Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 362 | Septiembre 2011



What the “gold fever” has left us

For eight years the Entre Mares mining company devastated the forest, contaminated the waters, changed the climate and ruined the health and even the lives of thousands of citizens in the Siria Valley. Despite this well-known, documented and condemned disaster, the Honduran government has awarded various mining companies a third of the country’s land, granting them 157 exploration licenses. Who’ll stop this monster?

Alicia Reyes

They cut the tree / they killed it five gentlemen took it awayleaving the soil bare my green country is a desert...

This song by Honduras’ Guillermo Anderson describes the immense damage strip mining is causing in the Siria Valley. The peaceful life in the tile-roofed, mud-walled houses surrounded by green mountains, beautiful pastures and big fruit and lumber-bearing trees has been lost little by little over the eight years of “Entre Mares” mining company’s exploitation of Siria Valley in the northern department of Francisco Morazán. Foreign investors who learned there was gold in our country have been coming to Honduras since 1995, pushed by the recent gold fever and supported by the General Law of Mining passed in 1999. A year after first arriving, they settled in the municipality of San Ignacio.

Through trickery and false promises the company Entre Mares de Honduras, which first belonged to the Canadian transnational Glamis Gold and then to Goldcorp, was ceded ten years of mining rights with an option to renew. It started strip mining in 2000, changing the lives of more than 40,000 people, who are suffering today from the direct and indirect consequences of this highly profitable business.

“They told us we’d be better off”

Rodolfo Arteaga, treasurer of Siria Valley’s Environmental Committee, remembers that the company’s executives convinced the residents that everything would change and they would no longer be poor because their land lay over a gold deposit.

“They told us we were going to be better off and healthy and the environment wouldn’t suffer. It was all a lie: they took our woods, trees, and the drinking water for humans and animals. We lost our health, we’re surrounded by lands owned by the company and we’re isolated because they didn’t leave us enough land.”

Ana Julia Vaca, a Siria Valley resident, recalls how in the beginning they promised notebooks, pencils and erasers and told them they would build bridges, parks, houses, schools, health centers and hospitals. As time passed, all that was forgotten. They’ve only received crumbs, tainted with the pain and blood from the mining companies’ great banquet of profits.

“They leveled our community”

Making use of the fact that the mining law entitles the Honduran government and the investors to utilize the subsoil wherever the mine is found, the mining company expropriated from the inhabitants the community of Palos Ralos, in existence for more than a hundred years. Today they remember it as the moment they were torn from their roots.

“The first right they violated was that this mine leveled our community,” says environmentalist Arteaga. “I’ll never forget that experience—how I suffered watching them destroy the community of my great-grandparents, my grandparents and my parents. I myself had lived here 38 years.” He recalled how they were thrown out by force. Some became sick from worry. “The worst part was they left us near the mine so we had to endure the consequences and watch the disaster,” says Arteaga.

Digna Ferrera, another resident of the area, recalls that the children had to change school, which led to adjustment and insecurity problems.

The mining company divided the valley’s communities into those in favor of the mine, who received gifts from the mining company, and those against it, who received nothing. The Siria Valley Regional Environmental Committee was born from among those who opposed the companies, and they still get threats.

“They cut down 7,000 trees”

In addition to building the mining complex, the company opened ditches and roads. To open the leaching pool for washing the gold with great quantities of water and cyanide, Arteaga recounts sadly“they cut down 7,000 mahogany, cedar, guanacaste, yew and pine trees, then took them to the dump.”

For eight years Entre Mares carted off gold at the expense of violating the human rights of thousands of families, deforesting, digging the earth and blasting with dynamite that made nearby communities shake all day. It also did away with the fertile topsoil, as large tunnels were opened to check at what depth they would find gold. They excavated from 160 to 200 meters down to take their first samples.

Everything was contaminated

Today the land and the pasture near where the mine is located are also contaminated. So are the cattle, their meat and milk, and the cheese, butter and curds made from that milk.

Juan Almendárez, a doctor who has known the Siria Valley population’s health problems for the past eight years, recounts the illnesses caused by the waters and soil contaminated with heavy metals like lead and arsenic: skin ailments, nervous disorders, low growth rates in children, vision problems, respiratory illnesses, leukemia, anemia.....

It was a foretold death. The mine’s devastating results showed up early. First was climate change. Very suddenly the freshness experienced by the communities around the mine—in the municipalities of Cedros, El Porvenir and San Ignacio—began turning into intense heat.

“Where did our
crystal clear water go?”

The contamination caused by the cyanide, mercury and hydrochloric acid got to the water sources, especially the streams. The water level dropped and the little water still running showed high contamination levels. “We wondered what was happening,” recalls Manuel Guillermo Velasquez of El Pedernal. “Where did our crystal clear water go?”

Rodolfo Arteaga explains that the communities are now left with practically no water. There’s a water shortage in the summer and in the winter, with the rains, there’s pollution and runoff from acid drainage from the areas operated by the mine, where already the water is sulfured and filled with acidic metals.

Arteaga is sure there’s contamination in the Casitas, Gujiniquil and Aguas Tibias streams, which are the tributaries of Playa River and run through San Ignacio, El Porvenir and Cedros until reaching El Cajón reservoir. It has yet to be investigated but it’s serious if the contamination is already reaching the reservoir because the dam at El Cajón is the country’s most important hydroelectric plant.

The documentation of the Environmental Committee corroborates tests in different wells fed by the streams of the Playa River. They’ve found a great concentration of heavy metals including cyanide, mercury, lead and others. The Honduran authorities haven’t acted or even established any sanctions against the mine owners.

The people have held marches, filed charges nationally and internationally and presented demands and appeals for restraining orders. But nothing has been able to stop the monster that mining investment has become. The Honduran government has awarded a third of the country by registering 157 exploitation permits.

The worst part is what’s
happened to the women

Besides not directly benefiting through jobs in the mine, which are only for men, the women have suffered the worst part of this whole drama. Since the macho culture makes women solely responsible for the family and household chores, they have to go to the streams almost every day with their children to bathe, wash clothes and gather water, since often there’s so little water it doesn’t make it to the pipes. This is why the Environmental Committee’s secretary, Olga Velasquez, thinks the women and children have been affected the most by the contaminated water running through the streams.

Francis Johana Estrada, mother of a son who’s sick due to the contamination, told me that sometimes the water comes out brown, other times it’s orange or red with a strong smell of cyanide. In the streams, she tells me, all the women are talking about the problems the mine has brought them and they’re afraid. Many women and children are losing their hair and have marks and sores on their skin. “But we have no other choice; we need water for our household chores.”

The women are also responsible for taking relatives to the hospital or health center, so they’re the ones who are discovering the problems and are the most worried. They’re also the ones who have to find alternative ways to buy medicines or travel to other cities in search of specialists to take care of the illnesses they’re all suffering. They make and sell bread, tortillas and other food, do sewing and take in washing just to make a little more money.

“For eight years I burned
the cyanide containers”

With the dream of getting out of poverty and attracted by the wages paid by the mine, which are higher than those offered for other manual labor in Siria Valley, many men stood in long lines to get work. The mine ended up with 400 employees.

Angel Torres Sarmientos, who is 68, worked for eight years in the Entre Mares mine. Today he tells us with tears in his eyes how the cyanide robbed his health. He has leukemia and not much more time to live. “I burned the plastic, cardboard and wood containers that held the cyanide. I worked with no protection. They didn’t give me gloves or a mask or a uniform against the chemicals. I just burned this stuff any way I could.”

He describes the place he worked as one of the worst. He calls it “the oven”—a brick chimney only four cubic meters in size. “I burned this material for eight years, every other day. Sometimes I did it all day long since the other workers refused to do it. They threatened to fire me so I had no choice.”

At the beginning, neither Angel nor anyone else knew that the black, bad-smelling smoke was going to harm them. Then an engineer from another mine in San Andrés came and warned them. Angel already had symptoms of his disease—pain in the soles of his feet, cramps throughout his body, eye problems and an affected liver. In Tegucigalpa the doctors told him he shouldn’t continue this work. But he needed work and the mine’s human resource manager, Carolina Rodríquez, explained she could do nothing to change his work so he would have to continue.

“They never told us we were sick”

Francisco Hernández worked six years in the mine’s grinding department. He opened and closed the valves that contained the cyanide and water that separate gold from stone. Then he washed the residue in the agglomeration machines, where the cyanide smell was often unbearable. “I remember that smell was so strong and the heat so terrible that we took off our masks. Then the smell would get into our stomachs until we vomited,” explains 65-year-old Hernández, who has open sores all over his feet.

Carlos Silva, who worked six years in the mine laboratory, ended up with serious spinal problems due to the heavy work he had to do. He told me that when they were sick they were sent to social security or private clinics in Tegucigalpa but the results of the tests were sent directly to the owners who would then tell them they were fine and had no health problems. Afterward these files would disappear. “They would blatantly laugh at us,” Silva remembers, “tell us we had nothing and should get back to work.”

After they were let go, the majority went for X-rays, examinations and all types of tests with the severance benefits they received. They found out they were indeed sick. “At the mine they hid our papers and never told us we were sick, which violates one of the agreements signed with the union: that before being laid off they have to give us medical reports showing we’re in good health.”

For right now, 33 workers who are sick have joined together to file a joint suit with the Special Human Rights Prosecutor against the Honduran Social Security Institute for violating their human rights—specifically their right to health. The people in the affected communities aren’t taking this passively. They’re also threatening a lawsuit for the large concentration of lead, arsenic and cyanide in the blood and urine of more than 62 people, which showed up in tests done in Colombian laboratories. They have been given these results belatedly.

They closed the mine and
aren’t showing their faces

After closing the mine operations, the owners have turned a blind eye to the contamination and repeated human rights violations. While they maintain that the operations were closed completely successfully, the Public Ministry’s Environmental Attorney, Reyna Pineda, stated that even if the business has ended its extraction phase, it still hasn’t provided the closure plan that must include plans to mitigate the impacts caused by the mining. There’s been no clarification, however, if sanctions will be applied if the business doesn’t comply.

Dr. Juan Almendárez even questions the success the owners talk about since the company never took into account the workers’ health, the environmental destruction or the great harm done to communities now faced with the terrible consequences of acid drainage that could last between 50 and 100 years.

We tried to get the version of several mine executives, but were stonewalled. They’ve now created what they’ve called the San Martín Foundation in the shadow of the explosions, deforestation and contamination they left behind. This foundation has built a luxury hotel with full accommodations to lodge mainly foreigners who can pay the high rates. They offer tours to the hotel guests but hide the devastation resulting from the eight years of “gold fever.”

The only hope that this not be forgotten is for people to organize and make the earth tremble, not with dynamite but by writing their story. In this new story it’s essential to get a new mining law that backs real development without harming either the people or the environment. Is a different kind of mining possible in “that other possible world”?

Alicia Reyes is an independent journalist

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