a sense that the country is being victimized by violence. But my hope is that these people will find ways out.

So, I returned to Santa Rosa, to the meeting of people working on empowering people to take responsability for the present and future of the country. But we are meeting in a simple guest house, with plenty of food, insulated to a degree from the pain. Many of the people involved in this project do work directly with the poor and marginalized, but it's not easy to remember them when people are talking objectives, budgets, and plans of action.

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.