Posts Tagged ‘Bajo Aguán’

Honduras: CIDH preocupada por amenazas a líderes campesinos en el Bajo Aguán

http://conexihon.hn/site/noticia/derechos-humanos/conflicto-agrario-y-minero/honduras-cidh-preocupada-por-amenazas-l%C3%ADderes

Washington, Estados Unidos (Conexihon). –  La Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (CIDH) expresó este lunes su preocupación por una serie de desalojos violentos que habrían ocurrido en la zona del Bajo Aguán en el contexto del conflicto agrario que existe en la región.  Así como por las amenazas y detenciones que habrían sido perpetradas en contra de varios líderes y lideresas campesinos beneficiarios de medidas cautelares otorgadas por la Comisión el 8 de mayo de 2014, presuntos hechos que habrían ocurrido desde el mes de mayo hasta la fecha.
La Comisión instó hoy al Estado a “investigar estos hechos de violencia y a procesar y sancionar a los responsables. Y urgió al Estado a adoptar en forma inmediata todas las medidas necesarias a fin de garantizar el derecho a la vida, la integridad y la seguridad de las defensoras y defensores de derechos humanos en el país”.
Según información de público conocimiento, el 21 de mayo de 2014, miembros de la policía y del ejército, así como guardias de seguridad privada habrían participado en el desalojo violento de las fincas La Trinidad y El Despertar, en el municipio de Trujillo, Colón. Según la información disponible, 300 familias afiliadas al Movimiento Auténtico Reivindicador Campesino del Aguán (MARCA) habrían sido desalojadas.
Presuntamente las fuerzas de seguridad habrían utilizado bombas lacrimógenas y spray pimienta y habrían realizado disparos al aire para amedrentar y desplazar a las familias que habitaban las fincas desde el mes de julio de 2012. De esta operación presuntamente habrían resultado heridos alrededor de 50 campesinos y 8 miembros de las fuerzas de seguridad.
Adicionalmente, 15 personas habrían sido detenidas y presuntamente golpeadas, entre los detenidos se encontrarían Walter Cárcamo, Jaime Cabrera y Antonio Rodríguez, beneficiarios de las medidas cautelares otorgadas por la Comisión semanas antes del suceso. Presuntamente Jaime Cabrera habría sido amenazado de muerte por miembros del ejército y de la policía, quienes supuestamente le habrían colocado un fusil en la oreja izquierda.
De conformidad con información recibida por la CIDH, el 3 de julio la Policía Nacional Preventiva, los miembros de la Fuerza de Tarea Conjunta Xatruch III y el 15 batallón de Fuerzas Especiales habrían llevado a cabo el desalojo de 350 familias del Movimiento Campesino “Gregorio Chávez” (MCRCG) que se encontraban en la finca  Paso Aguán desde el mes de mayo del presente año. Las familias presuntamente fueron desalojadas de forma violenta mediante el uso de gases lacrimógenos.
En esta ocasión, varios de los campesinos habrían resultado heridos y siete habrían resultado detenidos, entre los que se encontrarían dos de los líderes campesinos beneficiarios de las medidas cautelares otorgadas por la CIDH.
Persecución de defensores
Por otro lado, según información recibida por la Comisión, el 30 y 31 de julio los defensores de derechos humanos Martha Arnold, Irma Lemus y Rigoberto Durán, integrantes del Observatorio Permanente de Derechos Humanos del Bajo Aguán, habrían sido perseguidos por dos vehículos color blanco. Adicionalmente, el 19 de agosto el líder campesino Santos Torres, perteneciente al Movimiento Campesino Gregorio Chávez y beneficiario de las medidas cautelares otorgadas por la CIDH, habría sido amenazado por militares y guardias de seguridad en su domicilio, quienes presuntamente lo habrían apuntado a él y su esposa con armas de fuego. Presuntamente este mismo grupo de militares y guardias de seguridad se habría presentado en el domicilio de Glenda Chávez, integrante del Observatorio Permanente de Derechos Humanos de Aguán y lideresa de este movimiento campesino.
En la zona del Bajo Aguán, existe un conflicto de tierras de larga data entre campesinos y empresarios. Según una red de organizaciones nacionales e internacionales que dan seguimiento a esta situación, 112 campesinos y campesinas habrían sido asesinados en los últimos cuatro años en el contexto del conflicto agrario que aqueja a la región. La Comisión Interamericana se ha manifestado en reiteradas ocasiones sobre la situación en el Bajo Aguán, incluyendo en la sección sobre Honduras del Capítulo IV de sus Informes Anuales 2012 y 2013. La CIDH observa que la situación continúa siendo altamente preocupante.
En este contexto, el 8 de mayo de 2014, la CIDH otorgó medidas cautelares a favor de 123 miembros de las organizaciones “Movimiento Campesino Recuperación del Aguán” (MOCRA), “Movimiento Campesino Fundación Gregorio Chávez” (MCRGC), Movimiento Unificado Campesino del Aguán” (MUCA) y “Movimiento Auténtico Reivindicador Campesino del Aguán (MARCA), solicitando al gobierno de Honduras adoptar las medidas necesarias para garantizar su vida e integridad.
La CIDH recordó al Estado  que es su obligación investigar de oficio hechos de esta naturaleza y sancionar a los responsables. Como ha señalado la Comisión anteriormente, los actos de violencia y otros ataques contra las defensoras y los defensores de derechos humanos no sólo afectan las garantías propias de todo ser humano, sino que atentan contra el papel fundamental que juegan en la sociedad y sume en la indefensión a todas aquellas personas para quienes trabajan. La Comisión recuerda asimismo que la labor de defensores y defensoras es esencial para la construcción de una sociedad democrática sólida y duradera, y tienen un papel protagónico en el proceso para el logro pleno del Estado de Derecho y el fortalecimiento de la democracia.
La CIDH es un órgano principal y autónomo de la Organización de los Estados Americanos (OEA), cuyo mandato surge de la Carta de la OEA y de la Convención Americana sobre Derechos Humanos. La Comisión Interamericana tiene el mandato de promover la observancia de los derechos humanos en la región y actúa como órgano consultivo de la OEA en la materia. La CIDH está integrada por siete miembros independientes que son elegidos por la Asamblea General de la OEA a título personal, y no representan sus países de origen o residencia.

The Case of Tumbador Figures in the Long List of Impunities in the Aguán

In an extremely violent region where defenders of human rights risk their lives to defend the rights of farmers, impunity is gaining ground with each passing day.

This is the zone of the Aguán located in the department of Colón in the north of Honduras. On November 15, 2010, security guards working for the landowner Miguel Facussé killed 5 villagers on the palm plantation known as Tumbador.

A ruling by the court issued a provisional dismissal for the alleged perpetrators, thereby increasing the lack of confidence in the application of justice and perpetrating the impunity of the perpetrators in the Bajo Aguán.

A team of procurators of human rights of the Committee of the Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) who visited the area, found that the Prosecution did not appeal the Tribunal’s decision to give freedom to those who shot and killed 5 peasant farmers.

The consequences of these events have resulted in precarious situations for the families of the victims when widows lost their source of income provided by domestic partners and thus now face great difficulty feeding their children left without fathers.

One such case is Maria Conception Membreño, wife of Teodoro Acosta. When her life partner was killed, his youngest son was just 10 months old and now after 4 years she still struggles to feed her 5 children.

Membreño told defensoresenlinea.com that those who killed her husband were security guards of the rich landowner Miguel Facussé and that his death occurred together with four other farmers, blindsiding their intentions to reclaim land and their desires to cultivate the land to survive.

“I am one of the poor, that’s why I need for land to cultivate, because I am poor and it is difficult for me, all of this, I am not like I was before when he was here (Teodoro Acosta), I experience everything differently and I don’t have the protection of anyone except God, ” Membreño said with sadness that she lives with her children in a small plot of land in the community of Guadalupe Carney, municipality of Trujillo, department of Colon.

The situation in which María Concepción Membreño lives is not much different from the other four widows who are seeking justice from the State of Honduras, all losing their housemates to violent conditions in the hands of security guards who, according to reports, operate with impunity in the Aguán.

Four years after the tragic events of these farming families, the case is at a standstill, there is no progress, much less hope of achieving justice.

In February 2014, the international organization Human Rights Watch published a report regarding Honduras entitled: “Here There Are No Investigations: Impunity for Homicides and Other Abuses in the Bajo Aguán, Honduras.”

Honduran authorities have not adequately investigated the wave of killings and other abuses allegedly linked to land conflicts in the Bajo Aguán, stated Human Rights Watch.

The report examines 29 killings and two illegal kidnappings that have occurred in the Bajo Aguán since 2009, as well as human rights violations committed by soldiers and police. Human Rights Watch found that prosecutors and police systematically ignored doing timely and thorough methods of investigation that would have allowed clarification of these crimes, and that omission has been recognized in interviews by prosecutors, police and Honduran military.

“Even for a country with alarming levels of violence and impunity, the situation in the Bajo Aguán is particularly serious,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch. “The absence of the most basic measures to bring perpetrators of crimes to justice, has perpetuated a climate of impunity that encouraged further crimes, and increases the lack of confidence in the authorities.”

In none of the 29 killings documented by Human Rights Watch in the Bajo Aguán has a sentence been passed, as emerges from information provided by government officials. Only one case came to trial: The killing of five peasants which occurred in November 2010 (Tumbador).

But in January 2013 the provisional dismissal was ordered until new evidence could be presented, after which the judge does not find enough evidence to go ahead with the case, and since then it has not resumed. This is the case known as Tumbador, occurred in Trujillo, department of Colon.

In 13 of the 29 murders and kidnappings that Human Rights Watch investigated, the evidence pointed to the possible involvement of private security guards. Private guards are subject to national laws regarding the use of force and they are required to respect the rights of citizens.

Investigations of cases in which the victims had indicated that private guards were involved have been marked by repeated errors and omissions, such as situations in which prosecutors did not demand work records that state what guards were working when a crime was committed.

Because of the alleged involvement in crimes related to land conflicts of security guards working for agro-industrial companies in the Bajo Aguán, the Office of the Ombudsman (CAO), the accountability mechanism of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) – has started an investigation regarding the loans granted by the latter to the Dinant Corporation, owned by Miguel Facussé.

The IFC, the World Bank’s lending body to the private sector, has rules about the practices of their clients relative to procurement, use, and supervision of private security guards, particularly in the face of credible allegations of abuse. The Dinant Corporation told Human Rights Watch that it conducts internal investigations of all allegations of abuse involving staff and cooperates fully with the authorities in connection with any criminal charges.

The report of the Ombudsman of the World Bank, which was published in January 2014, identified serious problems in the way the IFC staff had handled the situation, which included underestimates of the risks relating to safety and land conflicts, and that it did not act with due diligence despite the fact that the situation concerning the project and the risks involved had been publicly raised. The report concludes that the project staff of the IFC also did not report the problems that were occurring to experts in these types of environmental and social risks within the IFC. The IFC has publicly acknowledged that there were weaknesses in the implementation of its own standards.

During his administration, from 2010 to 2013, President Porfirio Lobo took certain measures to mitigate land conflicts in the Bajo Aguán through mediation and land purchase. But in general, the strategy of the government to address violence in the region was to increase the presence of security forces and attributed its origin to criminal groups. However, this strategy did nothing to reduce crime or improve accountability, Human Rights Watch said in its report.

The government of President Lobo also didn’t adopt preventive measures to protect people who were at risk because of the conflicts over land in the Bajo Aguán, even in cases where the evidence suggested persuasively that it was likely that violence will occur. On at least two occasions since 2010, people were killed who had previously been formally awarded “precautionary measures” by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on account of the activities developed in the Bajo Aguán, and they demanded that the Honduran government provide immediate protection.

These victims were a journalist and a peasant activist. In a third case, a human rights lawyer whom the Honduran government had promised protection was murdered. None of these three victims had protection from the government at the time they were killed, concluded Human Rights Watch.

In other instances of credible threats to communities or individuals, officials have not investigated the facts nor offered effective protective measures. Repeatedly in 2013, the military in the region aggravated the risks by exposing certain activists working in the Bajo Aguán by making defamatory statements against them and questioning the credibility of their work.

The Lower Aguán in Honduras and the Deadly Battle Over Land Rights

Lean-to camp where farmers guard the land. The court had ruled in their favor but soon after, the lawyer who had argued the case was murdered. CREDIT: Camila Rich Lean-to camp where farmers guard the land. The court ruled in their favor but soon after, the lawyer who had argued the case was murdered. CREDIT: Camila Rich

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 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.

NOTES:

1 Schibli, Ernie, “Social Justice Committee of Montreal condemns the murder of human rights defenders in Honduras,” The Social Justice Committee, 2014
2 Brockett, Charles D., “Public Policy, Peasants and Rural Development in Honduras,”Journal of Latin American Studies, May 1987 pp 69-86
3 Escribanas, “Honduras: Bajo Aguan campesinos seek letters of solidarity to stop the repression and get titles to theirland,” June 4, 2012
4 Brockett states that the U.S. provided a $10 million loan and $2.5 million in grants between 1981 and 1982.
5 Wallach, Jason, “Anatomy of Election Fraud: The 2013 Honduran Election in Five Simple Steps,” Upsidedownworld.com, December 13, 2013
6 Levey, Eben, “Gross Elections Violations,” Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, Newsnotes, Jan-Feb 2014

Honduras And The Dirty War Fuelled By The West’s Drive For Clean Energy

The palm oil magnates are growing ever more trees for use in biofuels and carbon trading. But what happens to the subsistence farmers who live on the lucrative land?

By Nina Lakhani, 7 January 2014
http://www.theguardian.com/global/2014/jan/07/honduras-dirty-war-clean-energy-palm-oil-biofuels

The west’s drive to reduce its carbon footprint cheaply is fuelling a dirty war in Honduras, where US-backed security forces are implicated in the murder, disappearance and intimidation of peasant farmers involved in land disputes with local palm oil magnates.

More than 100 people have been killed in the past four years, many assassinated by death squads operating with near impunity in the heavily militarised Bajo Aguán region, where 8,000 Honduran troops are deployed, according to activists. Farmers’ leader Antonio Martínez, 28, is the latest victim of this conflict. His corpse was discovered, strangled, in November.

Peasant farmers say they are the victims of a campaign of terror by the police, army and private security guards working for palm oil companies since a coup in June 2009 ended land negotiations instigated by the deposed president, Manuel Zelaya.

Witnesses have implicated Honduran special forces and the 15th Battalion, which receives training and material support from the US, in dozens of human rights violations around the plantations of Bajo Aguán. They say private security guards regularly patrol and train with the soldiers, and have even been given military uniforms and weapons for some operations.

The military denies the allegations, blaming the United Peasant Movement (MUCA) for escalating violence in the region. Repeated requests for comment from the US embassy in Honduras failed to elicit a response.

Land occupations

The Bajo Aguán dispute dates back almost 20 years, to a World Bank-funded land modernisation programme. The farmers say thousands of hectares of land used for subsistence farming were fraudulently and coercively transferred to agribusinesses that grow African palms, which are lucratively exported to the west for biofuel, and are traded in the carbon credit market. Since then, they have tried to reclaim the land using the courts, as well as roadblocks and illegal land occupations.

Zelaya launched an investigation to resolve the conflicts, but this came to an abrupt halt when he was toppled in a coup in 2009 that was backed by the business, political, military and church elites.

In December 2009, groups of subsistence farmers started large-scale illegal occupations on disputed land also claimed by the country’s biggest palm oil producer, the Dinant Corporation, which is owned by Miguel Facussé, one of Honduras’s most powerful men. Dinant says 17 of its security guards were killed and 30 injured in clashes with farmers.

The region was heavily militarised in early 2010, and the farmers who were occupying the land were forcibly removed by soldiers enforcing contentious court orders. Accusations of human rights violations have escalated ever since.

In one incident, in 2012, Neptaly Esquivel, 32, a father of five, was permanently disabled by a bullet to the hip fired at close range by a soldier, whose face was hidden by a balaclava, during a peaceful protest against education reform. His case is with the Inter-American Commission/Court of Human Rights.

In another incident, Matías Vallé, 51, a founder member of MUCA, was shot dead by two masked men on a motorcycle as he waited for a bus. Witnesses said a car full of private security guards was parked a few metres away.

His wife, Dominga Ramos, said he had rejected money from Dinant employees to stop the farmers’ movement, after which he was told there was a price on his head. Ramos said: “I witnessed one police officer trying to hide a bullet shell in the ground with his foot. We buried him in a secret place so they couldn’t remove his head. I am tired and scared. “My two sons left because of threats. We just want to work our land in peace.”

Dinant strongly denies any direct or indirect involvement in death squads or human rights violations. It denies collusion between its security guards and government security forces to target peasant groups, and says it is committed to corporate social responsibility. The company says government security forces have been deployed against trespassers, who Dinant says are guilty of murder and other crimes.

A spokesman said Dinant was “not familiar” with the cases of Martínez, Esquivel or Vallé, and it had never been investigated for any suspected involvement. The company said it remained committed to “a quick and peaceful resolution to the Aguán conflict”.

Another recent case is the disappearance of Josbin Santamaría Caballero, who was allegedly shot and taken away in an army helicopter on 30 October 2012 as his wife and two young daughters cowered in their kitchen of their home. The Dinant spokesman said the company was ignorant of his case, too.

Caballero, 25, son of a prominent peasant activist, had been publicly denounced as a violent criminal by Colonel German Alfaro, commander of the joint police-military Xatruch operation in the region. Alfaro, trained at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly the School of the Americas) in Fort Benning, Georgia, denied any military involvement and said MUCA, the most organised peasant group in the region, was responsible for the current violence.

Alfaro said: “MUCA and other groups encourage farmers to confront agro-industrialists, maintain constant tension and insecurity, and commit crimes to destabilise the area with armed groups.”

Wider struggle

The Aguán conflict mirrors a wider struggle over land and natural resources across Honduras that for decades has pitted the poor majority against the country’s 10 oligarch families. Honduras became the world’s most violent country outside a war zone in 2011, and it is one of the poorest and most unequal in the Americas.

Activists say the use of state security forces to suppress protests against landgrabs, dams, mining and oil concessions has intensified since the 2009 coup. Over the same period the US has built up its military presence, with several bases in the country, which has become a major transit point for the international drugs trade. Between 140 and 300 tonnes of cocaine are believed to pass through Honduras every year en route from South America to the US and beyond.

Elections late last year boosted the status quo when the rightwing National party returned to power on a pro-business, pro-security manifesto amid allegations of electoral fraud and voter intimidation.

Bertha Oliva, director of the Committee of the Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared, said: “The police and military are using the cover of the US-led war on drugs in Honduras to eliminate many people, maybe including me: I am on the death list again.”

An investigation published in February by the US and Canadian based group Rights Action (http://rightsaction.org/action-content/human-rights-violations-us-backed-honduran-special-forces-unit) detailed 34 acts of violence and other crimes directly implicating the 15th Battalion. It said these typically occurred “in co-ordination with private security forces of palm oil corporations, Honduran national police agents and other military units … in what can only be characterised as death-squad activity.”

Karen Spring, from Rights Action, said: “The role of the military in terrorising and criminalising communities in the Bajo Aguán shows the complicity of the Honduran state and US government in supporting big business regardless of the killings.”

The use of private security has increased exponentially across Honduras, which now has five private security guards to every police officer.

The UN working group on mercenaries described consistent reports of guards using illegal weapons to carry out with impunity human rights violations including killings, disappearances, forced evictions and sexual violence.

Patricia Arias, who led the UN group, told the Guardian: “The most worrying information is about private security guards acting together with the police and army, for example the Xatruch operations in Bajo Aguán.”

Héctor Castro, vice-president of the Federation of Palm Growers, said both sides had committed abuses and broken the law. He added: “We don’t have a government or authorities which look for conciliation or apply the law equally.”

Vitalino Alvarez, a MUCA leader who survived an assassination attempt in November 2012, said: “Each threat, disappearance and murder is part of the campaign of terror against us. We are blamed for killing each other and publicly called assassins, drug traffickers and drunks. We live, work and negotiate with guns pointed to our heads.”

From bananas to biofuels

Honduras was the original, archetypal banana republic: a small, poor, fertile country controlled by a small group of wealthy families with ties to transnational business interests such as Chiquita, formerly the United Fruit Company.

Bajo Aguán, with its lush terrain, sunny climate and myriad rivers, was once dominated by banana trees. In this landscape, poor campesinos barely scraped a living from back-breaking work.

Banana companies withdrew from the region in the 1930s, and its population declined. But by the 1980s the Aguán was one of the most diverse crop regions in Honduras, producing coconuts, pineapples, grapefruits and almost half of all the country’s bananas.

But African palm plantations have increased by almost 50% in the past three years, and now dominate the Bajo Aguán landscape, having replaced bananas and other edible crops. African palms, the saturated oil of which is a staple ingredient in processed foods and biodiesel, are now the most profitable crop in Honduras.

2 more assassinations took place this week in the Bajo Aguan, Honduras. The targeting of the children of campesino leaders has been a frequent tactic. The teenage sons of known campesino leaders were both shot, one survived. Another campesino was killed in front of his family. More info below.

English Translation of declaration yesterday by the Permanent Observatory for Human Rights in the Aguan

Alert for Human Rights Organizations and for the Social and Popular Movements, and the national and international community:

On Saturday, February 8, 2014 between the communities of San Esteban, Ocotes Altos and Los Leones, in the municipality of Trujillo in the Department of Colon between 7-9pm masked/covered persons in a private vehicle with no license plates and with firearms entered the community to assassinate Walter Geovanny Sevilla Rosales, aged 18 years, firing 2 shots that took his life immediately and at the same time 2 mortal shots at Wilmer Joel Sevilla Rosales, age 17 years who after hiding for a short time was found still alive and taking by a patrol vehicle from Operation Xantruch to the public hospital in Trujillo. Following this the aggressors went to the house of campesino Victor Antunez , age 50 to kill him with various shots in front of his children, his wife and to the consternation of his neighbors who in moments came to his aid to try and save his life, nonetheless the gravity of his wounds caused his death almost immediately. We denounce the fact that Walter Sevilla and his cousin Wimar Sevilla are sons of well known leaders of the campesino Associative Enterprise of San Esteban, who are in danger as for some time they have been receiving death threats from unknown persons.

We denounce that since 2010 the communities of San Esteban, Ocotes Altos and Los Leones have been the scene of the permanent structural violence that controls/dominates the zone and which has killed more than 6 campesinos that as of the present the motives for the deaths have not been clarified.

We denounce that in the month of January of 2014 the Permanent Observatory for Human Rights in the Aguan received a complaint from family members of a 17 year old living in the same areas mentioned above who was detained and transferred by Operation Xatruch to the police in Trujillo without showing any arrest warrant and who after being interrogated was released. In the same month of January we received two more complaints from other families of youth of the same age who accused Operation Xatruch of having captured and tortured them during a strong interrogation in the same zone between Los Leones, Ocotes Altos and San Esteban.

For these reasons WE DEMAND that the Honduran government, through its investigative and Justice entities in the region give a serious and responsible answer about these actions that continue to cause the campesino families to mourn and which are increasing the levels of structural violence, submitting the citizenry to the social decomposition that is seen day after day in the Department of Colon.
Sunday February 9, 2014

Honduras and the dirty war fuelled by the west’s drive for clean energy

The palm oil magnates are growing ever more trees for use in biofuels and carbon trading. But what happens to the subsistence farmers who live on the lucrative land?
Honduras: peasant protests

Honduran police agents detain peasant leaders from Bajo Aguán at a protest in the capital, Tegucigalpa. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The west’s drive to reduce its carbon footprint cheaply is fuelling a dirty war in Honduras, where US-backed security forces are implicated in the murder, disappearance and intimidation of peasant farmers involved in land disputes with local palm oil magnates.

More than 100 people have been killed in the past four years, many assassinated by death squads operating with near impunity in the heavily militarised Bajo Aguán region, where 8,000 Honduran troops are deployed, according to activists.

Farmers’ leader Antonio Martínez, 28, is the latest victim of this conflict. His corpse was discovered, strangled, in November.

Peasant farmers say they are the victims of a campaign of terror by the police, army and private security guards working for palm oil companies since a coup in June 2009 ended land negotiations instigated by the deposed president, Manuel Zelaya.

Witnesses have implicated Honduran special forces and the 15th Battalion, which receives training and material support from the US, in dozens of human rights violations around the plantations of Bajo Aguán.

They say private security guards regularly patrol and train with the soldiers, and have even been given military uniforms and weapons for some operations.

The military denies the allegations, blaming the United Peasant Movement (Muca) for escalating violence in the region. Repeated requests for comment from the US embassy in Honduras failed to elicit a response.

Land occupations

The Bajo Aguán dispute dates back almost 20 years, to a World Bank-funded land modernisation programme. The farmers say thousands of hectares of land used for subsistence farming were fraudulently and coercively transferred to agribusinesses that grow African palms, which are lucratively exported to the west for biofuel, and are traded in the carbon credit market.

Since then, they have tried to reclaim the land using the courts, as well as roadblocks and illegal land occupations.

Zelaya launched an investigation to resolve the conflicts, but this came to an abrupt halt when he was toppled in a coup in 2009 that was backed by the business, political, military and church elites.

In December 2009, groups of subsistence farmers started large-scale illegal occupations on disputed land also claimed by the country’s biggest palm oil producer, the Dinant Corporation, which is owned by Miguel Facussé, one of Honduras’s most powerful men.

Dinant says 17 of its security guards were killed and 30 injured in clashes with farmers.

Map - Aguan Valley, Honduras

The region was heavily militarised in early 2010, and the farmers who were occupying the land were forcibly removed by soldiers enforcing contentious court orders. Accusations of human rights violations have escalated ever since.

In one incident, in 2012, Neptaly Esquivel, 32, a father of five, was permanently disabled by a bullet to the hip fired at close range by a soldier, whose face was hidden by a balaclava, during a peaceful protest against education reform. His case is with the inter-American court of human rights.

In another incident, Matías Vallé, 51, a founder member of Muca, was shot dead by two masked men on a motorcycle as he waited for a bus. Witnesses said a car full of private security guards was parked a few metres away.

His wife, Dominga Ramos, said he had rejected money from Dinant employees to stop the farmers’ movement, after which he was told there was a price on his head.

Ramos said: “I witnessed one police officer trying to hide a bullet shell in the ground with his foot. We buried him in a secret place so they couldn’t remove his head. I am tired and scared.

“My two sons left because of threats. We just want to work our land in peace.”

Dinant strongly denies any direct or indirect involvement in death squads or human rights violations.

It denies collusion between its security guards and government security forces to target peasant groups, and says it is committed to corporate social responsibility. The company says government security forces have been deployed against trespassers, who Dinant says are guilty of murder and other crimes.

A spokesman said Dinant was “not familiar” with the cases of Martínez, Esquivel or Vallé, and it had never been investigated for any suspected involvement. The company said it remained committed to “a quick and peaceful resolution to the Aguán conflict”.

Another recent case is the disappearance of Josbin Santamaría Caballero, who was allegedly shot and taken away in an army helicopter on 30 October 2013 as his wife and two young daughters cowered in their kitchen of their home.

The Dinant spokesman said the company was ignorant of his case, too.

Caballero, 25, son of a prominent peasant activist, had been publicly denounced as a violent criminal by Colonel German Alfaro, commander of the joint police-military Xatruch operation in the region.

Alfaro, trained at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly the School of the Americas) in Fort Benning, Georgia, denied any military involvement and said Muca, the most organised peasant group in the region, was responsible for the current violence.

Alfaro said: “Muca and other groups encourage farmers to confront agro-industrialists, maintain constant tension and insecurity, and commit crimes to destabilise the area with armed groups.”

Wider struggle

The Aguán conflict mirrors a wider struggle over land and natural resources across Honduras that for decades has pitted the poor majority against the country’s 10 oligarch families. Honduras became the world’s most violent country outside a war zone in 2011, and it is one of the poorest and most unequal in the Americas.

Activists say the use of state security forces to suppress protests against landgrabs, dams, mining and oil concessions has intensified since the 2009 coup. Over the same period the US has built up its military presence, with several bases in the country, which has become a major transit point for the international drugs trade. Between 140 and 300 tonnes of cocaine are believed to pass through Honduras every year en route from South America to the US and beyond.

Elections late last year boosted the status quo when the rightwing National party returned to power on a pro-business, pro-security manifesto amid allegations of electoral fraud and voter intimidation.

Bertha Oliva, director of the Committee of the Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared, said: “The police and military are using the cover of the US-led war on drugs in Honduras to eliminate many people, maybe including me: I am on the death list again.”

An investigation published in February by the Canadian group Rights Action (pdf) detailed 34 acts of violence and other crimes directly implicating the 15th Battalion. It said these typically occurred “in co-ordination with private security forces of palm oil corporations, Honduran national police agents and other military units … in what can only be characterised as death-squad activity.”

Karen Spring, from Rights Action, said: “The role of the military in terrorising and criminalising communities in the Bajo Aguán shows the complicity of the Honduran state and US government in supporting big business regardless of the killings.”

The use of private security has increased exponentially across Honduras, which now has five private security guards to every police officer.

The UN working group on mercenaries described consistent reports of guards using illegal weapons to carry out with impunity human rights violations including killings, disappearances, forced evictions and sexual violence.

Patricia Arias, who led the UN group, told the Guardian: “The most worrying information is about private security guards acting together with the police and army, for example the Xatruch operations in Bajo Aguán.”

Héctor Castro, vice-president of the Federation of Palm Growers, said both sides had committed abuses and broken the law. He added: “We don’t have a government or authorities which look for conciliation or apply the law equally.”

Vitalino Alvarez, a Muca leader who survived an assassination attempt in November 2012, said: “Each threat, disappearance and murder is part of the campaign of terror against us. We are blamed for killing each other and publicly called assassins, drug traffickers and drunks. We live, work and negotiate with guns pointed to our heads.”

From bananas to biofuels

Honduras was the original, archetypal banana republic: a small, poor, fertile country controlled by a small group of wealthy families with ties to transnational business interests such as Chiquita, formerly the United Fruit Company.

Bajo Aguán, with its lush terrain, sunny climate and myriad rivers, was once dominated by banana trees. In this landscape, poor campesinos barely scraped a living from back-breaking work.

Banana companies withdrew from the region in the 1930s, and its population declined. But by the 1980s the Aguán was one of the most diverse crop regions in Honduras, producing coconuts, pineapples, grapefruits and almost half of all the country’s bananas.

But African palm plantations have increased by almost 50% in the past three years, and now dominate the Bajo Aguán landscape, having replaced bananas and other edible crops. African palms, the saturated oil of which is a staple ingredient in processed foods and biodiesel, are now the most profitable crop in Honduras.

• This article was amended on Tuesday 6 January 2014. Josbin Santamaría Caballer was allegedly shot and taken away on 30 October 2013, not 2012 as we said. This has been corrected.