Honduras has once more distinguished itself as the murder capital of the world. In a recent UN report, Honduras came in with a walloping 90.4 murders per 100,000 people, while Venezuela was in the number two spot at 53.7. While many are quick to blame drug trafficking for the murder rate in Honduras, a look at the location of high murder rates within the country leads us toward a different understanding of the problem.
Within Honduras, the murder rate climbs as one travels north to the central Atlantic coast departments. In the heart of this region lies the lush Lower Aguán Valley, a center of deadly conflict over land rights. On one side of the conflict, peasant farmers on small cooperatives claim ownership of their land based on agrarian reform laws passed in the 1970s. These laws allowed collective ownership and the right to cultivate crops both for subsistence and export. On the other, large landowners, including some of the richest men in Honduras, are set on expanding their holdings for the production of export crops, especially the African palm. These producers point to a law passed in 1992 and corresponding initiatives set out by the World Bank for their support.
Human Rights Watch recently reported that 92 people were killed in the Lower Aguán in just the last three years. Most of these were members of peasant organizations but a few were security guards employed by the large landowners. Interviews conducted in the region revealed that most killings and other human rights abuses have been directly or indirectly related to the land rights conflict. Journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders in the region reported that they are also harassed due to their support for the cooperatives. Since 2009, 74 lawyers and 25 journalists have been killed in Honduras. Among them, Antonio Trejo, a lawyer who had succeeded in achieving a court victory for a peasant cooperative in the Lower Aguán, was murdered not long after the verdict while attending a wedding. Five months later, his brother, José, was gunned down in the Lower Aguán while on his motorcycle. José had been investigating his brother’s death and had made a public appeal for greater coverage only the day before.1
Official investigation of these crimes is hard to come by, however. While a recent Honduran government report showed that 73 killings had been recorded in connection with land rights conflicts, only seven of these cases were brought to trial and not a single conviction resulted. This custom of impunity extends to private security forces employed by large landowners as well.
The land rights conflict goes back at least to the early 1950s. Back then, Guatemala had passed a land reform act that provided landless peasants with unused farmland owned by powerful fruit companies including United Fruit (UFCO). In return, the companies were to be compensated according to the value of the land listed for tax purposes. Guatemalan President Jácobo Arbenz paid the price for this daring move when UFCO representatives convinced Washington to back his overthrow in 1954. The land reform act was terminated afterward and the related unused land restored to UFCO.
In neighboring Honduras, a similar contest over land rights came out differently. Just as the U.S. Navy was patrolling the coastal waters in preparation for the coup in Guatemala, a mass strike by UFCO workers in Honduras broke out. The company’s response was to mechanize production. This made it possible to fire half the workforce, sending 15,000 unemployed banana workers into the ranks of the landless peasantry. With backing from the Honduran government, many of these workers took up farming on unused company lands. As in Guatemala, the goal was to address the problem of landlessness while raising the country’s economic productivity.
In contrast to Guatemala, however, this mode of land reform in Honduras would actually receive U.S. support. Through the Alliance for Progress in 1962, the U.S. provided nearly $94 million to Honduras—a threefold increase over the previous decade—to support the development of cooperative farms. Another injection of U.S. development assistance for cooperative farming came with reform laws enacted in the mid-1970s.2 These laws turned over large amounts of land in the Lower Aguán to the central government and municipalities following the forcible eviction of Salvadoran immigrants. This land was then distributed to native-born Honduran farmers recruited from around the country.
Here they were encouraged to cultivate export crops such as the African palm along with corn, rice, beans, fruits, and vegetables for their own consumption and local sale. Collective titles were awarded to those who worked the land cooperatively for a certain number of years. The reform laws also limited the number of hectares that could be owned to prevent the concentration of land ownership. In time, the government titled hundreds of these cooperatives, at least 84 of which were located in the Lower Aguán. Fifty-four of these were specifically directed to grow and industrialize palm oil.3
The U.S. continued to influence land use legislation in Honduras in the 1980s by providing millions of dollars in grants and loans.4 The two governments reached agreement on the Small Farmer Titling Project brought about by reforms passed in 1981 and 1982. This project exempted coffee lands from the previous requirement of collective titling and targeted tens of thousands of coffee producers for the receipt of individual property titles. It also allowed the titling of “microfincas” or farms of less than five hectares. These measures reflected a distinct shift from collective to individual titling, from local to export markets, and from mid-size cooperatives to both smaller and larger land holdings.
This shift was even more pronounced in the Agricultural Modernization Law passed in 1992. Where previous reforms had been supported through bilateral assistance from the U.S., the Modernization Law was underwritten by the World Bank, to be carried out in conjunction with structural adjustment policies. As such, it was accompanied by cutbacks in government support for local agricultural production and increased support for exports, including the redirection of subsidies for irrigation, fertilizer and pesticides, and university research. In addition, collectively owned lands were to be sold to private investors.
In the years since then, a mad scramble for land has broken out in the Lower Aguán. Many who received land during the era of collective ownership and use rights have simply refused to sell. This has posed a challenge for the government in moving forward with the World Bank-guided plan to implement market reform and increase export production. In some cases, farm cooperative directors have sold commonly-held land to big landowners and speculators without the support or even the knowledge of other members of the cooperative. In others, wealthy landowners have resorted to trickery, threats, harassment, and violence to coerce cooperative members to sell.
In a few short years after passage of the Agricultural Modernization Law, three large landowners had taken over three quarters of the arable land in the Lower Aguán Valley. Since then, African palm oil has become a chief export for Honduras. With 22,000 acres of palm plantations, snack foods maker Dinant Corporation, owned by the wealthiest businessman in the country, is now the largest single landowner in the valley.
Oil from the African palm has gained popularity as a substitute for trans fats and is found in about half of all packaged foods sold in the U.S. and Europe. It is also used in cleaners, cosmetics, and increasingly, in biofuel. Both the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank have provided loans to Dinant to support the production of palm oil-based biofuel, which is promoted as an environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuel. Ironically, mass production of the African palm requires enormous amounts of water, which drains the surrounding communities and makes it difficult for local farmers to raise livestock and grow food.
Despite violence, a number of the original cooperatives in the Lower Aguán have managed to survive by reasserting their legal claim to the land. They have been joined by thousands of farm families moving back into the area to occupy about 7,000 hectares of land. These revitalized cooperatives received the support of former President Manuel Zelaya, elected in 2006, who had decreed that unused parcels owned by large landowners be redistributed to land-poor families. He also agreed to hold hearings on land title claims by farmers who maintained they had been defrauded. These plans came to an abrupt halt, however, when Zelaya was ousted in June 2009.
Around that time, the World Bank was cobbling together the financial support needed to expand production of palm oil by Dinant. In April, the WB had pulled together a 30-million dollar package that included loans from Germany’s development bank, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration. Four months after the coup and amid rising violence against cooperative farmers, the World Bank’s financing arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), disbursed $15 million of this package to Dinant to continue its expansion in the Lower Aguán.
Nonetheless, thousands of farm families have continued to occupy and farm land in the valley with the support of regional peasant associations. Within each cooperative, the priority is to build and maintain a stable productive routine for the community. The farmers establish a store, build a school, and set up a radio station to communicate with their supporters. From there they work toward food sufficiency and local sale of their produce.
They also provide security for the cooperatives by setting up camps amid the palm trees on contested land and take turns guarding the periphery. These camps have been the site of violent clashes between armed personnel and farmers who live day-to-day with the threat of being killed, kidnapped, and beaten. In 2011, a law was passed to prohibit ordinary citizens in the Aguán Valley from carrying guns unless one is a private security guard. This has left the collective farmers and their supporters vulnerable to repeated attack by security guards, police and military forces.
While visiting the community of San Isidrio with a delegation in 2013, I found villagers taking turns camping out and defending the border of their community. It was here that the cooperative had won a rare court case confirming that its members were in fact the legal owners of the land. It was also this cooperative whose lawyer, Antonio Trejo, was assassinated in 2012. To date, no charges have been brought against anyone for the killing of either Trejo or his brother.
While these and other events have terrified the community, members still refuse to vacate the land. One member, Filiberto López, told us how he had been shot in the back by armed security guards less than two months before Trejo was killed. He revealed a long thick scar across his abdomen where he had been operated on to remove the bullet. Four other men on guard that day had also been shot. The group was in good humor when we spoke to them, however, as were all who had survived the shooting. Only the day before, we had heard from a family in a neighboring cooperative whose father, a leader and activist, had been found in a shallow grave with signs of torture.
In nearby La Panama, a 16-year-old led us down to the river where land developers had repeatedly attempted to build a road into the community assisted by armed guards. “This is the place where we come and prepare to die,” the boy told us. He and others pointed out the remnants of a bridge torn down by the villagers. Eight days earlier,security guards had entered here firing shots at the farmers who retaliated by throwing rocks and swinging machetes. It was another fortunate day when no one was killed.
After the coup in 2009, peasant cooperatives and others sought to keep their goals alive by founding their own political party called LIBRE. Zelaya’s wife, Xiomara Castro, ran as the party’s presidential candidate in 2013 but lost her bid in an election dubbed “free and fair” by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. Similarly, the Organization of American States (OAS) and European Union (EU) characterized the elections as “generally fair and transparent.” There were disturbing reports of fraud, vote buying, intimidation, and problems with the vote count, however, from organizations such as Rights Action, the Honduran Solidarity Network, the National Lawyers Guild, and the Alliance for Global Justice, all of which had fielded election observers.5 In the Lower Aguán, a Maryknoll elections observer told how that his delegation had been stopped repeatedly while entering the region with the warning that the observers were being “watched.”6 He noted that “large young men” had blocked the doorway at one polling site, allowing voters in only after speaking with them. Some had subsequently left without voting.
The campaigns were also marred by violence from which LIBRE candidates suffered most, with the killing of 18 candidates and party activists. This included the murder of two LIBRE election workers by masked gunmen on the eve of the election as they were returning from a training session. The murder of Edwin Espinal, the reporter who had covered the raid on Zelaya’s house the night he was ousted, also had a chilling effect on LIBRE supporters.
However unintentional, critics see a role for the World Bank in facilitating human right abuses in the Lower Aguán. A group of civil society organizations including Food First Action and Action Network recently appealed to the World Bank to sanction Dinant in light of its human rights violations in the Lower Aguán. In January, the IFC responded with a public reprimand of its own staff for not properly assessing the risks of violence, repression, and forced evictions in the region. IFC further declared a halt on funding to Dinant unless it improved its standards and security practices. Critics such as Professor Dana Frank of the University of California, Santa Cruz, remain skeptical, however. “There’s a reason the national government is not intervening in the Aguán Valley to stop these killings and why there’s complete impunity for the security forces and private security guards who have been killing them. It’s because (Dinant owner) Facussé is a formidable power in the national state.”
Meanwhile, despite virtual warfare in their midst, many cooperative farmers continue to stake their claims to the land. They camp out, patrol their borders, communicate by radio with the outside world, and host delegations of sympathetic foreigners. While taking in stories of violence, tragedy, and courage, I was able to rest in the shade at one farm with the rest of my delegation. As we did, our hosts climbed into an orange tree they had grown themselves on a ladder they had built, harvested the oranges and sliced them with machetes to make them easy for us to peel and eat. As we recovered from the heat, they proceeded to tell us of their fears, their hopes for their children, and how much the land meant to them.