Bead of sweat ran down people’s faces as they fanned themselves with hats, documents, and anything else available. The bell on an ice cream cart outside jingled over the murmur of the crowd gathering inside in the sweltering mid-afternoon heat. It was soon standing room only in the community hall, packed with residents from mine-affected communities in the Siria Valley, in central Honduras.

Siria Valley residents from the municipality of El Porvenir took a stand against a planned tourism project at an April 18, 2015 open town hall meeting in the community of El Pedernal.

“No To The Mine, Yes To Life” reads a mural on the public library in El Porvenir.All photos by Sandra Cuffe

Together with a foundation linked to Vancouver-based mining giant Goldcorp and other NGOs, the municipal government of San Ignacio is planning an eco-tourism project around local hot springs that would cut off public access to important local sources of water. The San Martin Foundation, created by Goldcorp’s predecessor Glamis Gold in 2000 when the company’s San Martin gold mine began production, already runs a controversial eco-tourism project in the area.

Now closed, the open pit heap-leach gold mine operated in the municipality of San Ignacio, but many of the most affected communities and waterways are located downstream in the municipality of El Porvenir. Likewise, the European Union financed project planned by the San Ignacio municipal government would impact communities in El Porvenir like El Pedernal, which extends right up to the municipal border.

Some local residents took a break from the meeting in the shade outside the community hall in El Pedernal.

Approximately 180 people showed up to the town hall meeting (cabildo abierto), where the mayors of both El Porvenir and San Ignacio presented their divergent views. Community leaders also took to the stage at the open town hall meeting to voice their opposition to the project.

“We were never consulted,” Marlon Hernández, a teacher and president of the El Terrero community council told the crowd.

“What they’re after is money,” said Guayabillas community member Rolando Medina Cruz. “The people are saying no.”

Community members listened to the various speakers.

Elman Hidalgo, the mayor of San Ignacio, defended the project. He came to the meeting at the request of El Porvenir mayor Luis Rubí Acosta, in order to explain the details of the project and its planning process. Hidalgo was accompanied by a delegation of professional and NGO staff working on the project, including the Center for the Study and Promotion of Development (CEPROD).

“The communities involved in this project were consulted,” said Hidalgo. The intention is to protect the area and to institute order, not to take away anyone’s rights, he said. The project has nothing to do with mining, he added.

Despite the assurances, the actual details of the eco-tourism initiative were not presented by any of the speakers from the San Ignacio delegation: Hidalgo; the director of CEPROD; a forestry engineer; or Carlos Casanova, the architect and planner who designed the San Martin Foundation’s eco-tourism project in the area. As the open town hall meeting went on, the speakers promoting the project were met by increasingly loud jeers from the back of the hall. By the time Casanova took the microphone, he couldn’t be heard over the boisterous crowd. Community residents have used the local hot springs for generations, resisting all attempts to restrict public access. Corn on the cob and chicken were often boiled in the pits pictured above, circa 2006.
Communities in the municipality of El Porvenir reject their exclusion from whatever consultation may have taken place concerning the tourism project, but the main crux of the matter is access to water. One of the mine’s two open pits looms up the hill behind San Ignacio’s hot springs, where the sulfurous waters bubble to the surface.

A stream, Quebrada Los Hervederos, flows downstream from the hot springs source. Women from nearby communities use the stream on a daily basis to wash clothes. The stream soon meets two others, Higuerito and Tierra Agria, that run down on either side of the mine’s Tajo Rosa open pit. Together, the three form the Agua Tibia stream that eventually feeds the Playa River. The streams are all used by community members from both municipalities, San Ignacio and El Porvenir, for farming, ranching, and domestic use.

“We need water, and there isn’t much water for a tourism project,” said Rodolfo Arteaga. A member of the Siria Valley Environmental Committee, Arteaga is from Palo Ralo, the community that was relocated in order to make way for the mine. He is among the local residents whose hair and blood samples have come back with high levels of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals. As a farmer, he has also dealt firsthand with the water scarcity and pollution left behind from the mine.

It’s not the first time someone has tried to implement a project in the same spot, restricting access to the hot springs source. The last time it was attempted, roughly a decade ago, residents from neighbouring communities took part in a collective night-time action to tear down the concrete wall and barbed wire fencing that had been erected around the springs.

“That project was destroyed in half an hour,” Arteaga reminded the crowd and the delegation from San Ignacio.

The cheers that erupted when Siria Valley Environmental Committee members spoke could be heard across the street, where five soldiers rested in the shade of a tree in front of the local church. They patrol communities in the area, they said.

When asked for permission to take a photograph, the soldiers stood up and posed with their weapons.

In the nearby town of El Porvenir, a building is being fixed up to house a regional Inter-institutional National Security Force (FUSINA) office. The force is comprised of the national police, military police, the army, and intelligence agents. Officially, its main tasks include tackling street gangs and organized crime, but there are concerns it may be tasked with monitoring or repressing local struggles. Siria Valley environmental activists in the municipalities of San Ignacio, El Porvenir and Cedros have been subject to death threats, intimidation, and criminalization over the years.

“We’ve been in the struggle to defend the environment in these three municipalities for 15 years now,” said Roger Escober, a member of the Siria Valley Environmental Committee. The town hall meeting wasn’t really just a town hall meeting, he said. “It’s a legal and legitimate popular consultation.”

El Porvenir mayor Luis Rubí Acosta agreed. “This is the legitimate venue for a response,” he said, reiterating that communities in El Porvenir are clearly opposed to the tourism project, as they are to any and all mining.

When San Ignacio mayor Hidalgo spoke once more as the meeting was wrapping up, he was all but shouted off stage. Hidalgo announced his withdrawal and the delegation from San Ignacio started making its way out. At the urging of his Rubí Acosta, Hidalgo stayed for the meeting to come to a close. He requested that a couple points be included in the official minutes, including the fact that there was no opportunity to explain the project in detail because residents were shouting them down.

The community hall in El Pedernal was packed with local residents.

Several organizations traveled to El Pedernal to attend the open town hall meeting. Representatives from Madre Tierra, the Honduran Environmental Law Institute (IDAMHO), the Honduran Center for the Promotion of Community Development (CEHPRODEC), and the National Association for the Advancement of Ecological Agriculture (ANAFAE) were present. International members of the Honduras Solidarity Network, the Mesoamerican Movement against the Mining Extractive Model (M4) and Peace Brigades International were also in attendance.

“The people are wise,” said Dr. Juan Almendares Bonilla, a prominent Honduran human rights and environmental activist. Science and medicine need to serve the people, he said — a thinly veiled jab at the mayor of San Ignacio, who is also a doctor but who has had close ties to Goldcorp. “There can be no science without conscience,” he said.

The most important project needed in the area is one providing clean water for the population, not reducing access to one of the few sources left, said Almendares Bonilla.

“The problem of acid mine drainage here in the Siria Valley needs to be resolved,” he said.