Canadian mine disrupts Honduran lives

  • April 11, 2008

{mosimage}PALO RALO, Honduras - Nine years ago, Rodolfo Arteaga was sitting on a gold mine — literally. In fact, so was his village of Palo Ralo, in the central Siria Valley of Honduras.

But Arteaga said his and his family’s lives have not improved and he wishes he could turn back the clock.

Arteaga and his village were relocated about a kilometre away to allow the Canadian company GoldCorp to build the San Martin open-pit gold mine. He worries about the security of land tenure for the community of 25 families in their new location and about the long-term effects of mining operations on their health. He wonders if he and his children will ever be able to farm the land again.

“Far from contributing to development, mining has provided few jobs, damaged the environment and strengthened corruption,” said Pedro Landa, deputy director of Caritas Tegucigalpa, the local affiliate of the international Catholic umbrella group Caritas Internationalis.

Mandated by Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Landa has led the church’s struggle to reform Honduras’ 1998 Mining Law, which was promoted by the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean to draw foreign investment in the wake of Hurricane Mitch.

“The church is not seeking an end to mining,” Landa said. “But mining has to provide more benefits than just a handful of short-term jobs. It must contribute to development, rather than damage the environment and people’s health.”

Described by Rodriguez as a legal framework to freely give away Honduras’ natural resources, the law brought a gold rush — and the arrival of several mainly Canadian and U.S. mining companies to take advantage of the incentives it offers, such as tax breaks, use of unlimited quantities of water and exemption from government audits of accounts.

The social effects of mining operations by Canadian companies prompted Rodriguez to write an open letter to the Canadian government in 2006. The cardinal called on Canada to “adopt regulatory mechanisms that guarantee that these industries are made responsible for their actions and behaviour not only in the countries where they operate, but also in their countries of origin.” The cardinal did not receive a response.

In the Siria Valley, the mining operations of GoldCorp use more than 360 million litres of water annually, enough for 20,000 Hondurans’ personal use in a year, said Landa. Three years after the start of mining operations, 14 rivers and streams in the area had almost dried up, Landa said, causing agricultural production to decrease by 70 per cent in this area inhabited by 40,000 people. He said the lack of water has led to people suffering from skin problems, and, at times, parents have sent their children on a five- to eight-kilometre walk to find water instead of sending them to school.

In Arteaga’s relocated community of Palo Ralo, people discovered after four years of drinking from the well the company built in 2000 that arsenic levels in the water were higher than those defined as acceptable by the World Health Organization. After pressure from Caritas to further test for possible effects on people’s health, in 2006 a team of government health and environmental specialists gathered blood, urine and hair samples from the people living near the San Martin mine. Laboratory analysis in Colombia showed unacceptably high levels of arsenic, mercury and lead in residents’ organisms.

The Honduran Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment also found GoldCorp responsible for pollution from a 2005 cyanide spill. In 2007, it fined the company $53,000 but GoldCorp has refused to pay.

The company and several other mining companies were fined for exceeding levels of contaminants, said Tom Miller, vice president of Central and South American operations for GoldCorp.

Miller, former project manager of the San Martin mine, told Catholic News Service in late March that GoldCorp probably will pay the fine but plans to fight the damage that has been done to the company’s reputation. He called it “a textbook, wonderful project” and said “there has never been a cyanide spill at San Martin.” He said the company has tested thousands of samples of water since the mine opened in 1998, and “three samples exceeded what was allowable.”

When asked about the situation of Palo Ralo villagers, Miller told CNS, “They have twice as much land as they did before” and better land for farming.

Miller noted that most villagers do not protest the mines, although the company is a target of larger anti-mining advocacy groups with local supporters.

Last year was San Martin’s final year as an operating mine, and reclamation activities currently are taking place. The mine’s property is being given to the San Martin Foundation, which Miller called a community development, community assistance and sustainability project. GoldCorp subsidizes the foundation.

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.