This article originally appeared in The Nation magazine
The mine can’t be reached from the gate along the road, which is guarded by soldiers bearing M-16s and a helmeted foreman with a shotgun over his chest.
So if you want to see the sprawling mineral extraction complex being constructed here in Honduras’s lush Bajo Aguán valley, you have to hike past El Guapinol, one of the villages many fear the mine will poison. You ascend a mud-sluiced path of boulders, passing a line of barbed wire to reach a grassy embankment. From there, you can see the excavators, the trucks, the rows of concrete pilings, and the gaping brown hole scraped out of the valley’s verdant floors. The mine, whose conjoining iron oxide processing factory is set to be the largest in Central America, hasn’t been built yet. But blood is already being spilled over it.
“We live in fear every day,” says Reinaldo Domínguez, a resident of El Guapinol, looking out over the construction site in the distance.
WHEN THE ALARM WENT OFF at four in the morning, the world outside was limpid and still.
The backpack, already packed, lay propped against the wall at the far end of the room, a foam mattress pad protruding through it crossways and the boots set beside it with the laces unloosened. Milky prisms of moonlight in slipped through the windblown curtains. Far off, the distant rattling of motorcycles carried with a faint echo over the city.
For a few more seconds—or maybe it was a minute—I contemplated the prospect of going, absorbing stillness of the world outside. And without further ado, I slipped into the boots, threw my pack over my shoulders and went walking down the street, joyful if apprehensive, bound for the highest point in Central America.
IN THE FALL OF 2012, when I was a freshman in high school, I took a class called AP human geography.
It was one of the most eye-opening classes I’d taken up to that point in my life—as well as the most depressing. Rooted in the global study of demographics, the class entailed discussing the breadth of human suffering, matters that provoke most people to drown their apprehension by turning on Netflix: overpopulation, poverty, environmental collapse. On one typical day, I remember we watched a documentary about overpopulation in Indian slums. The imagery within—dust-choked shanties, emaciated mothers, all narrated by a smooth British voice—was so depressing that, by the end of it, I was left despairing at the futility of human existence.
The video depicts a huddled mass of migrants, quiet, exhausted, several hundred in number, their eyes squinting dimly in the bright light of the camera. They squat in the creosote, heads bowed in defeat, coughing and shivering in the cold. All around them, men in green fatigues bearing AR-15s and thigh-strapped pistols saunter the group’s perimeter, examining the migrants with cold glances of suspicion and shouting the occasional command in poorly pronounced Spanish.
“How bad will we let it get,” a concerned female voice muses, “before we actually build the wall?”
Midway through the video, the crowd is ushered downhill at gunpoint to a cluster of Border Patrol vehicles. After the video cuts off, they’ll be shuttled to detention centers, locked in cages, and detained interminably before being ejected back into the cartel-dominated no-man’s-land of northern Mexico. They’ll have little protection once they’re dropped there, with no means of getting home nor knowledge of the whereabouts of their parents or children.
Manuel Zelaya, Honduras’ ousted ex-President, eases into the couch in the headquarters for his LIBRE party and lays out the opposition’s mounting insurrection.
This summer marked 10 years since Zelaya was overthrown in a US-backed military coup. The decade since has transformed Honduras, exacerbating the Central American nation’s preexisting social problems by turning it into one of the poorest, most violent places in the hemisphere.Since the coup, a junta of right-wing, billionaire drug traffickers has slipped into political power— including President Juan Orlando Hernández, who U.S. prosecutors recently accused of complicity in a drug money scheme to illegally fund his 2013 presidential campaign.
Several of my friends recently have come to me and said: “I’m not anti-immigration, man. I’m anti-ILLEGAL immigration!”
Resisting the urge to be a jerk, it would be more productive if—having spent a solid chunk of time south of the border—I laid out some reasons to demonstrate how problematic it is to say you’re anti-ILLEGAL immigration, and how such a viewpoint is rooted in potentially racist presuppositions that are often flat-out false:
From a pasty blue building behind a crumbling church in a Guatemalan highland village, a contortion of antennas stands raised against the sky.
Beneath the antennas is a metal-plated door. Behind that, in a sparse room with a paint-chipped table and a sprawling tangle of wires, sits Osmar Miranda, a radio operator. Adjusting the black knobs on a control board, he takes off his headphones and explains how Radio San José—one of the Central American country’s so-called “pirate radio” stations—offers its poor Mayan population one of the few ways to get their voices heard on the airwaves.
In April, 1997, several thousand fighters from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, entered the Caribbean department of Bolívar, along the Magdalena River, their stated goal being the “cleansing of the area and (the) handing it over to multinational corporations.”
The AUC, short for Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, was a paramilitary army whose right-wing ideology had grown out of the network of rural businessmen and druglords who supported them. The official raison d’etre of the AUC had originally been to fight the communist guerrillas of the FARC and ELN, against whom the Colombian state had been waging a three-decade internal war. Yet making the departments of Bolívar and Magdalena safe for corporations meant far more than merely clearing out communists, and the broader agenda at play was more sinister than mere “self-defense.”
Early one evening in 1993, Daniel Wilkinson, a Harvard postgrad researcher, was finishing an interview in a remote Guatemalan village when he began hearing gunshots on the mountain above him.
Though at first, the sound seemed to be little more than a discordant series of unconnected reports, it soon became clear that he was hearing a battle between leftist guerrillas and the Guatemalan military. Wilkinson’s interviewee, an indigenous man and former hand on a coffee plantation, insisted on account of the danger that his guest spend the night at his house, an offer which, machine guns rattling in the distance, the fearful Ivy-leaguer was eager to accept.
For conservationist Jen Lomberk, the Matanzas River is both a blessing and a curse.
“We have something very beautiful that a lot of people are passionate about protecting,” she says, contemplating the estuary she’s spent the last year fighting to protect. “But I’ve also noticed it’s very hard to get people to care and pay attention when things aren’t catastrophic.”
As the “Matanzas Riverkeeper,” Lomberk, 28, is a legal expert-turned-conservationist who’s ingratiated herself into a web of local volunteers agitating to protect the waterways around St. Augustine, the majority of which lay within the beautiful but threatened Matanzas River watershed.