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  Sierra Magazine
  September/October 2007
Table of Contents
Bulldozers and Blasphemy
Hawaii's Next Top Models
Bio-Hope, Bio-Hype
From Pumpkin Seed to Piehole
Completing Colin Fletcher
Eyes in the Sky and on Your Desktop
Ways & Means
One Small Step
Lay of the Land
Good Going
The Green Life
Hey Mr. Green
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Sierra Magazine
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Bulldozers and Blasphemy
In Latin America, Catholics are standing up to those who covet their gold and timber
By Marilyn Berlin Snell
September/October 2007

(page 2 of 3)

Church and community groups call this idyllic scene illusory, pointing to studies that found high levels of heavy metals in the soil and water near the San Martin mine. They say the company is depleting the water table, drying up wells, and forcing a once productive farming region with a population of 50,000 to import food. Chávez calls the studies bad science and opposition to mining bad economics. The mine, he notes, employs 224 people, most from this area, who spend their paychecks locally.


Population: 13 million
Size: 42,000 square miles (slightly smaller than Tennessee)
GDP per capita: $5,000
Citizens living below the poverty line: 56% (2004 est.)
Forested area as of 2005: 9.6 million acres
Forest lost between 1990 and 2005: 2 million acres
Marlin mine revenue, first quarter 2007: $41.6 million

Population: 7.5 million
Size: 43,200 square miles (slightly larger than Tennessee)
GDP per capita: $3,100
Citizens living below the poverty line: 53% (1993 est.)
Forested area as of 2005: 11.3 million acres
Forest lost between 1990 and 2005: 6.6 million acres
San Martin mine revenue, first quarter 2007: $7.5 million

Opponents argue that a few hundred jobs are insignificant. The only serious improvements to the area's standard of living, they say, owe to remittances sent back by entrepreneurial Hondurans who have ventured to the United States. Though unpopular, the Goldcorp operation appears to be relatively well run. Others aren't. A 2003 cyanide spill at the San Andrés mine, for example, poisoned a nearby river, killing 18,000 fish and contaminating the water supply as far away as the region's largest city, Santa Rosa de Copán, 11 miles downstream as the crow flies. The company paid a fine critics call nominal.

THE PROBLEMS NOW RUINING VILLAGES throughout Honduras were set in motion in 1998. Hurricane Mitch killed more than 5,000 Hondurans, left hundreds of thousands homeless, and destroyed almost three-quarters of the nation's crops. While villagers were still digging bodies from the mud, the Honduran Congress, desperate for foreign investment, passed a mining law so generous, opponents say, it seemed written by the transnational mining operations' lawyers. (One Honduran lawmaker assured me it was.) The law requires only a one percent tax on mines' profits and allows companies to seize homes and move inhabitants. Environmental regulations are exceedingly lax.

After his city's water was contaminated, Bishop Luis Santos of Santa Rosa de Copán decided to take a stand against the law. Wearing his clerical collar and a black jacket, a massive silver cross hanging around his neck, Santos does not convey warmth when he speaks about mining. I also get the sense that he doesn't care much for North Americans. "Our country is small and very mountainous," the bishop tells me. "The water sources are in the mountains, and that's where the mines are--more than 300 concessions.

"Honduras," he says, "is losing its riches to foreigners. We want development, but a humane, sustainable development. The church must be a force for change in these matters."

With a few nudges from Santos, last year the 39 parish priests of his diocese urged their flocks into the streets. Ten thousand parishioners, trade unionists, environmental activists, and campesinos blocked the Pan-American Highway for more than 12 hours, demanding that the Honduran Congress abolish the mining law. The protestors left the streets only after Honduras's president, Manuel Zelaya, agreed to meet with Santos and his alliance.

While Santos remains adamant that the law be wiped off the books, others believe it can be reformed. The Catholic relief and development organization Caritas and Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga--the powerful archbishop of Tegucigalpa who was once rumored to be a papal contender--have joined with Honduran politicians to propose changes. Among other things, they would increase taxes, improve environmental monitoring, and give communities more say over whether a company can mine.

Last year the Honduran Supreme Court gave them a boost, ruling many articles of the mining law unconstitutional. In April, Caritas persuaded 11 Canadian parliamentarians to write to members of the Honduran Congress, urging them to pass the proposed reforms to the law--a particularly important development given that Canadian firms control the country's most controversial mines. (In July, 12 people were injured and 72 arrested in a national protest against open-pit mining.)

The United States has its own problematic mining law that allows claimholders to take minerals, including gold and silver, from public lands without royalty payments to taxpayers. In the 1970s, big mining companies bought towns like Bingham, Utah, piecemeal and buried them under tons of mine rubble--the fate threatening San Miguel. The difference is that the U.S. law has been on the books since 1872, and every meaningful reform effort has been thwarted. Honduras, the original "Banana Republic," is likely to pass a bill to protect people from bad mining policies by the end of the year.

THROUGHOUT LATIN AMERICAN HISTORY, powerful forces have alternately torn nations apart and worked toward reconciliation. In 1996, for example, Guatemala's Bishop Álvaro Ramazzini helped negotiate an end to the 36-year armed conflict between the military and rebels pushing for better economic conditions for the nation's poor. Peace came; reform didn't.

A few years later, Ramazzini began hearing complaints from parishioners about the massive Marlin gold operation in his diocese (see "Standoff in the Highlands"). Events came to a head in 2005, when a mining truck hauling equipment was hindered by a pedestrian bridge over the transnational highway. Hundreds of people angered by the effects of mining took the opportunity to stream onto the highway and block the truck from continuing via another route.

After several weeks the military broke the impasse by shooting to death one protestor and beating others. A short while later, the government appointed Ramazzini to recommend reforms to Guatemala's mining law. The report, delivered to the Guatemalan Congress in 2006, calls for much higher taxes and safer mining methods. So far nothing has happened, though Ramazzini is still pushing for reform.

It's not hard to see why Catholic environmentalism, with its challenges to the powerful, resonates with liberation theology in the minds of many. But something important has shifted. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and so did many Marxist regimes. Suddenly it became harder for critics to equate priests' efforts on behalf of the poor with an ideology that condemns religion.

"Here in Guatemala," Ramazzini says, "I am insisting that our social movement have a spiritual basis. Without this, I find too many people become frustrated and fall into the temptation of money or violence. After so many years of violence, I don't want to see any more."

A few minutes later, the round-faced bishop with the booming baritone reads to me in English from the "ecology of peace" passages of a speech Pope Benedict gave on New Year's Day: "Respect for nature is closely linked to the need to establish, between individuals and between nations, relationships that are attentive to the dignity of the person and capable of satisfying his or her authentic needs. The destruction of the environment, its improper or selfish use, and the violent hoarding of the earth's resources cause grievances, conflicts, and wars precisely because they are the consequences of an inhumane concept of development."

Ramazzini sets the speech on the coffee table in his modest living quarters and leans back on the couch we share. It's the morning before Good Friday, and parishioners are already lining up to speak to him. We hear them through an open window, along with birds making a racket from the bougainvillea blooming bloodred in his courtyard. "In many places people are beginning to speak about environmental issues," he says. "This isn't a middle-class movement as it is in the United States. It's in the villages, in the highlands. For us, it's life or death."


Map by Leslie Carlson; used with permission.
Photo by Xiomara Orellana; used with permission.

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