Gold Fever Strikes Again in Central America
By Thelma Mejía*
corporations are interested in developing more than 250 projects
in the region. The affected communities are mobilizing and demanding
their right to information.
TEGUCIGALPA - Untouched landscapes, attractive
concessions and weak environmental legislation are driving transnational
mining companies to seek new options for exploration and exploitation
of gold in Central America.
With the pretext of globalization and promoting investment, the
Central American governments offer mining concessions for 15 to
30 years, and taxes of one or two percent of the total extracted.
These relative advantages put the isthmus on the map as a major
destination for launching a second wave of "gold fever".
More than 20 untouched mining zones have been identified in Central
America, according to reports from the mining companies. The transnationals
most interested in investing in the region are mostly from Canada
and the United States, and hope to develop more than 250 projects.
But now the governments and the mining firms are coming up against
the resistance of the affected communities, who demand the right
Joining that effort are Catholic leaders, who have headed strong
protests and movements in Honduras and Guatemala about the environmental
and health consequences of mining operations.
In Honduras, the strongest movement is concentrated in the western
part of the country. Next come the residents of the central Valle
de Siria, where the Entremares mining company operates, with Canadian
capital, under heavy criticism for its open-pit exploitation technique
and under investigation for having caused -- according to charges
-- skin diseases among the inhabitants of the area.
According to the Honduran Environment Secretariat, more than 60
percent of the country's territory is suitable for mining. Currently,
the citizen organizations grouped in the Civic Alliance are pushing
for reforms of the 1998 mining law, but the changes are being held
up in Congress by pressure from the mining companies.
The opposition protests are growing not only in western and central
Honduras, but also in the south. According to Catholic priest Germán
Cálix, who leads the law reform effort, 31 percent of the territory
was given in concession to the mining companies, with 84 permits
granted and another 188 on a waiting list.
In Guatemala, the presence of the Marlin mining project, of the
Canada-based Gladis Gold Limited, in the western department of San
Marcos, Maya villages clashed with the authorities, resulting in
the death of one person in 2005.
Nele Deprez, of the Guatemalan organization Ceiba, told Tierramérica
that "the conflict and community indignation (about the Marlin project)
persist." Despite the local opposition, the government granted 266
licenses for exploration and 316 for exploitation.
In Guatemala, organizations like Ceiba and Madre Selva support the
struggle of indigenous peoples, where the mining companies have
their main operations. The residents argue that the firms arrived
without informing them and have violated international humanitarian
In a referendum held the last week of July, 29,266 residents rejected
open-pit mining in nearly 100 indigenous communities of the western
Guatemalan departments of Huehuetenango.
It should come as no surprise that the problems in Honduras and
Guatemala have El Salvador on edge as well. Although no mining exploitation
is going on there as such, "we want to prevent it, because we have
seen its effects in other countries like Honduras, Peru and Guatemala,"
David Pereira, of the Association for Economic and Social Development,
Andrés Mckinley, of the humanitarian group Oxfam International in
El Salvador, said there are 36 concessions for mining exploration
and one for exploitation that has not been activated.
That mining exploitation permit was granted to the Canada-based
Pacific Rim to operate in the San Francisco El Dorado canton of
the central Salvadoran department of Cabañas, according to Pereira
A month ago, El Salvador's Environment Minister Hugo Barrera stated
-- his personal opinion -- that mining for metals is not compatible
with the country's development. But he seems to have reversed himself:
on Jul. 23 he gave the green light for mining companies to "foment"
development in El Salvador.
Residents of Cabañas, where the only mine so far approved would
operate, are worried. They are well aware of the impacts of the
only mine that operated 50 years ago had on the community of El
At a meeting convened by the anti-corruption group Probidad (Probity),
Irene Mendoza, from the Los Llanitos village in Cabañas, said: "Soon,
we, too, will be left without any water."
In March, the Latin American Water Tribunal issued a moral sanction
against Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala for allowing mining
activities without first measuring environmental impacts and for
violating international agreements, particularly those protecting
the rights of indigenous peoples.
In Nicaragua, the Canadian company Desminic, which operates in the
coastal region of Chontales, was denounced for producing high levels
of contamination in the Mico River, according to the Humboldt Center,
which sued the firm when it was found that residents of the area
suffered skin diseases and loss of hair, and that there were genetic
malformations in cattle.
In Costa Rica there is a moratorium on open-pit mining. This year
Honduras followed suit as the result of pressure from civil society,
which in 2005 forced the closure of a mine in the country's southwest.
According to the World Rainforest Movement, Panama has also become
an attractive land for Canadian mining companies, with most of the
concessions granted in indigenous territory.
* Thelma Mejía is a Tierramérica contributor.
With reporting by Jorge Grochembake in Guatemala.