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Officials in Honduras say they are cracking down on open-pit mining, an activity that has plagued the country with deforestation, pollution and loss of biodiversity, among other environmental hazards.
The government is no longer granting environmental permits for open-pit mining projects, the Ministry of Energy, Natural Resources, Environment and Mines said in a statement. It also plans to shut down open-pit mines already in operation.
“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’s statement said.
It plans to carry out a “review, suspension and cancelation” of environmental licenses, permits and concessions that are already in existence. It didn’t provide a timeline for these actions or cite the legal authority it has to cancel operations already underway.
Open-pit mining, one of the most common forms of mining, involves extracting minerals by digging a large hole or pit in the ground. It can be disastrous for local ecosystems, as it requires clearing vegetation and displacing massive amounts of soil.
The chemicals used in the mines, such as sulfuric acid and ammonium nitrate, can end up poisoning aquatic life in local water bodies. Even after mines are closed, there are often risks of erosion and soil contamination, making it difficult for biodiversity, forest cover and water quality to recover.
The environment ministry said it will intervene immediately in areas of “high ecological value” to ensure their conservation.
The new measure means Honduras joins El Salvador and Costa Rica as the only countries that have banned open-pit mining in Central America. It comes a little more than one month after Xiomara Castro took office as president, ending the eight-year tenure of Juan Orlando Hernández that was plagued by corruption, crime and a disregard for rural poverty.
“We applaud the initiative of this new administration, considering that we are coming out of a dictatorial government that for so many years passed laws unfavorable to Indigenous and rural communities and the environment in Honduras,” Andrea Regina Pineda, an attorney with the Honduran Center for the Promotion of Community Development (CEHPRODEC), told Mongabay.
“We’re starting to see a lot of changes,” she added, “a lot of positive changes.”
Currently, there are 217 mining concessions and reserves in the country, covering 131,515 hectares (324,981 acres), according to the Social Forum on Foreign Debt and Development of Honduras (FOSDEH). In 2020, more than 130 of them were near or inside Indigenous territory.
Since 2018, there has been a significant increase in the number of approved mining concessions, up by around 40%, according to FOSDEH.
“In these areas, there are high levels of conflict, criminalization, stigmatization and even murder of territorial and environmental defenders,” the organization’s report said.
In 2020, Mongabay reported on environmentalist Irma Lemus, who was forced to flee the country for protesting mining projects in the department of Colón, including one inside Carlos Escaleras National Park.
And earlier this year, six environmental defenders were jailed for resisting the development a mine, Los Pinares, in the town of Guapinol. The mine, located near Carlos Escaleras National Park, has allegedly compromised rivers and other water bodies that local communities rely on for drinking water.
Mining unions in Honduras have already expressed their concern for the thousands of jobs that could be lost, telling local media that they plan to enter into talks with the government. This suggests that the environment ministry’s plans to make Honduras “free of open-pit mining” may take some time to carry out.
Aura Minerals, which operates the San Andrés gold mine in Copán department, one of the largest mines in Honduras, said in a statement that it’s working with the environment ministry to better understand the future of its operations in the country.
Some conservationists say they are concerned about the possibility of a wave of lawsuits from mining companies that could slow down the government’s plans.
“We would love for this initiative to move forward,” CEHPRODEC’s Pineda said, “but we want it to be in accordance with the law, to possibly go through congress or different government bodies … to ensure that these actions are within the law.”