Hondurans Flee Climate Change, Violence, and a Mining Project

Extractive industry is another reason migrants leave home

By Sandra Cuffe

February 16, 2021


Hondurans kept their national flag at the front of the migrant caravan in Vado Hondo, Guatemala. | Photos by Sandra Cuffe

Francisco could have left his home in northeastern Honduras for any number of reasons. The coronavirus pandemic and related lockdown measures had put an end to his work as a bricklayer's assistant, which had earned him $8 a day. Two hurricanes then swept through the region late last year, destroying homes, crops, and infrastructure. 

But the main reason Francisco fled Honduras was because of a mining project. An iron oxide mine under construction inside a national park just south of the city of Tocoa has sparked years of opposition, conflict, and violence in the area. Community residents have been protesting the mine to protect their river. Some are in jail. Others face threats. People have been killed. 

“The area has become even more violent, and it is no longer possible to stay,” said Francisco, who requested his real name not be used for security reasons. “We cannot say anything because if we react to the mine, we could even be killed.” 

Violence has long been one of the main drivers of mass migration from northern Central America, and in recent years climate change has also become a significant factor. Less well known is how mining and natural resource extraction in some areas exacerbate violence and climate change impacts, spurring localized migration. 

“There is a clear connection between mining and migration,” said Pedro Landa, Honduran representative of the International Platform Against Impunity, an alliance of Dutch, Swiss, and Central American civil society organizations. 

Landa now focuses more on policy and advocacy, but he spent nearly two decades investigating extractve industry projects, working with mine-affected communities on behalf of various nongovernmental groups. People affected by the environmental impacts of mining—from acid mine drainage and water shortages to violence and criminalization—often have little choice but to leave home, Landa said. 

“They migrate from the area to other regions or out of the country,” he told Sierra. “In practice, they are environmental refugees.”

Francisco was one of an estimated 7,500 Honduran migrants and asylum seekers that set out together for Mexico and the US last month, the latest of several so-called migrant caravans in recent years. Highly visible, the caravans have drawn significant international attention and backlash, but they do not necessarily represent an uptick in migration. The caravan phenomenon emerged in large part for safety. 

Guatemalan security forces blocked a highway to stop the migrant caravan from advancing.

As the US and Mexico have expanded their crackdowns on immigration, Central Americans have had to shift to more dangerous routes to evade immigration and security forces. As a result, migrants face higher risks of abductions and killings in Mexico and death from exposure and dehydration across the US border. 

“Most of us here who want to go to the United States are afraid of crossing Mexico. There is more security in a big group,” Francisco told Sierra in Vado Hondo, where Guatemalan police and military forces were blocking the highway to stop the caravan’s advance. People were fleeing Honduras for diverse reasons, from unemployment to transphobic violence to hurricane impacts, but in Francisco’s case, it was the violence associated with the mine. 

A Honduran company with links to prominent business tycoons and politicians owns the Los Pinares iron oxide mine and a processing facility under construction. The company also has powerful allies outside the country. Nucor Corporation, the largest US steel producer, has a stake in the project, an investigation by Univision revealed late last year. Prior to his appointment as US secretary of defense, General Lloyd Austin was on Nucor's board. 

It required some political maneuvering to secure the legal rights to build the mine. The site was located inside the nucleus zone of Carlos Escaleras National Park, named after an environmentalist murdered in 1997. Mining activity is not permitted in the nucleus zones of protected areas, but instead of upholding protections, congress passed a bill in December 2013 that shifted the park’s internal boundaries to exclude the mine area from the nucleus zone, allowing the company to acquire a mining concession the following month. 

People in the communities closest to the mine, Guapinol and Concepción, were concerned that it would contaminate their river and they began organizing and protesting construction. Other residents in the region, including in the city of Tocoa, joined them and formed a local environmental committee. But in the urban development of Ceibita, a mile outside the city, the mine has strong support. 

“The mining company said they would give jobs, so most people [in Ceibita] were in favor,” said Francisco, who fled Honduras with two other young men from Ceibita. The trio had seen three other Ceibita residents among the migrant caravan crowd, Francisco’s 19-year-old friend told Sierra

Francisco and his friends heard the promises of jobs, but they also heard Guapinol residents speaking out about how mining can pollute waterways and wondered if it was true. “We started searching online,” said Francisco. After looking into it, Francisco and his friends sided with the Guapinol resistance movement opposing the mine. But they did not speak up out of fear. 

“These areas are completely militarized, either by state security forces or by security guards or by hitmen,” Landa said of the Tocoa region, noting outspoken mine opponents there receive constant death threats. Many people only see two real options, he said: “You either become complicit or you have to flee.” 

Ceibita is not just a stronghold of support for the mine. It is also home to members of armed groups. In Honduras, the lines between state security forces, organized crime, business interests, politicians, and paramilitary activity are often blurred. US federal prosecutors have established the involvement of the military, police, and high-level politicians—including the Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernández, and his brother—in drug trafficking. 

Guatemalan military police laid out their gear after evicting thousands of Honduran migrants from the highway.

“It is a failed state in the hands of organized crime,” said Landa, noting that there is a direct nexus between drug trafficking and certain mining projects in the country. “It is a scenario of violence, insecurity, and risk.” 

Drug trafficking, industry, and social movements coexist in Tocoa and the broader lower Aguan Valley region, but not peacefully. Dozens of land rights movement activists have been killed in and between the vast oil palm plantations in the valley. Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental defenders, according to Global Witness. Indigenous leaders, land rights activists, and community environmentalists are all too often killed, threatened, or criminalized. 

The Guapinol-led resistance to the iron oxide mine is no exception. The government pursued criminal charges against 32 mine opponents in connection with a protest camp, and eight of them have been in jail awaiting trial for more than a year. Arnold Joaquín Morazán was one of the people facing charges, but he was never arrested. In October of last year, he was murdered in his home in Tocoa. Chances are, the crime will never be solved. In more than 90 percent of homicide cases in Honduras, no one is brought to justice. 

“Nothing is ever investigated,” said Francisco. “There is a lot of injustice in my country.” 

Less than an hour after Francisco and his friends spoke to Sierra, hundreds of Guatemalan soldiers and police forcibly cleared the highway in Vado Hondo, dispersing and effectively disbanding the migrant caravan. Some managed to advance north in small groups, circumventing militarized checkpoints, but over the course of 11 days, Guatemala sent nearly 5,000 people back across the border into Honduras.

Some of the thousands sent back to Honduras had no home to go back to. The migrant caravan in January was full of people affected by hurricanes Eta and Iota, which swept through Central America last November. Honduras was the worst hit. Overflowing rivers washed out roads and bridges, destroyed crops, and submerged entire towns and city neighborhoods. Hundreds of thousands were displaced, tens of thousands are still staying in shelters, and others left homeless are living in encampments under bridges. 

Inequality, precarious housing, industrial land and river use, deforestation, and other factors all magnified the impacts of Eta and Iota in Honduras, as has happened with other natural disasters. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch also devastated the region, leaving an estimated 11,000 people dead and 8,000 disappeared. 

“Eta and Iota revealed that 22 years later, absolutely nothing had been resolved,” said Isabella Orellana, a sociologist and former dean of the San Pedro Sula campus of the National Autonomous University of Honduras. 

“Honduras had the chance to address the issues and mitigate the impacts of future storms but did not,” she told Sierra. “Watershed areas were not protected. Retaining walls, dykes, and other infrastructure were never maintained.” 

Now another 20 years of environmental degradation have passed. Violence, corruption, and lawlessness have all spiked, and hundreds of thousands of Hondurans like Francisco will continue to flee.

A Honduran boy looks out at an open-pit gold mine in western Honduras.