Nueva Esperanza, Honduras: Against the Same Old Neoliberal Agenda

“In this country, elections aren’t going to change anything,” said Francisco. “If Xiomara wins, but Libre doesn’t have enough votes (in Congress) to stop Juan Orlando (JOH) then what is to stop there being another coup, and even if Libre does have enough to stop that, who controls the military? All we can do is keep struggling to keep what little we have. We have no other options.”

It is an hour drive to get to Nueva Esperanza from the main road that cuts through the Northern Honduran department of Atlantída. This small village sits at the foot and climbs up the slopes of the mountains that separate Atlantída and the neighboring department of Yoro. It is a mountain rich in metal deposits such as gold, iron, and antimony. But more than this, it is rich in the culture of the people that live here. They cultivate the fertile soil, sowing and reaping the basic food staples that sustain their families. Now, due to the richness of the deposits and the greed of the moneyed elite who have access to the government and want to mine the hills, their livelihood and their very lives are in danger.

On Monday October 14th, a helicopter flew over Nueva Esperanza and over the site of where iron oxide is being mined from one of the foothills. In the helicopter was Lenir Pérez, the owner of Alutech, a metal roofing company whose website states (in Spanish), “Vision Statement: By 2013, to establish ourselves as the best metal processing industry in Central America, both in its corporate and social responsibility, and in the quality and excellence of its products and services.” Pérez is also the owner of Minerales Victoria which was given a mining concession by the Mayor of the municipality of Tela and SERNA (The Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment). In a land deal that still is under suspicion, Perez’s company was able to get full ownership of over 27 hectares (almost 67 acres) of land. After exploring this area, Pérez claims that only 8 hectares are mineable. He has asked the Honduran Government for a concession to explore 1000 more hectares (2471 acres).

From the porch of Gustavo Rosales’* home you can look out over the hillside across to where Minerales Victoria has dug up the side of the hill, leaving it bare of vegetation and pulling up all but a few of its trees. Gustavo says that he has been approached by employees of Minerales Victoria to sell his property. This has him concerned, but not scared. He is concerned because Pérez has hired paramilitary guards to threaten other members of the community that have refused to sell. Gustavo states that the offer was attractive. Times have been tough for the campesinos especially since the military coup in 2009, which caused the Honduran economy to tank and the elites behind the coup to grab as much of the riches as the country has to offer. Roberto Micheletti, de facto President of Honduras immediately after the coup, took possession of huge tracts of land that belonged to the government and sold it for pennies on the dollar to other coup plotters and supporters, such as Miguel Facussé the richest man in Honduras and father-in-law to Liner Pérez.

In spite of the quick cash that Gustavo could get if he sold, he has more important priorities. “I have to think about my family and their future,” he said. If I sell my land, we eat for now, but what will my children eat later if we don’t have the land to grow our own crops and raise our own chickens and pigs.”

As Gustavo says this, heaping bags of freshly picked oranges are piled around the porch, while those who have made the 40-minute trek from the center of Nueva Esperanza, across silt clogged streams and over steep muddy hills, are peeling and devouring the fruit. Señora Rosales feeds everyone heaping bowls of rice and beans and stewed chicken.

The Rosales don’t often get this many visitors because to get to their property it is necessary to skirt the border of Minerales Victoria’s mining site where the aggressiveness of the threats by the paramilitary guards is too intimidating. The group of about 20 people who made this trek did so because International Human Rights Observers accompanied them. But this is not any guarantee of safety. On July 25th of this year, two observers, one Swiss and one French, from PROAH (the Spanish acronym for The Honduran Accompaniment Project) were kidnapped for over 2 hours by about 40 rifle-toting guards and machete-wielding employees of Pérez’s mine. They were asked if they were communists, made to erase the photos in their cameras, driven to a nearby town, and threatened with death if they returned.

On the day of the visit to the Rosales farm, the streams were unusually shallow. The members of the community said that it was partially due to the lower than usual rainfall, but they had never seen it this shallow in the past. They attributed it to the amount of water that the mining company uses in the extraction process. Also, the rivers were thick with red silt that resembled the dirt exposed on the hillside by the extraction. The closer one climbs toward the site of the mine the thicker the red mud is in the streams. In the hills above the mine, the streams are abundant with small minnow-like fish. Further down hill, they are nonexistent.

The mood shifted on several occasions as the group navigated across the creeks and up the rocky muddy hills. The jovial disposition of each would become somber when they passed the property of someone who was forced to flee because of the death threats. The community has stayed in touch with their displaced neighbors. Those who have sought refuge with family or friends in other parts of the country continue to organize with MADJ (Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice). For their part, the organizers of MADJ have faced threats of their own. Liner Pérez has used his money and family influence to get the District Attorney’s office and the Judges of the Municipality of Tela to pursue prosecutorial persecution against Victor Fernandez and his brother Martin. The two organizers have been charged with inciting the community to fight against the mining and intimidation and of being the intellectual authors of the protests the community has waged against Pérez and his mining company.

There have been numerous prosecutions in Honduras against community organizers supporting communities as they fight back against the oligarchs who are exploiting the natural resources. Berta Caceres, the General Director of COPINH (Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras) faces prosecution for supporting the indigenous Lenca community of Rio Blanca, Intibuca against the foreign-owned Agua Zarca Hidroelectric plant that has plans to dam the local river and cut off the Lenca’s access to their ancestral land. In another case, Magdalena Morales, Regional Director of the CNTC (National Council of Farm Workers), has been charged with similar accusations: inciting protest, usurpation of land, and damages against the property of AZUNOSA, the giant Honduran sugar company that is owned by the British corporation SAB-Miller.

The similarity and timing of these prosecutions is more than coincidence. They are happening just before the general elections for President. The two political parties that have been controlled by the oligarchy and the military, as well as supported by the US government, are facing very real opposition from the new LIBRE party consisting of people who were part of the resistance that grew out of the protests against the coup d’état in 2009. Pepe Lobo, the de facto President elected in fraudulent elections in 2009 in which the country was under military control, and Juan Orlando Fernandez (JOH), current President of the National Congress and National Party candidate for President of the country, have been using JOH’s consolidation of power in the Congress to privatize and sell off as much of the natural resources as possible before the elections. JOH’s congress has passed mining laws which skirt the constitution, as well as appointed an Attorney General who is aligned with the oligarchy and has pursued these persecutions of activists. JOH has also impeached Supreme Court Judges that have challenged the constitutionality of the laws that have been passed. Most troubling of all is JOH’s creation of a military police force that has judicial-like authority to order and execute searches and seizures of anything and anyone at their own discretion without oversight or transparency.

Some in the community of Nueva Esperanza are cautiously optimistic regarding the elections. Francisco Alvarado is less so.

“In this country, elections aren’t going to change anything,” said Francisco. “If Xiomara wins, but Libre doesn’t have enough votes (in Congress) to stop Juan Orlando (JOH) then what is to stop there being another coup, and even if Libre does have enough to stop that, who controls the military? All we can do is keep struggling to keep what little we have. We have no other options.”

And so the struggle to keep their land continues.

* Names have been changed to protect the citizens of Nueva Esperanza