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CENTRAL AMERICA: Gold Fever Strikes Again

Thelma Mejía* - Tierramérica

TEGUCIGALPA, Aug 9 2006 (IPS) - 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 joining the globalised market and promoting investment, the Central American governments are offering 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 to information.

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 most powerful 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 organisations 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 organisation 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, groups 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 conventions.

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, told Tierramérica.

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 and Mckinley.

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 Divisadero.

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 Centre, 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.Originally published July 29 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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