Despite new Honduran government, big business is still destroying the environment

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In November 2021, the defenders of the Guapinol River in Carlos Escaleras National Park, northern Honduras, cast a ‘vote of hope’ for President Xiomara Castro, whose government promised to stop open-pit mining. Today, the Guapinol community is still fighting businessperson Lenir Pérez’s mining project, which is damaging the river.


Text: Allan Bu
Photo: Fernando Destephen
Translation by Ann Deslandes

The people who live along its banks say that the waters of the Guapinol River in Tocoa, in the El Aguán valley in the department of Colón, should run free to meet the Aguán River, which is one of the country’s largest. 

The community of Guapinol has fought a long battle defending the river, and has been recognized both inside and outside Honduras for their struggle. After the presidential election won by Xiomara Castro, the activists thought they had finally won. This has turned out not to be the case.

During this battle, eight men from the village spent 914 days in prison (between August 2019 and March this year) accused of kidnapping, illegal association, and robbery. As the trauma and pain of that persecution continues for the eight activists and their families, Guapinol residents say they are fully prepared to confront the power and political influence of mining company Inversiones Los Pinares. 

The company is owned by multimillionaire Lenir Pérez, a businessperson who is married to Ana Facussé, daughter of landowner Miguel Facussé, who was one of the most powerful men in Honduras. Pérez is also a private investor in the Palmerola Airport Public Private Partnership, has investments in El Salvador and Guatemala, and owns Grupo Emco. Emco incorporates Alutech, a large company that sells construction materials, along with Ecotek, a company that is slated to supply the Los Pinares mine.

The struggle to defend the Guapinol River is not new, said Juana Romana Zúniga; it began in 2015. Zúniga, who everyone calls “Monchi,” is a leader in the defense of the Carlos Escaleras National Park; the nature reserve where the river begins and that is also home to a further five rivers which carry water to about 30 communities. Alternatively known as Botaderos Mountain, the park also contains another 29 streams and creeks. There, Inversiones Los Pinares mines iron oxide, using explosives to dislodge the mineral from rock.

Locals recall that, for seven months in 2018, the river waters were not even fit for bathing. The Guapinol river, which had previously held fish and had crystal clear waters, was being destroyed. A struggle began against the mining company as well as against the government, then headed by Juan Orlando Hernández, which met each of the community’s actions with repression. 

“Sometimes the protests did not even last half an hour before they [police and the army] arrived to throw tear gas canisters,” recalled Zúniga. In 2019, the Guapinol activists established the Camp for Dignity and Life. With the camp, they guarded the river for 88 days, until they were violently evicted by the military. 

The struggle has been arduous. For having the audacity to defend the river, 32 environmental defenders in Guapinol have been charged under the Honduran justice system. Twelve were imprisoned for 10 days, while the eight were made to pay with 914 days in jail.

Those imprisoned were: Ewer Alexander Cedillo Cruz, José Abelino Cedillo Cantarero, José Daniel Márquez Márquez, Kelvin Alejandro Romero Martínez, Porfirio Sorto Cedillo, Orbin Nahún Hernández, Arnol Javier Alemán and Jeremías Martínez Díaz. There are 11 more who traveled to the United States during the conflict and still have cases pending. 

In spite of this resistance, the mining company not only continues to operate, but its projects are advancing. On Friday, August 5, 2022, the residents of Guapinol and other groups defending the environment in the El Aguán valley, protested by taking over the highway. After two hours they moved to the entrance of Inversiones Los Pinares where they remained until the evening. 

Zúniga said the demonstration was aimed to show the strength of the movement to defend the river. While things may have seemed calm, the Guapinol river defenders have been using administrative litigation with the Supreme Court of Honduras (Corte Suprema de Justicia, CSJ) to try and stop the mine. So far, they have received no response from the Court.

In taking over the highway, Zúniga said the defenders were asking when President Castro would act on mining abuses in Honduras.

“In the first days of government, she said that the mines were canceled in Honduras. But nothing has happened. From words to deeds, the company continues to operate,” said Zúniga.

Lucha en Guiapinol, Juan Zuniga, Monchi ambientalista
Environmental leader Juana Zúniga, known as Monchi, on the banks of the Guapinol River. Guapinol, August 11. Photo CC/Fernando Destephen.

To be sure, at her inauguration on January 27, President Castro declared there would be “no more permits for open mines or exploitation of our minerals.” A month later, in a communiqué on February 28, the Environment Ministry declared Honduras free of open-pit mining, in accordance with the Government Plan 2022-26. The same communiqué noted that extractive projects would be canceled, due to “being harmful to the state of Honduras.” 

Further, Environment Minister Lucky Medina stated in an interview with Agence France Presse (AFP) that mining companies such as Aura Minerals in La Unión, Copán and Inversiones Los Pinares in Guapinol will continue to operate under strict state supervision. Contracorriente contacted Minister Medina to request an interview, but he did not respond to messages. His assistant referred us to the deputy minister, Malcolm Stufkens, whose office told us that he was not the right person to comment on the subject. 

Meanwhile, the companies Inversiones Los Pinares and Ecotek (which runs the pelletizing plant where the iron oxide is processed) — both owned by Lenir Perez — continue to function, without government intervention. 

The Environment Ministry refuses to act, said Zúniga. After “12 years of dictatorship,” despite Castro’s election, “nothing has changed here,” she said.

The power of Lenir Pérez continues, Zúniga added. “That [pelletizing] plant [run by Pérez’s company Ecotek] that affects us, continues operating 24 hours a day”. 

Zúniga also sees Lenir Pérez’s influence in the court cases of the eight environmental defenders who were imprisoned. As the highest justice authority in the country, the Supreme Court ruled to free the eight, but the order has not been sent down to the courts in Tocoa, as is the correct legal process. As such, the men have only “provisional freedom,” said the environmental leader.

Pérez’s power

As the son-in-law of one of the richest men in Honduras, Lenir Pérez’s political power and his arrival in the fertile region of the El Aguán valley are no coincidence. 

Miguel Facussé Barjum was known for his immense fortune and his business dealings with the state. He was always very close to the governments in power, regardless of their stripe. 

One of Facussé’s most memorable ‘business deals’ with the state is known as the CONADI fraud. Through CONADI, (La Corporación Nacional de Inversiones, or National Investment Fund), the Roberto Suazo Córdoba government (1982-1986) used public money to pay debts that Facussé’s companies, Comercializadora Galaxia and Químicas Dinant (now Corporación Dinant), had accrued with international banks. Public records of the time show that Comercializadora Galaxia and Químicas Dinant should have been put up for sale at a public auction, but the businessperson instead remained the owner of the companies, which were now debt-free. It was a great deal for Miguel Facussé, that defrauded the Honduran citizenry, and it was not the only one.

Indeed, during the government of Rafael Leonardo Callejas (1990-1994), the Agricultural Modernization Law was enacted to allow the sale of land that had been granted to small farmers through a previous agrarian reform. Facussé took advantage — buying large tracts of land already planted with African palm (the principal source of palm oil) at very cheap prices and thereby monopolizing much of the departments of Atlántida and Colón. When he tried to set up a palm treatment plant on the banks of the Tocoa River, the proposal was met with fierce opposition from environmentalist Carlos Escaleras Mejía, who was murdered in 1997.

Following his father-in-law’s legacy, Pérez also has a history of doing business with the governments in power, such as in his investment in the Palmerola International Airport. According to data from the Superintendency of Private Public Alliances, overall investment in the project exceeds US$211 million, of which US$87 million was contributed by Pérez, who received a 35-year concession for the construction of the project. Pérez cannot lose; even if the airport does not reach the projected passenger flow of 600,000, the state will not charge any tax. Such is its benevolence with investors.

Pérez is also the president of Grupo Emco, which has investments throughout Central America. Alutech, the construction company, is one of its flagship brands. The Alutech website states that the company is a leader in the region and in 2020 achieved sales of US$300 million. 

The businessperson has had support along the way to build his empire. In 2012, during the government of Porfirio Lobo Sosa, the National Congress (then presided over by Juan Orlando Hernández), declared the Carlos Escaleras National Park a protected area. But in 2013, the same Congress reduced the core area of the park and by 2014, Inversiones Los Pinares was operating there. Since then, the destruction of the park and dispossession of the community has not stopped. 

While the water defenders in Guapinol were trying to free their eight imprisoned comrades, Lenir Pérez’s company was acquiring more land. In addition to mining in the Carlos Escaleras National Park, Pérez built the enormous iron oxide processing plant some 50 meters from the Guapinol River and 500 meters from the village. Here, the iron will be melted with coal or coke and pelletized (converted into pellets) to produce steel. An investigative alliance between Contracorriente, the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism and Univisión Investiga revealed a connection between Inversiones Los Pinares and Ecotek with the multinational Nucor, which is the main steel processor in the United States. Nucor entered the partnership in 2015, but withdrew in 2019 on account of the social unrest caused by the project. 

Read: The hidden connection of a U.S. steelmaker with the controversial Los Pinares mine.

Ecotek also holds concessions to construct five wells in the river for the pelletizing plant. Further, Pérez has received the go-ahead to build a hydroelectric plant in which he proposes to produce 50 megawatts of electricity. He has promised to bring energy to Tocoa through that project. 

“We are outraged, it makes us angry, because our comrades spent more than two and a half years deprived of their freedom for defending the park,” said Zúniga, sitting outside her house.

“Now, they are returning home, seeing this construction [of the Ecotek pelletizing plant], they say that it hurts their souls to see how much has been built while they were in prison. How much did the Justice Ministry participate in this? To what extent did the mayor participate?” she added.

The Ecotek pelletizing factory, under construction. The factory has not yet begun to process the iron oxide. Guapinol, August 12. Photo CC/Fernando Destephen.

Mayor Adán Fúnez: Mel's protégé, Lenir's ally

Reynaldo Domínguez, coordinator of the Environmental Committee in Guapinol, said that Inversiones Los Pinares has the support of Tocoa’s mayor Adán Fúnez. Fúnez was reelected for the second time as mayor under the banner of the Partido Libertad y Refundación (Liberty and Refoundation Party – Libre). He was also appointed as governor of Colón by President Castro, holding both positions for several months, since he did not resign as mayor.

The governor now is Ixcer Barahona, a young politician who, upon being promoted to the post, thanked God and Mayor Fúnez, with the latter advising him not to ‘get a big head’ about the post.

“Unfortunately, Mayor Adán Fúnez is a pawn, a hired hand of Inversiones Los Pinares,” Domínguez told us, adding, “He has been giving the permits. That is his role, to be in favor of mining.”

Domínguez said Fúnez “declared the [Tocoa] municipality free of mining, but in reality he is giving permission [to the mining company].”

“There is the act [the declaration that mining was canceled]; we took it [the matter of mining continuing despite the declaration] to the environment minister,” said Domínguez.

Contracorriente visited the Xatruch Battalion barracks in Tocoa, but after three military officers of different ranks came out to ask us who we wanted to talk to, an officer named Orellana said they were prohibited by order from the highest level from discussing the subject. He said that if we wanted to talk to someone from the armed forces, it should be José Coello, the national spokesperson. 

We did not find Adán Fúnez, mayor of Tocoa, either. At the mayor’s offices, we asked to speak to the person in charge of communications, but we were told that she was participating in a mountain reforestation activity and unavailable. We were asked to leave a telephone number so that she could contact us for a possible interview with the mayor. At the time of publication, we had not received any message or call. The mayor also did not answer messages that we sent to his cellphone. 

Mayor Adán Fúnez is supported by Manuel Zelaya, and is the most influential Libre Party official in Tocoa. Activists such as Zúniga say the former president’s support for Fúnez is a way of imposing the pro-mining agenda, “Mel is asking his supporters to favor big business on there behalf. For us, here, there are many links between Mel and Lenir Pérez.” 

Adilia Castro, member of the Committee for the Defense of the Common and Public Goods of Tocoa, shared Zúniga’s view and lamented that the mayor is the major representative of the Libre party in Tocoa. She described this as a “serious problem,” because the mayor is the only one who has influence at the government level.

“We are not listened to; why does Don Adán [mayor Adán Fúnez] have so much interest in the mining company? Why has he been so involved in putting this project together? Why did Mel, as party coordinator, come to an assembly in Tocoa to endorse such a harmful person?” she asked.

Castro said that the environmental defenders of Tocoa feel that “much of the government’s discourse against extractivism” has been orchestrated as a story, “to sell to the world”, while, in practice, resource extraction continues.

Frustration

In the November 2021 elections, Xiomara Castro won the presidency with 1.7 million votes, the highest number of votes received by any person who has held the presidency in Honduras. The department of Colón had the second-highest number of votes for Castro, surpassed only by that of Cortés. 

“The El Aguán region entrusted the vote to Xiomara,” said Zúniga. “We bet on having a woman president, but it is Mel Zelaya at the table and we did not vote for him. We have been very idle,” she urged. “We have to fight.”

Zúniga said that President Castro must directly hear the demands of the environmental movement that defends Carlos Escalaras Park and other natural resources, and not through any other interlocutor. 

“Why [would I] talk to Mel Zelaya if he is not president?” she said, “If we go to the Presidential House we want to talk to the president and tell her that we have fought for this company to stop operating while it is being investigated, and that the struggles of the people have been shelved.”

Certainly, the demands of the river defenders have not been heard. The reality is that Inversiones Los Pinares and Ecotek continue, without interruption, to operate in the protected area and in the Guapinol and other rivers. Reinaldo Domínguez and Zúniga say that lawsuits filed with the Environmental Prosecutor’s Office and Lucky Medina’s Environment Ministry are not moving forward. Activists have requested an inspection and the ministry has confirmed that they will send a commission to review everything related to Inversiones Los Pinares.

Zúniga has requested loudly and clearly that land and water defenders be included in that commission; along with “technicians from the Environmental Committee and a water analyst, appointed by us,” she said, “We need citizen participation.”

On one occasion, Zúniga recalled, a report was made with the participation of several institutions and a representative of the Attorney General’s Office.

“It was a total disaster”, said Zúniga, adding that if the Guapinol defenders did not organize themselves they would have to leave the community.

The inhabitants of Guapinol have written messages defending life on the huge river rocks. Guapinol, August 11. Photo CC/Fernando Destephen.

Adilia Castro said that Xiomara Castro’s victory still meant hope, “The image of a woman in government gives me hope,” and that it is too early “to know what is going to happen or what position Xiomara’s government will [ultimately] take in the face of a problem as big as the issue of extractivism.”

Implicit in Adilia’s hope is the vision of expelling, not just canceling, extractive projects in Honduras, along with “progression in [the creation of] a democratic and more participatory model where the peoples and territories have the opportunity to participate and decide.”

“We aspire to that,” she said, adding, “it is not happening right now.”

Reynaldo Domínguez said that an informed general population, in this case the community of Guapinol, can hardly accept the word of a businessperson who talks about development, because “development which damages the water is not development.”

Domínguez said that what is happening in Guapinol and in Carlos Escaleras Park “will be a double environmental crime” when the pelletizing plant begins operations. He said that smoke and dust from the rock being placed in ovens will produce contamination and the activists will not permit it. 

He also warned that they will not allow the construction of wells to extract water from the river, since this, like the other concessions given to Lenir Pérez, was not even put to a community consultation. 

“They want to take it [the water] by force,” said Domínguez, “It is public property but they want to keep it for just one company and we will be left with 20% of the water.”

“Even though we are indignant that it is not Xiomara making the decisions,” Zúniga said, there is at least “more openness” now. In this, she referred to the treatment of the activists by National Police on August 5. 

Zúniga said the police officers were “kind,” and that this did not happen under the previous government.

Adilia Castro wondered what decisions will be made by Xiomara Castro’s government on issues as complex as mining. She said the resolutions that have been made to date “require a commitment that goes beyond the speeches.”

The entrance to the Guapinol village in Tocoa, Colón. Visitors are welcomed with a message about the struggle of the river defenders. Guapinol, August 11, 2022. Photo CC/Fernando Destephen.

Come what may, the fighters of Guapinol will defend the river. They will continue to take care of it, as they have done in the 120 years of the community’s existence. 

“Messing with the river is like messing with our mother,” said Reynaldo Domínguez. “We will not accept any businessman bringing us this type of development”.

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Fernando Destephen 1985 Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Photojournalist and storyteller.

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