Trouble in Paradise. Looking for treasures in the land of the Maya

In Copán Ruinas, a paradise for tourists and famous for its Maya ruins, locals were surprised by the approval of mining concessions to look for gold. United they hope they can stop this project.

the famous stelae of Copán

Welcome to Copán Ruinas!

One of the ‘Must See’s’ in Central America are the Maya ruins near the town of Copán Ruinas in Honduras. Often it is the only thing tourists see in Honduras. The visit results more than worth it. Archaeologists consider the remarkable stelae and sculptured decorations some of the finest surviving art of ancient Mesoamerica. UNESCO considers Copán Ruinas and its surroundings World Heritage.

Copán Ruinas is not just archaeology. The more adventurous types can indulge in cycling, hiking, kayaking, hot-springs, waterfalls, macaw watching, horseback-riding.…the possibilities are endless, the surroundings stunning.

What a pity it is that a handful of powerful people value this piece of paradise for other treasures, to be found underground.

A sly giant woke up wary activists

In February 2016, a team of researchers from Oxfam, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma of Honduras, and Clark University visited Copán as part of a study on mining, water, and livelihoods in Honduras. They wanted to interview locals about four applications for concessions to explore the existence and quantity of minerals in the region, three of which were approved early September 2015 by INHGEOMIN, the Honduran Institute for Geology and Mining. Although Honduran mining law stipulates locals should be informed about such applications the researchers discovered they were the first to notify the inhabitants. Even the local municipality claims they did not know anything.

Rode Murcia, born and bred in Copán transformed her indignation into action. With the help of some friends she started visiting the communities that would be most affected by the mine. Rode also visited the ‘water committees’. These ‘juntas de agua’ represent seven villages that started organizing themselves 25 years ago to assure access to drinking water. Consequently they became very protective of the forests and its many springs. One gets used to live to defend our water, to defend our environment,” Juan Angel Guerra, the sympathetic president of the water committees tells me.

Juan Guerra, the president of the water committees

Beside the water committees other organizations in this region count on a long experience of struggle. The resistance of the local indigenous Maya population, the Chorti, goes back to the arrival of the Spanish colonizers. In 1995 that resistance revived translating itself in a struggle to recuperate their land, their culture and identity. The well established organization CONIMCHH stood at the forefront of this fight. Its younger brother CONADIMCHH was eager to add another battle when they heard of the plans of the mining company. Their coordinator Antonio Arias made some time for me on his free Sunday. “Like colonization, mining is just another extractive project. Colonization extracted our identity and knowledge. Mining will extract our natural resources and damage our land. We shall defend our environment and natural resources.”

Who are the losers, who are the winners

This alliance of organizations and citizens defending the land and environment set out to find answers. Who applied for these concessions? Who would gain from such a project here? What damage will this bring?

Like often happens in the mining industry it is often unclear who the mother company behind a smoke curtain of specifically set up subsidiaries are. In this case a company, Suroro Pty. Ltd. was registered in 2012 in Australia, except for a registration certificate there is no further trace of them on the Internet. Suroro registered another company in Honduras, rather cynically they called their local subsidiary Minerales Chorti S.A., after the indigenous people whose land they would destroy. Antonio is not pleased, “They are usurping our name for a project of death!”

Antonio Arias, the coordinator of           CONADIMCHH

The company was granted permission to explore an area covering 2819 hectares. Nine villages reside within these 2819 hectares. Some inhabitants own their land but most live on parcels that is property of the traditional landowning elites. One of the villages to be affected by the mining project is El Quebracho. We arrive late because the villagers worked in their fields all day. Initially the six men I sit down with are a bit cautious, but soon the conversation flows as much between me and them as among themselves. Locals are worried. “These rich people will get offered a lot of money, they just sell their land and move to Spain. They don´t care about us poor people, we have nowhere to go.”

Curiously most people I talk with do not want to utter the specific names of these powerful local landlords. “Because we are not sure yet who would benefit from having a mine in the area,” Rode tells me. In Honduras environmentalists better take care not to offend powerful political and economic elites. According to a recent study from Global Witness it is the most dangerous country for land activists, 123 were assassinated since 2009. In Copán only Rode reports she received threats, alarmingly some of them are death threats.

There is possibly another reason why many appear cautious to be naming and shaming. “Drug traffickers are buying up large quantities of land in the area.” Antonio tells me, “This will make the repression and persecution of those that defend our territory even worse. People are afraid to talk, because of the political context and because of the drug traffickers. They know the mining industry, like the drug industry, is owned by powerful people.”

They will destroy all the things that give us life”

Beside finding out who was behind the application, the locals investigated what would be the consequences of an open pit gold mine. What worries them most is the access to water. The area under concession is coincidentally also the area where most water comes from for the 40.000 people that live in the municipality of Copán Ruinas. “The majority of the population here barely have their own house and a small piece of land,” one of the locals of El Quebracho tells me, “We grow corn and beans for our family to eat. Some also produce coffee to sell. Just enough to survive. This mining project would pollute and consume the water we need for our fields, the water we drink.”

Some of the men in El Quebracho

Interviewing the general manager of the town hall Armando Interiano adds mining would similarly affect bigger producers and admits he does not see how mining could bring increased benefits to the region. “Each year Copán Ruinas attracts around 100.000 tourists. Although the proceeds of the archaeological park go to the national government tourism provides a living for many people in the urban center. We worked very hard to also promote other attractions in the area.” Attractions that coincidentally involve a lot of nature and a lot of water.

One could add that aesthetically a mine in the area doesn’t look too attractive for tourists, but also on archaeological grounds a mining project is somewhat absurd. The region is scattered with barely known and unknown ruins. The land under concession is hardly a  few miles from the area UNESCO declared World Heritage. Needless to say dynamite would not guarantee the permanency of this heritage. Locals and the municipal authorities asked the Government Institute of Anthropology and History to asses and declare if cultural patrimony is at risk, but from that front no news has surfaced yet.

The coalition of organizations made informing the affected communities about these impacts one of its basic strategies. The men in el Quebracho obviously listened well. They recount distressing examples, many from Honduras, many even from the same department of Copán. They speak of cyanide spills and relocations of entire villages, even cemeteries. They tell of mining companies breaking promises, dividing communities and families, of mines bringing conflict, militarization, repression and assassinations. They talk about the destruction of houses due to dynamite explosions and about the health problems. And they ask, “What good would it be that they bring us employment if they destroy all the other things that give us life?”

One of the locals in El Quebracho

But could mining not bring some positive impact? Employment? Economic growth? Development? In her little office escaping from her energetic family According to ICEFI, an think tank focusing on fiscal affairs, mining contributed to 1-2% of the GDP between 2000 and 2010 and employed an average of 0.2% of the economically active population. Rode, even the vice-mayor, insist, “The possible benefits a mining company would bring do not outweigh the costs”.

If we show local opposition maybe we can stop this project”

It shouldn’t sound as a surprise Copán stands united; urban and rural inhabitants alike, indigenous and mestizo populations, tourist businesses and subsistence farmers, even the local government. They won’t accept a mine in their backyard. Nevertheless the organizers were surprised when on the 12th of April, the day a maya Chort’i leader Cándido Amador was killed in 1997 and only two months after they first heard about the concessions, around 8000 people showed up at the demonstration to protest the mining project.

The manifestation gave birth to a new organization, the Environmental Coalition of Copán Ruinas, an alliance between the water committees and concerned citizens like Rode. CONADIMCHH is their brother-in-arms. They have faith they can stop this mining project. “This project will affect everybody,” Antonio the coordinator of the Chorti organization explains. “Maybe they desist from investing in this project if they realize it will cause a huge conflict. Maybe if we show there is a lot of local opposition we can stop this project.”

Registering local opposition has consequently been one of the strategies of the Environmental Coalition. Nearly all of the communities in the municipality of Copán and a few from neighbouring municipalities declared themselves “free of mining” and ratified a document supporting this claim. Also the mayor of the town accepted to officially declare Copán Ruinas free of mining in a general assembly where 800 community representatives were present. If that was not enough and the mining project would go ahead the Coalition knows that demonstrating local opposition, and local indigenousness, will be necessary when appealing to international agreements, such as Treaty 169 of the ILO. The treaty affirms States should consult local indigenous populations about mayor projects on their land, and take their opinion into account. 

Picture from facebook page Coalicion Ambientalista Copán Ruinas

In theory the Honduran mining law says there can be no mining if the local population is opposed. It seems not many locals have faith in theory. Practice has shown them otherwise. In a country with alarming levels of corruption and impunity, in a State which saw a coup-d’état against an elected president in 2009, people learned authorities do not always comply with the will of the people. “The government and mining companies won’t leave it there. Sure they are exploring how to proceed,” one of the men in el Quebracho asserts. “Even the local government may now say they are against mining but there are many powerful landlords in the council and the next elections are soon.”

The mining company was able to silently pass from an application to a concession for exploration without the knowledge of the local population. But now they know and they won’t let a concession for exploitation pass that smoothly. In one of our rides Juan, the president of the water committees tells me “For now we haven’t seen any movement from the mining company, maybe the project is cancelled, but until we got confirmed on a piece of paper that there will be no mining in Copán Ruinas we are vigilant, we keep informing and organizing ourselves. It is better to prevent and alert the people because there is no way back once the mine is there.”

And what about us?

Maybe you are a tourist who once visited Copán or are about to visit this green paradise. Maybe you are a concerned Honduran or maybe you are just concerned. If so, again maybe, just like the locals of Copán we should also keep informing and organizing ourselves, remain vigilant and prevent a mine in Copán Ruinas before it is too late. A shy young man in El Quebracho gives me a reason why we should act in solidarity. “What we ask of our world is that we can live in peace in our territory. We want to live in health, drink clean water. And after us come our children. This is why we fight. Even if we have to die for it, doesn’t matter. We prefer dying than giving up our land.”

—————–   Dedicated to Yvan and Lina, forever within me ——————-


Fighting against cornleaf dolls and mining companies 

In Copán Ruinas everybody comes to see the ancient Maya ruins. But are the Mayans in this area really something of the past? Being Maya Ch’ort’i certainly appears to be a complicated issue in this area. While most Ch’ort’i are marginalized and ashamed of their roots, their name and identity has been co-opted and their culture became an exhibition. But other Ch’ort’i do not sit back idly. Theirs is a struggle to recover their culture, and their land. In a battle against a planned mining project the assertion of Ch’ort’i identity suddenly became a tool. Maybe this new pride in a Ch’ort’i identity will solidify their claim to land.   (read more)


  1. Contact the Coalición Ambientalista Copan Ruinas on facebook, express your solidarity, ask them what you can do.
  2. Inform yourself about the political and human rights situation in Honduras.
  3. Get involved in local solidarity networks in your area.
  4. Spread news about the human rights situation in Honduras. Organize events. Share publications.
  5. Investigate which companies or investors are involved in human rights abuses. Expose them.
  6. Change your consumer habits if these damage human rights and the environment.
  7. Write to your local representatives and/or Honduran embassy expressing concern about the situation in Honduras.
  8. Etc. Etc. Etc.


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