The dirt road winds its way up into the mountains of Yoro, dropping down to cross the Locomapa River at several points along the way. It’s March, nearing the end of the dry season in this part of Honduras, and the pink blossoms of carao trees stand out against the dusty landscape of corn fields and coniferous forest. Near the river, in the community of San Francisco Campo, Celso Alberto Cabrera sits outside his simple wooden home. It is here that Indigenous Tolupan members of the San Francisco de Locomapa tribe maintained a 13-day road blockade in August 2013 to protest antimony mining in the tribe’s territory. And it is here that three Tolupan blockade participants were murdered on August 25. Cabrera’s 71-year-old mother, María Enriqueta Matute, was shot and killed in her kitchen. Armando Fúnez Medina and Ricardo Soto Fúnez were shot on the dirt patio outside the house, next to the road that runs through the middle of town.
“They died because they were involved with the resistance,” Cabrera said. The blockade ended with the murders and, that same day, Cabrera and seven other community leaders fled the region due to death threats. An arrest warrant issued for the two murder suspects hasn’t been carried out, but after the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered precautionary measures for 38 people from the region, Cabrera and six others returned to Locomapa in February.
In theory, tribal policies mandate that no resource extraction can take place in the tribe’s territory without the approval of the tribal assembly, in which a majority of the tribe’s 900- plus members must be present to make decisions. No such authorization has occurred. “If the communities say no to mining, then that must be respected,” said Ramón Matute, who spent six months in exile due to his leadership in the struggle against mining.
Extractive projects are moving forward at an ever-increasing pace across Honduras, as the government tries to stay afloat by putting natural resources on the auction block. A combination of militarization and the lack of proper consultation – let alone free, prior, and informed consent from local communities – is causing conflict and resistance in Indigenous territories.
“We’re up against powerful interests,” Bertha Cáceres, general coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, said of the struggles against extractive and energy projects throughout the country. It’s not only mining that worries her, but also hydroelectric dam construction, logging, and oil exploration. “Our concern is that all of the territories could end up in the hands of transnational corporations,” she said.
In the five years since the June 2009 coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya, the Honduran government has issued an unprecedented number of natural resource concessions. National and international energy corporations now hold rights to dozens of rivers, including waterways on which Indigenous Tolupan, Lenca, and Garifuna communities depend. In March, British multinational BG Group began offshore oil and gas exploration in a 13,500-square-mile area off the coast of the remote Moskitia region, and Chevron has expressed interest in the area. Mining activities are expanding, and mining interests are exploring the mineral potential of 950 sites throughout the country.
Honduras is a signatory to the International Labour Organization Convention No. 169 on the rights of Indigenous and tribal peoples, as well as a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Yet the government’s obligations under these international agreements have not been adopted into national legislation. At the same time, legislative initiatives such as the 2011 Investment Promotion and Protection Law have strengthened the legal protections for private investment.
“Never before in all the history of Honduras has there been a greater push by the state to guarantee foreign investment,” said Miriam Miranda, general coordinator of OFRANEH, a federation representing the 46 Afro-Indigenous Garifuna communities spread out along the Caribbean coast. The Honduran government is increasingly focused on natural resource exploitation, and particularly mining, as a solution to its crippling debt. “The greater the economic crisis of the state, the greater the crisis for Indigenous peoples as well because the resources in our territories are placed at much greater risk,” Miranda said.
A new General Mining Law, passed in January 2013, opened the floodgates for mining around the country. The law put an end to a moratorium on mining concessions in place since 2006. Less than a week before the National Congress ratified regulations defining how the new mining law would be enacted, the Honduran government announced that 280 new mining concessions were in the works.
North American and European companies are currently operating four large-scale metallic mines in Honduras that produce gold, silver, zinc, lead, and iron. The extraction of iron oxide for export to China is expanding at a rapid pace, and new metallic and non-metallic mining plans are underway. The environmental and social impacts from the now closed San Martin gold mine in the Siria Valley, less than 100 miles from Locomapa, have been the center of mining resistance. “We’ve heard and seen that mining in the Siria Valley left behind destruction, left behind illnesses,” Ramón Matute said. Siria Valley residents have carefully documented and shared with communities throughout Central America their experience with community displacement, contamination and depletion of water sources, and health problems in the region affected by Goldcorp’s open pit mine.
Tolupan activists don’t have to look far for positive inspiration, either. Fifty miles west of Locomapa, thousands of residents of the municipality of El Negrito took to the streets on March 28 to protest gold and coal mining concessions. During a packed town hall meeting, municipal authorities backed the communities’ decision to ban all mining in the municipality. More often, however, the official response to community struggles for their lands and resources is militarization, criminalization, and repression. For example, when residents in Santa Barbara in western Honduras took to the streets on March 24 to protest mining, the Honduran government sent in the military police to evict their road blockade. Under the 2013 mining law, a percentage of mining royalties are paid directly into a security fund that finances the military police and other recently created security forces.
In Tolupan territory the resistance movement continues despite the 2013 murders and ongoing threats. Since Matute and other community leaders returned home to Locomapa and reunited with those who stayed behind, they have been busy organizing. “We didn’t come here to stay hidden in our houses. We came back to continue the struggle,” said Matute, secretary of the grassroots tribal Preventative Council, which was organized in the 1990s to defend natural resources from unrestrained exploitation.
José María Pineda hasn’t returned to Locomapa since August 2013. One of the most visible community leaders speaking out against resource extraction in Tolupan territory, Pineda has been the main target of death threats. But his time away from home hasn’t been wasted. He has traveled as far as Washington, DC to denounce human rights violations to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. For Pineda, the issue comes down to consultation and consent. “So long as that doesn’t happen, we’re right to oppose the continuing extraction of the riches of our Indigenous tribes in the municipality of Yoro,” he told Earth Island Journal in an interview in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital.
Back in Locomapa, the sweet aroma of ocote pine lingers in the air as the sun begins its descent behind the mountains. Sitting outside the house where his mother was killed, Celso Alberto Cabrera plays with his granddaughter. “My mother died defending a right, and we have to do the same because we’re thinking of the children who will be around after we’re gone,” he said.
Cabrera takes comfort in the fact that communities throughout Honduras are speaking out against destructive mining practices. “We feel it gives us great strength because we know that it’s not just us, that there are other organizations that are fighting this same battle,” he said. “We know that if at a certain point all of us in this struggle shout together, we will be heard.”
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