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Mining company destroys Indigenous cemetery during expansion in Honduras

  • Indigenous residents living near the San Andres mine in western Honduras were devastated to learn that a centuries-old cemetery was dug up in the middle of the night, making it nearly impossible for some families to find their loved ones.
  • The mass exhumations come after nearly a decade of community-level and legal battles between the Maya Chortí and Minerales de Occidente (Minosa), a subsidiary of Toronto-listed mining company Aura Minerals.
  • The controversy highlights the fact that the national government hasn’t yet upheld its promise to close open-pit mining concessions.

When workers dig through the earth at the San Andres mine in western Honduras, one of the country’s largest mining operations, they sometimes find something mixed in that wasn’t there in older parts of the mine: human bones.

For the past decade, the Maya Chortí Indigenous community in the town of Azacualpa were fighting to stop gold mining operators from expanding into their 200-year-old cemetery, believed to hold around 1,000 bodies. But in February, they lost the fight when workers started digging up the area in the middle of the night, with law enforcement officers standing guard around the perimeter.

“They destroyed the cemetery,” said Yessica Rodríguez, secretary of a local committee of people affected by the mine. “They destroyed the graves. One night, they brought in their machines and cut down the trees and all the plants we used to identify the graves of our relatives … A lot of people were crying.”

While some bodies were allegedly relocated to new gravesites, committee members say many bodies remain where the company is expanding. Explosions can be heard twice a day where excavation work is being done in the former cemetery.

“They built a wall so we couldn’t enter and stop them from working,” Rodríguez said. “We can’t go in because they’re stopping us. But our fight continues.”

Alleged human bones found in the Maya Chortí cemetery. (Photo courtesy of Pedro Triguero)

The ongoing battle for the cemetery

Mining in different forms has taken place in Azacualpa, approximately 190 kilometers (115 miles) from the capital Tegucigalpa, for decades. The first concession was granted in 1983.

Current operator Minerales de Occidente (Minosa), a subsidiary of the Toronto-listed mining company Aura Minerals, took over the property and infrastructure in 2009. And since then, the company has been plagued by accusations of human rights violations and environmental mismanagement.

The company says the site has 892,000 ounces (27,744 kilograms) of proven or probable gold reserves. In 2020, the last year of available company operating statistics, it mined nearly 4.5 million tons of ore.

In 2012, select members of the community agreed to allow exhumations of the cemetery as long as there were negotiations with the families. But then, a few years later, the community decided the cemetery was a cultural heritage site and that no exhumations should take place — a decision reinforced by a successful injunction that reached the Supreme Court.

Trucks and heavy machinery at the mine site. (Photo courtesy of Yessica Rodríguez)

Yet Minosa went forward with exhumations of around 125 bodies in 2018, and might have removed even more had it not been for additional legal action by the community.

Then, this past February, the company moved forward with more exhumations, removing hundreds of bodies, according to the community and its lawyers.

In addition to cultural and traditional losses, the work done by Minosa in and around the cemetery continues to contribute to environmental degradation of the area, including deforestation and pollution of local water bodies with cyanide and other chemicals.

“They cut down the forest and remove other vegetation and then they extract the gold,” said Ramiro Lara, a resident of Santa Rosa de Copán, another community near the mine site. He also said around a dozen water sources have dried up and erosion has created unstable terrain, leaving many houses with cracks.

Minosa didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.

The open pit mine. (Photo courtesy of Ramiro Lara)

Legal confusions deepen the conflict

In March, less than one month in office, President Xiomara Castro announced that Honduras would be banning open-pit operations, a common form of mining in which large tracts of land are dug up to extract the minerals.

“The approval of extractive exploitation permits is canceled for being harmful, threatening natural resources, public health and limiting access to water as a human right,” the Ministry of Energy, Natural Resources, Environment and Mines said in the announcement. It also said natural areas of “high ecological value” would be immediately intervened on to ensure their protection.

The news was welcomed by human rights advocates and conservationists near mine sites across the country, Azacualpa included. For the last 12 years, the country had endured corruption and environmental neglect by former President Juan Orlando Hernández, who was extradited to the US this April for his involvement in international drug trafficking.

But there were also some doubts about the mining ban. It wasn’t clear at the time whether the government had a legitimate legal mechanism for closing active mining concessions, many of which had been granted decades-long contracts.

Aura Minerals, whose San Andres mine is an open-pit operation, said at the time of the announcement that it was working with the government on next steps but didn’t expect any immediate changes to its operations. Not only did it end up being right, since Minosa continues to operate the San Andres mine, but it has actually expanded through the hill where the cemetery was located.

“The mining company continues to detonate in the cemetery to start the extraction of gold minerals,” said community attorney Pedro Mejía, “and to avoid community resistance.”

Misinformation about the future of open-pit mining has forced Mejía and community members to be on even higher alert than usual.

Residents protesting the expansion of the mine. (Photo courtesy of Ramiro Lara)

In May, an announcement allegedly published on social media by the Secretary of Natural Resources and Environment celebrated the first 100 days of the Castro government by saying there were no more human rights violations against the Maya Chortí because the mining operations there were finally closed.

The community wrote a letter to the office demanding clarification, while their attorneys published corrections on social media, saying the post was not only false but also politically motivated. “The mining company and its facilities continue to operate with the same impunity that was guaranteed to them during the 12 years of Juan Orlando Hernández’s narco-government,” they said.

In an interview with local media outlet Criterio, Víctor Fernández, an attorney for the community, said the Castro government is currently making use of a “double discourse,” in which it says one thing and does another, making it even harder to fight the mine through legal channels.

“We expect much more from the government,” he told the outlet in March. “We also hope that they have the integrity to uphold their decisions.”

Banner image: The Maya Chortí cemetery. (Photo courtesy of Ramiro Lara).

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