This is the first instalment of a three-part series by Sandra Cuffe. Part two in the series investigates Canadian tourism and real estate projects displacing Afro-Indigenous communities along the Caribbean coast. The final instalment takes a look at Canada's role in the militarization of post-coup Honduras.
In the rural municipality of La Unión, Copán, in western Honduras, communities are being gradually displaced by Toronto-based Aura Minerals’ San Andres gold mine. Earlier this year the army was sent in to quell protests related to the relocation of the local cemetery in Azacualpa, a village in La Unión. This is part of the human cost of an expanding mining industry in Honduras.
Rodolfo Arteaga says he understands what people in Azacualpa are going through. “I experienced it firsthand,” he says. Arteaga’s home community of Palo Ralo was displaced in 1999 to make way for Vancouver-based Goldcorp’s San Martin open-pit gold mine in the Siria Valley, 100 kilometers north of Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. His new home in New Palo Ralo is less than two kilometers from the mine’s cyanide-leaching facilities. Production ended in 2008, but the mine’s impacts persist.
Thousands of kilometers away from the company offices where corporate social responsibility promotional materials are drawn up with photos of smiling Central Americans, Arteaga and countless other Siria Valley residents suffer from serious health problems. Blood and hair tests have consistently revealed high levels of arsenic, mercury and lead in both children and adults. Water resources and the local agricultural sector have not recovered.
Communities throughout the country have seen the legacy of devastation in the Siria Valley, and many Hondurans share Arteaga’s perspective on what Canadian mining companies have to offer. “What interests them is getting rich, filling their pockets with money and taking it out of the country,” he says.
The Canadian government has been on a roll promoting the interests of Canadian extractive industry corporations in Honduras in the five years since democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a June 2009 coup d’état. Development aid, embassy resources and foreign affairs programming have all helped set the stage for new legislation conducive to Canadian corporate interests, and a new bilateral free trade agreement provides protection for their investments.
The Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement came into effect on Oct. 1, 2014. Canada had originally planned to negotiate a regional free trade agreement with Honduras and its neighbours, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador. After nearly a decade of stop-and-start talks, Canada opted to pursue a bilateral agreement with Honduras in 2010, less than a year after the coup. The deal was announced during an August 2011 visit to Honduras by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the first head of state to visit the country after its readmission into the Organization of American States two months earlier.
The free trade agreement, though, is just one recent element of Canada’s promotion of its business interests.
“In Honduras, Canada’s use of overseas development aid and its diplomacy to promote corporate interests are really evident, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the military-backed coup in 2009,” said Jennifer Moore, Latin America program coordinator at MiningWatch Canada.
The Canadian government’s tacit support for the coup and silence during the ensuing systematic human rights violations, said Moore, were an important preface to what came later, following the November 2009 elections widely denounced as fraudulent. “Canada set about, with representatives from the Canadian embassy, together with representatives from CIDA, to start to lobby for a new mining law,” she said.
Before Zelaya’s ouster, his advisors had been working directly with mining-affected communities and grassroots and non-governmental organizations to draft a new mining law, taking into account their demands for a national ban on large-scale open-pit metallic mining. The Zelaya administration also renewed a moratorium on mining concessions initiated by his predecessor Ricardo Maduro amid demands for mining legislation reform from affected communities, environmental movements and other organizations.
In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled 13 articles of the General Mining Law unconstitutional. The 1998 law had been passed by Congress in a single debate shortly after Hurricane Mitch hit the region. In its wake the hurricane left thousands of deaths and disappearances, more than a million people homeless and billions of dollars in damages, including an estimated 70 per cent of the country’s transportation infrastructure. As with Hurricane Mitch, the 2009 coup provided the conditions for the imposition of new legislation without critical input from community organizations.
A Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade document obtained by the Center for Excellence in 2011 revealed that the Canadian government characterized the Zelaya administration as “anti-mining” and Porfirio Lobo Sosa’s contested government (which began in 2010) as “pro-sustainable mining and pro-CSR (corporate social responsibility).” The same document states that a post-coup mining law draft was “designed to promote mining investment.”
Passed in January 2013, the new law lifted the moratorium on mining concessions and was heavily criticized for its lack of measures to protect populated areas, water resources and even national parks from mining. In the three years leading up to the law’s passage, Canada used a combination of overseas development aid, embassy resources and other government funds to finance technical support for the new law and a Honduran mission to the 2012 Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada meeting, along with high-level meetings between Canadian and Honduran government officials and Canadian mining company executives.
“As part of Canada's poverty reduction efforts, and in response to a growing recognition of the importance of the private sector (including the extractive sector) in international development, Canada has been increasing its efforts to work with the private sector to help improve the lives of people living in poverty,” Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development spokesperson Caitlin Workman wrote in an email response to Ricochet.
The new bilateral free trade agreement provides protection for Canadian investments in mining and other sectors in Honduras, but exactly how much investment will be covered is unclear. “Canada’s two-way merchandise trade with Honduras has grown 58.6 per cent in the last five years to reach $278.7 million in 2013,” wrote Workman. However, DFATD would not provide recent figures for Canadian foreign direct investment in Honduras. “That information is not publicly available,” wrote Workman.
The promotion of Canadian mining interests in Honduras exemplifies the priorities laid out in the government’s 2013 Global Markets Action Plan, which states that all “diplomatic assets of the Government of Canada will be marshaled on behalf of the private sector.” On Oct. 28, 2014, Moore and representatives from the Canadian Network for Corporate Accountability and the Osgoode Hall Law School-affiliated Justice and Corporate Accountability Project addressed the issue at an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights hearing in Washington, DC.
“The hearing was called principally to address Canada’s extraterritorial responsibility and obligations for the abuses taking place throughout Latin America and the Caribbean in connection with Canadian mining companies,” said Moore. “It’s recognizing the reality of addressing human rights and Indigenous rights violations in a globalized context.”
Back in Honduras, communities throughout the country continue to resist mining activities in their territories at great risk. Chapter 10 of the Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement protects Canadian investments, but leaves local residents vulnerable. Honduras has the highest per capita homicide rate in the world, and murders of community leaders, activists, environmentalists and Indigenous movement participants are all too common.
“We’ve been working on a number of different fronts and struggles,” said Xiomara Gaitán, president of the National Network of Mining-Affected Communities. Marches, roadblocks, municipal referenda and other actions against mining continue to take place on a regular basis. “Communities are prepared to not let any mining company enter.”