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Mining law on the brink of overhaul
Carolina Rivera
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Supreme Court says no more to open air exploration.

In central Honduran towns like Cedros, San Antonio de Oriente and Santa Lucía, there are only scant traces of the Spanish conquest-era gold rush.

The narrow cobbled streets of these venerable ghost towns are nearby the closed mining pits, common in this area where there is nothing left to extract from the earth.

The pull mining companies had in those towns has declined with the exhaustion of the available resources. In the 1920s, mines dating back to when the Spanish arrived were closed after they were exhausted.

But mining was revived in the 1990s when large gold deposits were discovered in the Syria Valley, 70 kilometers (44 miles) from the capital, Tegucigalpa. Almost a decade later, after Honduras was devastated by Hurricane Mitch in October 1998, the General Mining law was established by decree, which authorized open-pit exploitation. The law took effect the next year.

Francisco Machado Leiva, president of the Honduran Association of Nongovernmental Organizations, known as ASONOG, says that few people paid attention to the new law, “since it was [passed] 20 days after the hurricane hit the population, and as a result, all the attention was on the tragedy affecting the majority of Hondurans.”

No benefits
For Machado, open-pit mining in Honduras has only brought on contamination, illness and the liquidation of forestland resources present in mineral-rich communities.

Civil society, environmental activists and a commission of small, opposition political parties reacted by promoting a new mining bill to replace this law. They began their efforts in 2004.

Last November, the Supreme Court declared 13 articles in the 1998 mining law unconstitutional, including tax breaks for mining companies and the fact that no environmental impact studies are required before activities begin.

The case was brought by Clarissa Vega, the former special environmental prosecutor, who was acting as a representative of an environmental defense group for the Gulf of Fonseca and the Association of Environmental Journalists.

“The mining companies were fulfilling these articles with a series of sinecures that they will no longer enjoy,” said Justice Carlos Armando Flores. “The law must be supported by the country’s current legislation, especially by the Constitution.”

The Supreme Court ruled that the National Congress must reform or repeal the current law, but they would have to annul the 13 unconstitutional articles.

According to the ruling, the law must obligate mining companies to provide environmental impact studies before a concession is given, and abolish the forced expropriation of lands for mining use. In no case can the concessions be transferred, divided or taxed.

But the fight is not over yet for the director of the Civic Alliance for Democracy, or ACD, Mons. Luis Alfonso Santos, the bishop of the western department of Santa Rosa de Copan, though lawmakers have promised to discuss reforming the law in 2007.

Santos told the 23 organizations that participated in a Feb. 10 protest demand honesty and transparency in the legislative debates, adding that ACD members are still going to watch the debate closely.
Meanwhile, health problems of the residents in the area continue to surface.

“We have gone to communities like El Porvenir and San Ignacio in the Syria Valley, and we found men and women with blotches on their skin, pregnant women with signs of having a miscarriage, and children with learning disabilities,” said Dep. Tomás Andino, a member of the congressional environmental commission. “This didn’t exist before the mine.”

Investigators have found high levels of contamination in the waters, and some doctors, such as Juan Almendares Bonilla, concluded that these illnesses plaguing many residents and their farm animals are related to contamination caused by the Entre Mares mine, a subsidiary of the Canadian company Glamis Gold, which began activities in Honduras 2000.

“The cause of the damage in these two communities stems from factors such as the residents’ proximity to the lixiviation batteries that release high concentrations of cyanide into the air. As a result, the residents living near the 1,325-hectare (3,330-acre) mining area suffer from skin infections, headaches, and now, they’re doing studies on the low academic performance of children living near the mine,” Machado said.

Not the first time
But Andino says this is not the first time this has happened. In January 2003, when a valve opened accidentally in the San Andres mine in Copan, some spilling some 400 gallons of cyanide in the Lara and Higuito rivers, killing hundreds of fish, and putting the health of dozens of communities in the area, including Santa Rosa de Copan, at risk.

Faced with indifferent government authorities, the Canadian-Honduran Occidental Minerals — now called Yamana Gold — was taken in 1993 to the Central American Water Tribunal, a Costa Rica-based civil society court. The body symbolically ordered operations to shut temporarily in March 2004 until it could be guaranteed that no water source was affected. The court also asked the Honduran government to reform its mining law (LP, April 21, 2004).

But accidents in mining sites are not the only elements causing problems.
The daily operational procedures of these mines present communities with grave risks. One example of that is the contamination of the Yojoa Lake, in northern Honduras. In 2001, the Center for Studies and Control of Contaminants confirmed that the Canadian company Breakwater Resources, Ltd, spilled lead, copper and cyanide into streams that emptied into the lake, contaminating the body, and the area’s food supply.


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