Honduras’ government has ordered an end to open pit mining as part of new President Xiomara Castro’s pledges to intervene “immediately” to conserve areas of “high ecological value” and to secure their benefit for the general Honduran population.
Castro is Honduras’ first female president.
In her election manifesto released September, 2021, Castro detailed 282 mining concessions handed out by previous governments through 2017, which she described as causing failed economic policies. Castro’s administration has assumed the task of reversing the pervasive corruption of former President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who is accused, among other malfeasance, of trafficking drugs to further his political career.
Castro has promised to pull the Central American nation “out of the abyss” caused by Hernandez.
Taking office on January 27, Castro announced that banning open pit mining was one of her priorities, along with fighting crime, poverty, and fraud. US Vice President Kamala Harris was among the foreign officials who attended Castro’s inauguration and who received a spontaneous round of applause from the gathered crowd.
The mining policy changes have sparked a wave of positivity among the public. Castro’s arrival marks the end to the 12-year reign of the right-wing National Party, which has been plagued by scandals and misconduct accusations.
Castro’s task is enormous. The extractive sector is a powerful influence in Honduras. The Social Forum on Foreign Debt and Development of Honduras outlines that mining concessions and reserves in Honduras cover 324,981 acres. Last year, Honduran mineral exports totaled $293 million, according to Central Bank data. The country mines gold, silver, copper, lead, and zinc.
The Ministry of Energy, Natural Resources, Environment, and Mines initially declared “the entire Honduran territory an area free of open-pit mining” and proclaimed it would proceed with “the revision, suspension, and cancellation of environmental licenses and concessions.”
Alongside denying permits, the ministry stated they would shut down already functioning open-pit mine sites. In 2020, roughly 130 of these mine sites resided on indigenous land, more than half of which comprise all mining concessions in Honduras.
Applause for the Ban on Open Pit Mining
Honduras has an extensive history of abuses with open pit mining sites. The Fosdeh NGO explained that mineral and hydrocarbon extraction and energy generation were “changing the geography” of Honduras.
Environmental and indigenous activists in Honduras have for decades been warning of the damage caused to nature and communities by large-scale mining. The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras welcomed the ban in line with “the principle of climate justice and the protection of natural resources, public health, and access to water as a human right.”
Environmentalists have been fighting against an iron oxide mine in Tocoa in northeast Honduras, which they explain is damaging a forest reserve. Tocoa environmental committee member Juan Lopez says the government’s announcement is “an encouragement” to communities that have been “pitted against the state and large companies because the government of Juan Orlando Hernandez was placed at the service of big companies.”
Eight people jailed in 2018 for protesting the Tocoa project were released just this year. Environmental lawyer Victor Fernandez said the community hopes the mining companies “will be brought to justice, that they will pay reparations to victims.”
Elsewhere in Central America, El Salvador was the first country in the world to ban metal mining, in 2018, while Costa Rica banned open pit mining in 2010.
The Problem with Open Pit Mining
Open pit mines target ore-rich soil from sprawling surface deposits. Explosives expose minerals and stones such as aluminum, bauxite, copper, gold, copper, and iron as well as non-metallic ores including coal, uranium, and phosphate. Canyon-like holes are formed and then are converted into pits; afterward, enormous machinery moves in and extracts solid and liquid waste, which is transferred to disposal sites nearby. Such mining is called a non-tunnel approach.
As much as 20,000 tons is mined in one day with this method.
The environmental impacts of open pit mining are overwhelming. Chemicals used in the mines, including sulfuric acid and ammonium nitrate, can end up in local waterways poisoning aquatic wildlife. Long after being shut down, these open pit mines can still continue to have adverse effects on the environment and population.
On October 16, 2007, Luis Vidal Ramos Reina, director of forensic medicine at the Criminal and Forensic Sciences Laboratory in Tegucigalpa, released a forensic report to the Honduran government on the analysis of blood and urine samples of 61 people in Valle de Siria, where the Goldcorp open pit mine was still operating. The analysis found high percentages of cyanide, mercury, lead, and arsenic. It also found an overwhelming high presence of lead in blood and urine samples; the concentration of lead exceeding the World Health Organization’s acceptable levels by about 10 milligrams.
After mining the mountain, Canadian mining company Goldcorp left sulfur banks deposits open, making it easy for sulfur to mix in with rivers used for drinking water when it rains. The former Goldcorp (now part of Newmont Mining Corporation, the world’s second-largest producer of gold) open pit mining site is just one of many sites that have severely affected local communities. Many are located in rural and indigenous communities and offer little to no contribution to the local economy.
Open Pit Mining Ban Will Not Apply to Existing Projects
Originally, the open pit mining ban was interpreted as a sweeping condemnation of all such Honduran enterprises — whether existing or future. “All Honduran territory is declared free of open-pit mining,” a statement from the Ministry for Mining and the Environment said. “The approval of extractive exploitation permits is canceled because they… threaten natural resources and public health and limit access to water as a human right,” it added.
That understanding has since been significantly modified, however.
More recently, the edict was modified so it will not apply to existing projects. Environment and mining Minister Lucky Medina walked back the idea during a recent press conference that Honduras would be entirely free from open pit mining. “The measure never had a retroactive effect to strip those who have already obtained their licenses, nor strip them of their previous (licenses),” Medina stated. “That’s an evidently judicial decision.”
Santos Gabino Carvajal of the National Association of Miners described the original announcement as “ambiguous” and potentially in violation of mining legislation. It “prohibits even the extraction of stone and sand for construction,” he said, adding the move would “kill the possibility of development.” Carvajal said that, if artisanal miners are included in the count, some 80,000 people would lose their jobs under the new measure.
A government statement issued before the minister’s remarks had outlined how the government “will supervise” some 28,000 hectares that have been granted in concessions for metallic and nonmetallic mining, but it did not mention permit cancellations. With pending mining concessions, the area earmarked for extraction could increase by 330% to cover more than 1,383,500 acres (560,000 hectares) or 5% of the national territory.
Open pit mining consumes enormous amounts of water, heavily pollutes water and air, disfigures landscapes, and permanently destroys habitat. Even after pits are exhausted and sites are rehabilitated, the pit area retains elevated risks of erosion and flooding.
Canadian company Aura Minerals’ San Andres open pit project in western Honduras will continue to operate as a result of the legislative turnabout. Its subsidiary, Minerales de Occidente Sociedad Anonima (MINOSA), has operated the San Andres mine since 2009; a gold vein extends to a cemetery where members of Maya Chorti ethnic groups are buried.
Residents have accused the miners of illegally exhuming bodies at the site and have blocked roads from the area on several occasions.