World Rainforest Movement

Honduras: All that glitters is not gold

The sun sets on the Siria Valley; the temperature is over 38 degrees centigrade. It was always hot here, it is a valley, but never before had the heat reached the levels it does nowadays. The rivers and streams are only a memory, now they look like tracks, deserted and dusty because of deforestation and the extraction of thousands of metres of sand.

These are just the beginning of the effects caused by the Mina San Martin mining exploitation in the municipality of San Ignacio, located at some 70 kilometres to the north of the capital city. Here in this municipality, in the village of Palos Ralos, an enormous gold bed has been found, ranging from between 600 thousand and one million ounces of this precious metal.

In the year 2001 alone, the Entre Mares Company mined more than one hundred thousand ounces of gold, using 6 thousand tons of sodium cyanide, that is to say 16.5 tons a day, processing 18 thousand tons of waste per day. According to this data, it can be estimated that the transnational company made an income of over 25 million dollars over that period.

The deafening sound of the machines crushing stones can be heard, and a thick cloud of dust rises several metres high. A wire fence of over a kilometre long surrounds the San Martin Mine, with barbed wire coils for security.

Security inside the company is very strict. Armed guards are to be found in all the sectors of the plant, guaranteeing the normality required by the Entre Mares executives. Entre Mares is a subsidiary of the transnational company Glamis Gold Ltd., based in Reno, Nevada, United States of America, which has a concession to exploit the San Martin Mine.

Large and powerful machines circulate inside the plant, and out in the open the heap of material leached with cyanide may be observed. The red colour of the earth predominates. The village of Palo Ralo used to have a mountain, now it no longer exists. There are no trees left, no life, only the memory of a mountain that once was.

The Siria Valley has changed, it will never be the same again. Some 7 thousand trees were felled and many more are destined to the same fate. The water sources are becoming depleted and eventually, no living being will be able to survive in the desert environment of this zone, thanks to a mining company and to the State authorities, such as the Natural Resources and Environment Secretariat that has endorsed the existing ecological disaster.

When it arrived in Honduras, the Entre Mares Company brought with it a whole bunch of illusions for the valley dwellers, filling many of them with hope, telling them that the village would become prosperous and earn enough money to solve its economic problems.

However, this did not happen. Two years after the start of operations, the promised development cannot be seen anywhere, the benefits are minute compared to the mass devastation of forests and water sources to extract gold.

Adin Escoto, who comes from San Ignacio and drives a heavy vehicle, told us that two years ago he filled in an employment form to get a job, but they have still not given him a chance to work for the mining company. Escoto emphasized, “When they came, they promised that there would be employment for many of us. I prefer to work here because I was born here and my family lives here, but I work in Olancho for a logging company and only come to visit the village.”

He also stressed that the mining company has not fulfilled the promises it made to the people of San Ignacio. “They said that here there would be paved streets and they are still the same, they promised jobs and there are only some for a few people, mainly from other places, and they have damaged the environment,” stated Escoto.

A doctor, Juan Almendares Bonilla, former rector of the National Autonomous University of Honduras, a university professor and eminent environmentalist, explained that opencast mining is a technique that consists of affecting the surface of the ground, including the forests and removing daily thousands of tons of soil and stones to extract gold, which is to be found in microscopic particles.

“The opencast technique causes the release of highly toxic heavy metals into the environment and this will increase ecological deterioration and diseases,” he told us with concern.

The environmentalist explained that this method is used by the mining company because the gold is to be found in microscopic particles and not in veins or concentrated in one place. For this reason, it cannot be removed by underground methods (tunnels). With this method, the company removes some 18 thousand tons of earth every day to extract the mineral, leaching the raw material with cyanide and using thousands of litres of water.

“The company cut down thousands of trees during the building operations, it contaminated the lungs of the local population with dust and now it is leaving them without water,” lamented Almendares, while criticising the authorities who do nothing to stop this destruction.

According to Almendares, this method is the most harmful one for the environment and for human beings, firstly because of the destruction of the flora, the ecological imbalance caused to the fauna and the large quantities of water needed to extract the mineral and secondly because of the use of large quantities of cyanide, one of the most mortal poisons that exist.

The psychologist, Daniel Matamoros considers that the excessive noise made by the machines causes various effects both on the workers and on the population living near the mine. “On a physiological level, noise causes stress, so that the persons cannot rest normally due to constant tension.”

He also affirms that the dust produces respiratory, lung and bronchial diseases, as well as deafness and allergies that can become chronic due to lack of medical care.

The expert told us:”When people have favourable expectations but shortly discover that they are false, they feel resentment, affected and impotent because there is nothing they can do to return to their previous state,” on referring to the displacement of the whole community of Palo Ralo to another sector of the municipality. The psychologist affirmed, “They feel affected because their form of life has been changed and their traditions have been broken.”

However, none of this seems to concern either the mining company or the government bodies. Almenares ironically summarises the situation as follows “the opencast operation with cyanide is used because it is cheaper for the company, it is a project protecting mining interests and not the country’s interests, and it is logical when what is more important is to accumulate wealth and not environmental and human conditions.”

Excerpts from the article “Destrucción Ambiental en el Valle de Siria”, Newspaper La Tribuna,

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