The National Catholic Review
Defending the environment and stopping violence in Honduras

A delegation representing Jesuit ministries in the United States and Canada met with Bishop Michael Lenihan, O.F.M., of La Ceiba, Honduras, on Sept. 10, 2013. Bishop Lenihan worked in Honduras from 2000 to 2009 and then returned in 2012, when he was made a bishop. Luke Hansen, S.J., participated in the group conversation and edited the transcript for clarity and length.

What can you tell us about the expansion of mining interests in Honduras?

The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace recently published a document on the love of creation and the need to protect mother earth and not to abuse and exploit it. There has to be dialogue and respect for the people. In this region there has not been any respect or dialogue with the people. Armed people pressure the landowners to sell their land. That is the big problem here.

We entered into dialogue with some of the miners in [the state of] La Atlántida. We brought the community together and had two meetings, but we did not succeed in stopping a prominent miner in the region. At one stage, he told us that if he could not win peacefully, he would bring people to help him enter by force. He said that to us privately at the meeting, but I think it is publicly known now. There is a lot of tension in the area. It is a very difficult situation. We have spoken with the people and tried to show solidarity with them. At times, in the face of the machinery of the state, it is hard to succeed and convince them not to exploit the land.

Could there be an independent environmental assessment?

We offered to have the universities do a detailed environmental impact study, but the mining companies produced a huge document saying they have already done this. But it is not very detailed. I would not trust the studies they have done.

The people are very, very worried because there are places where mining has already taken place, and they have done certain studies about the damage the mines have done to the water and the people. There certainly is a connection between the mining and the sicknesses the people have, but all of that is very, very quiet; it is not published. Obviously, if it were published, it would be very damaging for the mining company.

We have heard that the police have been very aggressive.

Yes. There were never police in that area and then, all of a sudden, the police came there. They said they were there to protect the people, but really their interest is very much against the people; it is protecting the interest of the miners. From what we can gather, there has been aggression, and they have treated people badly.

How did the diocesan statement about mining come about? Have you had any positive response from the average Catholic about this?

The letter came after a lot of debate. We let the ideas mature. We took out certain things, added certain things, and in the end we felt it was the right moment to publish something. We decided that we will do something to support Father César [Espinoza] and denounce what we believe is unjust and support the people and be a sign of solidarity to the people who are suffering in the midst of that.

Overall, the response was quite positive and a lot of people congratulated us on the letter. One of the bishops down in Choluteca said he had a meeting with antimining groups, and he used some of our thoughts and reflections to speak to the people. The politicians, however, would be negative because they do not want the church getting involved on that level. There have not been threats to our lives or anything because I believe it was very balanced, very much based in the Gospel, church teaching and the Franciscan charism of love for creation. But when you touch people’s interest, there will be a negative response.

Have the church-sponsored political forums made a difference?

They have been very, very successful. We had a diocesan synod where we invited politicians and listened to them and also presented the voice of the church. We also asked them as party leaders whether they were willing to respect and work for the defense of the environment. Afterward we got them to sign a pact. The signing is one thing; in the end, it depends on who wins the election.

The politicians are very much aware of what the church thinks, so what has happened has been very, very good, because the church and other groups have spoken out and opposed the mining concessions. We need more and more groups to do the same. We are one voice in the midst of a very powerful group, so what can we do? But we do not give up hope. The hope is that the struggle to defend nature continues. As a Franciscan, I feel very much obliged to defend nature. St. Francis was a lover of nature. He is the patron of ecology, so I would be a traitor if I did not try to help the people and speak out against abuses and exploitation. This is why we went ahead with the letter. We hope the reaction will be positive at the end.

Is there any way that people in the United States can be in solidarity?

The main thing is to come and see and have an interest, to visit the people and listen to the people and see how they feel and how they think at the moment. I don’t really know, politically or diplomatically, how we can convince the government. The government says China has already given money in advance, so legally the country has to say, “This is yours,” and there is no way of stopping it at the moment. It was frightening and alarming when a person said “a thousand acres here and a thousand acres there.” The whole of Atlántida will become a mine. I don’t want to be a pessimist about everything. We don’t lose hope, and the fight continues to try to prevent them.

Why does Honduras have the highest murder rate in the world?

A lot of the violence would be related to drugs and gangs, though there is also common delinquency. Extortion is very strong in Honduras, and it results in a lot of businesses closing down. It is not good for the country. Another big factor is the lack of employment. There are two million unemployed people. When you have this many unemployed, they can use different methods to try to survive and live.

There has also been a lack of effort on the part of the government to improve the security of the country. There doesn’t seem to be any desire. Or is the government simply incapable? Has it gotten to the stage where it is out of control and nothing can be done? The police force is very, very corrupt. Are they part of the problem instead of being part of the solution? All of these factors do not help.

I just share from my experience of what I have lived and what I hear and see. I hope something can be done to stem the tide, because it seems that Honduras has been completely sold over to the miners. We hope this is not the case.

Editor's Note: Read more about what the Jesuit delegation learned in Honduras in "Down to Earth," by Luke Hansen, S.J., and see photos from the trip here

Luke Hansen, S.J., is an associate editor of America.

Comments

William Atkinson | 2/1/2014 - 12:50pm

From Leon in Honduras:

Thanks for sharing this, Will. I think it pretty much tells it like it is. I had and have a love-hate relationship with Honduras and the Honduran people. My “ex” (separated wife Veronica) in fact is in Tegucigalpa (capital) at this very moment for a month visiting her family and having some work done on her teeth, which is much too expensive for us up here. Although she grew up dirt-poor and shoeless in a Tegucigalpa shantytown, she had a half-brother who rose to be a general in the Honduran Army, and who according to her, was responsible for at least one vicious, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later crackdown on vicious gang members and drug dealers who were terrorizing their neighborhood and others with impunity. Given what she has experienced firsthand of criminals running rampant, don’t get Veronica started on their “human rights.” And yet she has always been and continues to be a very proud and devout Catholic, if not a regular church-goer.

These situations are very complex and very complicated and very convoluted, something which short-term, well-intentioned visitors to the country may not have time to pick up on -- although certainly conferring with long-term residents like Bishop Lenihan in La Ceiba (where I lived for nearly 3 years, by the way) and natives would help begin one’s “education”.

The very guy who was considered a “liberal” or “progressive” (always gotta put these words in quote marks), former President Manuel Zelaya, who was deposed by the military and other powers that be back in 2009 because he was allegedly too left-wing and buddy-buddy with Cuba’s Castro and the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, in fact is the scion of the family of oligarchs that was responsible for murdering campesinos agitating for land reform back in the early 80s. His father is believed to be complicit in the disappearance and murder of Father Guadalupe Carney (mentioned below) back in the eighties. The Zelaya family was responsible for illegal logging and associated road-building in the officially protected Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve, into which I helped organize and lead a fact-finding expedition in 1988. One of our members died on that expedition, and it continues to take an emotional toll on me. I wrote a book about this profoundly disturbing experience called BRIGHT RIVER, DARK DREAMS: TRAGEDY ON THE RIO PLATANO, that I can make available to you as a pdf file, if you’d be interested.

I think the Church can play a constructive role in Honduras, and specifically defending the poor, powerless, and the environment, especially vis-à-vis the mining proposal(s) (from China?) which I haven’t even heard about. (I just don’t have time anymore to keep up with goings-on in Honduras like I used to.) One thing to keep in mind though, and I say this more as an environmental scientist more than an environmental advocate, is that large-scale mining’s adverse environmental impacts on land and water can be mitigated to the point where they are tolerable. BUT, and it’s a big “but” in a weak-institution, CORRUPT country like Honduras, these have to be IMPLEMENTED and ENFORCED. Mining also offers the very real prospect of reasonably long-term, well-paying jobs in an exceedingly poor country.

All I’m saying is that one cannot reject mining out of hand (I’m not saying these folks are necessarily doing this – I don’t know enough about it) as an unmitigated EVIL. In developed countries like ours, laws and regulators regulate mines while they are up and running, reducing if not eliminating their adverse effects, and demand reclamation afterwards. That’s not to say all effects go away, but they can be substantially mitigated. All of this costs money though, which is why in the context of a deeply corrupt, poor country like Honduras it’s doubtful that it will ever happen. I trust the Chinese even less than I trust American multinationals.

I’m actually managing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) as a consultant to the U.S. Forest Service for a proposed uranium mine near sacred Indian lands in western New Mexico right now. It’s an intense process because the proposed mine is so controversial.

I believe Honduran law requires that an EIS be conducted on any such mine proposal in Honduras, and maybe that’s what the company says they’ve already done. It would be interesting to see it. The critics of the EIS may be largely right, but they may be largely wrong too. These things get so emotional that most people cease to use reason and logic and let their emotions and loyalties to whatever “team” they’re on dictate their words and actions.

All best,

Leon

William Atkinson | 2/6/2014 - 3:03pm

violence in our own country.

The biggest problems in Honduras are the gun trade from America, weapons are in huge demand and gun dealers in US regularly make trips to sell thousands of latest type weapons and ammunition to different factions in that country along with the proliferation of organized Christian religions all thru the country, This is in direct response for the lack of change and modernization within the Catholic dominant and political state religion. This dividing elements of religions has brought conflict and tensions that are out of control and drastically damage the peoples, their futures, the political divisions, and growth of a nation. .

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