SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (CNS) — Four years after a coup d’etat threw Honduras into crisis, church workers said human rights abuses continue unabated, fueled by disputes over mining concessions.
A new Honduran mining law passed in January has opened up huge swaths of the countryside to mining exploration. But the mining industry has increasingly become the source of grave human rights abuses as mostly poor, rural citizens who live on the land have been threatened, said church and human rights workers.
“People in these communities are living under fear and with a lot of stress. You’re talking about people who are afraid they will be killed by machete for opposing the mining industry,” said Claretian Father Cesar Espinoza, a priest in Arizona in the department of Atlantida near the Caribbean coast.
As the November general election approaches, Catholic groups are raising awareness about the deteriorating human rights situation and the threat posed by mining interests to rural, mainly agricultural communities. They seek to pressure international actors, including the U.S. government, to take a stronger stance on the situation.
In September, leaders from across Central America met to share experiences and discuss ways to fight back against mining companies. The meeting brought together Jesuits from the U.S. and Central America, researchers, community leaders and others to discuss the impact of mining. A similar meeting is planned for Oct. 30 in San Salvador.
Shaina Aber, policy director at the U.S. Jesuit Conference, and several other U.S. Jesuits recently visited Honduras on a fact-finding mission in which she was “blown away by the multilevel dimension of violence” in Honduras.
“We came away from our visit realizing it wasn’t just generalized or gang violence, but a penetration of state institutions by powerful individuals who are wealthy and profit off the weak institutions of the state,” she said.
Honduras has become the most murderous country in the world, partially because of weak state institutions that were thrown into disarray in 2009 when then-President Manuel Zelaya was ousted by the army in what was Central America’s first military coup since the end of the Cold War.
“After the coup, the human rights situation got worse,” said Karla Rivas, news editor at the Honduran Jesuit-run radio station Radio Progreso.
The station was shut down by the military just hours after the coup. Although the station was allowed to open the next day, Rivas said workers have been routinely exposed to threats for its dogged analysis and reporting.
“We continue to do what we do because we want a better country,” she said of the station’s work. “What we’re experiencing is not to the level of what is happening in the communities that are opposing mining.”
The new mining law ended a moratorium on new concessions and effectively opened up “the majority of the national territory to companies,” Rivas said.
For instance, in the tiny village of Nueva Esperanza near the country’s Caribbean coast, a Honduran company has been granted a concession to explore for minerals, a step before the physical establishment of a mining operation.
With only a handful of the 45 families that live in the village supporting the mine, the company resorted to threats and bullying, including the use of an armed security force, said human rights groups working in the area.
“They brought in seven armed guards. … They’ve threatened everyone. The school closed because the teacher was harassed. The church closed because the priest had to flee. It’s an environment of fear,” said Daniel Langmeier, a human rights observer working with the Honduras Accompaniment Project, which is documenting abuses in Honduras.
In July, Langmeier, 26, and a fellow observer stayed overnight with a family that had been threatened. The following morning, security guards confronted the observers — even though they were not on the mine — and held them at gunpoint for more than an hour.
“They accused us of being communists, or resistance fighters sponsored by the Venezuelans,” Langmeier, a Swiss national who lives in Tegucigalpa, said in a telephone interview. “I tried to explain to them that they had no authority there, but they would just laugh and point their guns at us.”
After a harrowing afternoon in which Langmeier and his colleague were repeatedly threatened and stripped of their cellphones and photos, the guards eventually released them.
“I thought to myself, ‘There’s no way they are stupid enough to kill international human rights observers.’ But on the other hand, they were a lot of young men with high-caliber rifles who seemed out of control,” Langmeier said. “They told us never to come back or we would be ‘disappeared’ in the forest.”
The family with whom Langmeier was staying has been in hiding since the incident. And although Langmeier filed a criminal complaint, no arrests have been made in the case.
He and other human rights groups plan to file a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington; they will include details about the situation in Nueva Esperanza.
Father Espinoza, who has himself received death threats, said the government fails to protect communities such as Nueva Esperanza.
“There is no justice in this country,” he told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview.
Questions to U.S. and Honduran government officials about the claims raised by Catholic workers and human rights organizations went unanswered.
In the absence of a government response, the U.N. and the U.S. government need to do more to help, Aber said.
“There needs to be a more robust presence of the United Nations … and more responsiveness on the part of the (U.S.) government when there are threats against human rights,” she said.
The Jesuit delegation met with the human rights office in the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, the capital, to raise concerns.
Observers said there has also been disappointingly little acknowledgment of the gravity of the situation by the country’s bishops. The bishops’ conference did not return calls for comment.
“The church hierarchy has taken a position in favor of development, with the idea that it could help a country that is poor,” said Rivas, the Jesuit radio station news editor. “The problem is that it’s development at the cost of the people.”