Posts Tagged ‘palm oil’

Palm Oil and Extreme Violence in Honduras: The Inexorable Rise and Dubious Reform of Grupo Dinant

Monday, 08 December 2014 11:11 By Jeff Conant, Truthout | News Analysis

As one of the fastest growing global commodities, palm oil has recently earned a reputation as a major contributor to tropical deforestation and, therefore, to climate change as well.

About 50 million metric tons of palm oil is produced per year – more than double the amount produced a decade ago – and this growth appears likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Because oil palm trees, native to West Africa, require the same conditions as tropical rainforests, nearly every drop of palm oil that hits the global market comes at the expense of natural forests that have been, or will be, burned, bulldozed and replaced with plantations.

Owned by Miguel Facussé, one of the wealthiest men in Honduras, (Grupo) Dinant has been associated with the killings of over 100 peasant farmers,

With deforestation garnering headlines due to forests’ crucial role in regulating the climate, global commodity producers, from Nestle and Unilever in Europe, to Cargill in the United States to Wilmar International in Indonesia, are recognizing the need to provide products that are “deforestation-free.” Other corporate-led initiatives like the public-private Tropical Forest Alliance that promises to reduce the deforestation associated with palm oil, soy, beef, paper and pulp, and the recent New York Declaration on Forests signed at the UN Climate Summit in New York, suggest that saving the world’s forests is now squarely on the corporate sustainability agenda.

To see more stories like this, visit “Planet or Profit?”

But what is being left behind is the other significant impact of palm oil and other agro-industrial commodities – namely human rights. Commitments to protect forests and conservation areas can, if well implemented, address environmental concerns by delimiting the areas of land available for conversion to palm oil. But natural resource exploitation is inextricably linked to human exploitation, and such commitments do little to address this.

A case in point is Grupo Dinant, a Honduran palm oil company that declared last month that it has been awarded international environmental certifications for its achievements in environmental management and occupational health and safety. Dinant has also been making overtures toward joining the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), including hosting the RSPO’s 4th Latin American conference in Honduras in 2013. But, Dinant, which produces about 60 percent of the palm oil in Honduras, is at the center of what has been called “the most serious situation in terms of violence against peasants in Central America in the last 15 years.”

Owned by Miguel Facussé, one of the wealthiest men in Honduras, Dinant has been associated with the killings of over 100 peasant farmers, and appears to be involved in a virtual terror campaign to ensure control of a large swath of land in the Lower Aguan Valley near the Caribbean coast of Honduras.

While credible human rights groups like Human Rights Watch denounce the killings and note that “virtually none of the crimes are properly investigated, let alone solved,” Dinant continues to enjoy financing from the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, support from the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism, and brand relationships with multinational consumer goods companies such as Mazola Oils.

The Aguán Valley and the Introduction of Palm Oil

The Bajo Aguán Valley, one of the most fertile regions in Honduras, has long been a center of agrarian conflict. In her book Grabbing Power: The New Struggles for Land, Food and Democracy in Northern Honduras, researcher Tanya Kerssen reaches back to the 1950s to show how a struggle between farmers’ associations and multinationals Standard Fruit and United Fruit Company set the scene for the land concentration that reigns today. Decades of peasant struggle led to a brief period in the 1970s when the government distributed land to smallholder farmers from other parts of the country, who then formed cooperatives to bring crops to market. The embattled region became briefly known as the “capital of land reform” – but these reforms have long since been rolled back, in part due to the country’s need to pay back its foreign debt.

In a few years in the early ’90s, more than three quarters of the land in the Aguan Valley was re-concentrated into the hands of a few Honduran oligarchs.

In the 1980s, a combination of loans from the InterAmerican Development Bank (IDB) and bilateral aid allowed the Honduran government to construct a road network in the Aguan, as well as three palm oil processing plants and a modern port. Hoping to pay down its large debts to the IDB, the state-controlled mills bought palm from peasant cooperatives at rock-bottom prices, in return promising peasants eventual control over the processing plants. In the early ’90s, an “agrarian modernization law” was passed with support from the World Bank and the US Agency for International Development that again stimulated large land purchases and made the Aguan Valley the national poster child for re-concentration of land.

Land Re-concentration, Rise of Grupo Dinant

Over the next several decades, cooperatives and smallholders were coerced into selling their land to powerful landlords, often through intimidation and manipulation, from bribes of peasant leaders to threats and outright violence – tactics that continue to reign in the region to this day. Peasant farmers in the Aguan again found themselves as day laborers on large plantations, working hard for little pay. In a few years in the early ’90s, more than three-quarters of the land in the Aguan Valley was re-concentrated into the hands of a few Honduran oligarchs. One of these landlords was Miguel Facussé.

Human Rights Watch confirms that government security forces themselves have committed human rights violations including arbitrary detentions and torture.

Among the wealthiest men in Honduras – and now the richest – Facussé established a series of food commodity businesses, culminating in 2005 with Grupo Dinant. Dinant produces cooking oil, snacks, and other food products, as well as biofuels. To do this, the company took a $30 million loan from the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation and a $7 million loan from the InterAmerican Investment Corporation (IIC). Trade liberalization also enriched Facussé: Both Unilever and Proctor & Gamble gained important footholds in Central America by acquiring distribution networks and brands owned by Facussé. The profits and the status conferred on Dinant through such purchases enabled more land purchases in the Aguan Valley, furthering the concentration of land.

In 2001, farmers in the region organized as the Unified Peasants Movement of the Aguán Valley (MUCA), with the aim of reclaiming their land rights through the courts. With legal routes exhausted, in 2006 they began land occupations. In June 2009, they occupied one of the palm oil processing plants of Exportadora del Atlántico, part of Grupo Dinant, provoking then-President Manuel Zelaya to promise to investigate the land rights issue. However, Zelaya was removed in a coup later that month.

The Killing Years

While violence had long been present in the region, the months following the coup saw a dramatic increase in killings. As of October 2010, a year after the coup, 36 small-scale farmers had been killed. None of these cases were resolved or brought to court, but as a result of the escalating violence and murders, the government militarized the area. During this time, Dinant became implicated in the murder of dozens of peasants.

In 2011, FIAN, an international NGO working for food rights, produced a report on human rights violations in Bajo Aguán, documenting “evidence of the involvement of private security forces hired by Dinant and other companies owned by Miguel Facussé in human rights abuses and, in particular, in the murder of peasants in Bajo Aguán.”

The government was eventually forced to convene both MUCA and the company to negotiate a deal in June 2011. The government agreed to distribute some 30,000 acres to the farmers, including 12,000 acres where oil palm has been planted by Exportadora del Atlántico – not by giving the land back, but by selling it at market prices. The company agreed to the proposal, but later announced it wanted to renegotiate it. In protest, other peasant groups began land occupations, exposing themselves to violent evictions by state security forces.

A 2012 public hearing on the human rights situation in the peasant communities of the lower Aguán concluded that the agrarian conflict there is the “most serious situation in terms of violence against peasants in Central America in the last 15 years.” By April 2013, at least 89 peasant farmers had been killed in the Aguan Valley.

Killings have continued with complete impunity, the region around the plantations has been heavily militarized, and long-standing peasant communities have been violently evicted.

Precise numbers are difficult to verify however; to quote Human Rights Watch, “Honduras is notorious for ineffective investigations.” Former Attorney General Luis Alberto Rubi told the Honduran congress in 2013 that 80 percent of homicides go unpunished; of 73 killings recognized by the government to be linked to land conflicts, seven have been brought to trial, and none has resulted in conviction. Human Rights Watch affirms that government security forces themselves have committed human rights violations including arbitrary detentions and torture.

The Role of International Financiers

In 2008, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank approved a $30 million loan to Dinant, to be delivered in two tranches of $15 million each. When the June 2009 military coup ousted the democratically elected president and violence in the Aguán Valley escalated, the IFC put disbursement on hold, but the first tranche was eventually distributed.

In its assessment of the potential concerns under IFC’s Policy on Social and Environmental Sustainability, the IFC noted that “a limited number of specific environmental and social impacts may result which can be avoided or mitigated by adhering to generally recognized performance standards, guidelines, design criteria, local regulations and industry certification schemes. Land acquisition is on a willing buyer-willing seller basis, and there is no involuntary displacement of any people.”

This proved to be far from the case, as the IFC could have easily foreseen.

The Inter-American Development Bank approved a loan for $7 million in June 2009, but never signed the agreement with the company and never paid anything out. A spokesman for the IADB said at that time, “In the case of Dinant, there was a significant shift in a number of matters surrounding the project that led us to reconsider. The political turmoil Honduras experienced in 2009 was one of the aspects affecting this decision. Other considerations included . . . a controversy over real estate ownership.”

Following the coup, Dinant became implicated in the murder of dozens of peasants. Killings have continued with complete impunity, the region around the plantations has been heavily militarized, and long-standing peasant communities have been violently evicted.

When FIAN’s 2011 report was brought to the German development bank DEG, the bank confirmed FIAN’s findings and canceled a $20 million loan to Dinant, “with a view to the evolving agrarian conflict in the Bajo Aguán region.” French company EDF Trading also cancelled a contract to buy carbon credits from Dinant, indicating that it was “taking the situation in Honduras very seriously.”

Private security guards outnumber police in Honduras by a ratio of 5 to 1.

By contrast, the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation has been stubbornly defensive about its $30 million relationship with Dinant. IFC claimed in 2008 that: “Dinant understands the importance of having good relationships with their neighboring communities and are quite proactive in this regard.”

In April, 2010, the IFC requested that Dinant hire an international security consultant to assess its security program and to provide training for the company’s security forces. The IFC said that the consultant would “work with Dinant to develop a Corporate Security Policy and Code of Ethics based on the UN Voluntary Principles for Business and Human Rights.”

Given the impunity that reigns in the region, reform of Dinant’s security force would prove to be a challenge. Human Rights Watch investigated 29 killings in the Aguan Valley and reports that 13 of the 29 killings, and one disappearance, suggest the possible involvement of private guards. The same report notes that Honduras has more than 700 registered private security firms, and numerous unregistered firms; the UN working group on the use of mercenaries reports that private security guards outnumber police in Honduras by a ratio of 5 to 1.

In December of 2013, an independent audit by the CAO Ombudsman of the IFC, a semi-independent body charged with overseeing the environmental and social safeguards applied to IFC loans, issued a stinging critique of the IFC for having failed to follow its own requirements.

“According to civil society source,” the CAO investigation states, “there were at least 102 killings of people affiliated with the peasant movement in the Bajo Aguán between January 2010 and May 2013, with specific allegations being made linking 40 of these to Dinant properties, Dinant security guards or its third-party security contractor. Allegations in relation to the killing of at least nine Dinant security personnel by affiliates of the peasant movement have also been made.”

A lucrative agro-industrial crop like palm oil, in a context of entrenched corruption and an authoritarian regime, lends itself to land grabbing and agrarian violence.

Still, the IFC rejected several of the CAO findings. Despite a list of demands sent to the World Bank by 70  civil society groups, the World Bank has yet to withdraw funding from the project. Instead, the IFC put in place an “enhanced action plan,” which requires Dinant to adopt voluntary security protocols and to “engage stakeholders” in order “to better understand the issues currently impacting communities and to bring strategic focus and overall coordination to Dinant’s existing corporate social responsibility programs, such as funding for school teachers, clinics, and conservation programs.” Nothing in the plan considers turning over land to local communities, and there is no mention of sanctions, or loan withdrawal for failure to comply.

The problem is not the crop, but the agro-industrial model; decades ago with Standard Fruit, Honduras was the archetype of the banana republic; today with Dinant it’s an oil palm republic.

The IFC’s refusal to disengage is especially troubling in light of the World Bank’s recent safeguards review, which seeks to weaken the bank’s environmental and social safeguards and to shift responsibility toward borrowing governments themselves. In October, 2014, over 100 civil society groups denounced the World Bank’s efforts, but no concrete response has been forthcoming.

Flex Crops and Consumer Campaigns

The rise of Corporacion Dinant as a leading palm oil producer in Central America is inseparable from its history as part of a long, violent and ongoing backlash against agrarian reform in Honduras. But it is also indicative of the ways in which a lucrative agro-industrial crop like palm oil, in a context of entrenched corruption and an authoritarian regime, lends itself to land grabbing and agrarian violence.

Anecdotal sources suggest that most of Dinant’s palm oil is exported to Mexico, where it is bought by Grupo Bimbo . . . largely responsible for a vast increase in Mexican consumption of palm oil in junk foods.

Palm oil production relies on cheap labor and large expanses of land to turn a profit. In order to be economically viable, nearly 10,000 acres of land are required to feed a single palm oil mill. But the economy of scale that palm oil demands to reap a profit is generally true across commodities – while palm oil is the particular villain in the case of Grupo Dinant, the problem is not the crop, but the agro-industrial model; decades ago with Standard Fruit, Honduras was the archetype of the banana republic; today with Dinant it’s an oil palm republic. Researchers have recently introduced the term “flex-crops” for crops that can be used for food, feed, fuel or industrial materia, and which lend themselves to land grabbing due to growing demand and the land area required to grow them.

Thanks to years of campaigning by environmental and human rights groups, the palm oil sector is undergoing what may be a sea-change: Palm oil producers and traders like Wilmar International, Golden Agri-Resources, and Unilever are adopting voluntary policies to improve their practices; consumer-facing companies including Colgate-Palmolive, General Mills, Kellogg’s and Procter & Gamble have strengthened their palm oil sourcing policies.

But the pressure to make these companies change comes from consumer companies who fear the brand damage that comes from sourcing palm oil that threatens orangutans and Sumatran tigers, and from financiers who have certain, albeit minimal, standards to uphold.

Anecdotal sources suggest that most of Dinant’s palm oil is exported to Mexico where it is bought by Grupo Bimbo – the commodity food conglomerate largely responsible for a vast increase in Mexican consumption of palm oil in junk foods. A campaign targeting Grupo Bimbo could gain some ground, but given the massive crisis of instability and conflict in Mexico, it seems unlikely. Dinant holds the license to use the Mazola trademark in Central America, but it is unclear whether the North American Mazola brand has any legal ties to Dinant that make it susceptible to consumer pressure.

Dinant is financed largely by a Honduran bank also backed by the IFC, and no US and EU financiers appear to hold shares in the company. As long as the IFC refuses to withdraw its financing and to push the company toward reforms that are unlikely to address the root problem, Dinant will maintain some credibility and will continue to produce some of the world’s bloodiest palm oil.

Copyright, Truthout

El Secuestro de Vallecito, Honduras: Palma africana y petróleo.

El rapto de integrantes de la OFRANEH el pasado jueves 17 de julio, no fue más que una notificación de desalojo girada en contra de los Garinagu de Vallecito, por la elite que controla la costa norte de Honduras, en especial el corredor comprendido entre la bahía de Trujillo y la Moskitia.

Hasta el año de 1993, nuestro pueblo ejerció la propiedad comunitaria en la franja desde la desembocadura del río Aguan hasta la Laguna de Bacalar. En ese año, Miguel Facusse se apoderó en forma dolosa de la estratégica Punta Farallones. Casi simultáneamente una invasión de supuestos campesinos inducida por el General Castro Cabus se apoderó de río Miel, parte del hábitat funcional de la comunidad de Punta Piedra.

La expansión de la frontera de los agrocombustibles abarcó la franja costera, apareciendo en ese entonces las comunidades mestizas de Icoteas y Plan de Flores, las que se fueron poblando con trabajadores de las plantaciones de la palma, en su mayoría provenientes del interior del país.

Para 1994 la restante continuidad territorial dejó de existir, al ir Facusse  apoderándose de los terrenos  entre Vallecito y Punta Piedra, los cuales los Garifunas usábamos para la siembra de cocos y yucales a la orilla del mar. Por otro lado comenzó un frente de colonización en el río Sico, promovido por el Instituto Nacional Agrario (INA) para servir de amortiguamiento social al descalabro causado por la contra reforma agraria iniciada en el año de 1992.

El “modelo de desarrollo” a través de las plantaciones de agrocombustibles por el cual viene apostando Honduras, implica una acumulación de tierras en manos de una reducida elite empresarial cuya visión no difiere de la aplicada en el Congo belga a inicios del siglo pasado. Desde la plantaciones del grupo Numar (departamento de Atlántida) hasta  las de Facusse, Reinaldo Canales y René  Morales Carazo (departamento de Colón), impera una explotación inmisericorde de la mano obra y un uso extensivo de agrotóxicos, además de desecar buena  parte de los humedales costeros del país y de contaminar los mantos freáticos.

 

Narcotráfico y emporios palmeros

En la costa norte existe desde hace décadas circula el incesante rumor de la utilización  de las carreteras existentes entre las plantaciones de palma africana como pistas de aterrizaje. Los medios de comunicación hondureños han registrado en múltiples ocasiones durante los últimos 20 años, desde accidentes hasta decomisos en las plantaciones.

A partir de junio de 2009, se incrementó el arribo de aeronaves provenientes de Sudamérica, al mismo tiempo que los niveles de violencia se dispararon en el país. Honduras se convirtió en el epicentro del  trampolín del narcotráfico, sustituyendo a Guatemala como el eje ma´s importante para los diversos carteles vinculados al  trasiego de estupefacientes.

Al mismo tiempo que se incrementó el narcotráfico, las plantaciones de palma fueron multiplicándose a lo largo de la costa, especialmente en lugares reconocidos por su biodiversidad. Los humedales circunvecinos a las lagunas de Tocamacho y Bacalar fueron descombrados y posteriormente inundados  de palma africana.

Petróleo en el mar  caribe  y humedales costeros.

A partir de 1920 se dio inicio a la exploración de petróleo en Honduras, cuando se perforó el primer pozo en Omoa, Cortes. Pero es hasta la década de los años 90 que se produce entre  200 a 300 barriles diarios en el pozo Main Cape, localizado en la plataforma continental de la Moskitia.

El año pasado el Estado de Honduras firmó un contrato con el grupo British Gas (BG), concediéndole una superficie de 35mil kilómetros cuadrados de la plataforma marítima. El contrato fue realizado sin haber efectuado una consulta, previa, libre e informada con los pueblos indígenas que habitamos en la Moskitia.

Existen bastos yacimientos de petróleo a lo largo de la costa Caribe Mesoamericana. En la actualidad la compañía US Capital, se encuentra perforando en el Parque nacional Sarstum Temash, al mismo tiempo que del lado de la frontera de Guatemala la compañía Compañía Petrolera del Atlántico (CPA) ha perforando un pozo. Mientras, en Honduras y Nicaragua se efectúan exploraciones en la plataforma marítima del mar Caribe.

En Honduras se conoce la existencia de una serie de filtraciones de petróleo en la superficie de los humedales, entre ellos los del río Miel, colindantes con Vallecito. Desde la década años 90, existen rumores sobre la existencia de hidrocarburos en la franja entre la laguna de Guaimoreto y la de Bacalar, situación que ha generado fuertes presiones territoriales sobre las tierras de las comunidades Garífunas.

Palma, petróleo y narcotráfico se han convertido en la razón primordial para impulsar la expulsión del pueblo Garífuna de nuestro territorio ancestral, de las comunidades de los Departamentos de Colón y Gracias a Dios. Mientras la empresas turísticas se disputan las playas de la Bahías de Tela y Trujillo.

En nombre de un supuesto desarrollo, Honduras viene siendo subastada y entregada a supuestos “inversionistas extranjeros”, encontrándonos los  Garifunas y el resto de los hondureños secuestrados por una minoría parasitaria que ha venido saqueando el país desde hace décadas; y son los mismos que se encargaron de defenestrar el poder ejecutivo en el 2009, se apoderaron de la Corte Suprema en el 2012, y tomaron por asalto el Ministerio Publico en el 2013.

La lucha por el territorio de Vallecito es la lucha por la vida, ya que esta zona se ha convertido para el pueblo Garífuna en uno de sus pilares territoriales, ante el sistemático despojo territorial que se viene dando a lo largo y ancho de la costa Garifuna. Además ante el inexorable avance de la erosión costera, la zona se convierte en uno de los posibles lugares de relocalización para comunidades afectadas, especialmente aquellas que se encuentran ubicadas en cordones litorales.

Es por esta razón que la OFRANEH exige al Estado hondureño, asegurar la libre movilización y transito del pueblo Garifuna en nuestro territorio, sin que nosotros nos sentamos asediados, que se asegure el respeto a las tierras y territorios del pueblo Garifuna,  ademas asegure la integridad física de los miembros de la OFRANEH pero sobre todo que se inicie un verdadero proceso de restitución del Estado de Derecho en este país devastado por la pobreza, afectado por el mayor índice de criminalidad en el planeta, donde se están entregando para explotación y saqueo los bienes comunes de nuestro país al mejor postor, se pone en riesgo la seguridad alimentaria al privilegiar la producción de monocultivos en vez de la producción de granos básicos, donde enfrentamos el mayor índice de asesinatos de comunicadores sociales, la alta impunidad, y la indefensión de los defensores y defensoras de derechos humanos.

Hacemos un llamado para sumarse a la solicitud de Alerta, emitida por Amnistía Internacional, la cual se puede contactar en el siguiente url

http://www.amnestyusa.org/sites/default/files/uaa18514.pdf

Dado en la Comunidad de Sambo Creek a los 23 días del mes de Julio del 2014

Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña, OFRANEH

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.

WikiLeaks Honduras: US Linked to Brutal Businessman

Miguel Facussé, a biofuels magnate entangled with the drug trade, is waging a bloody war against campesinos—with American support.

Dana Frank

Since 2009, beneath the radar of the international media, the coup government ruling Honduras has been collaborating with wealthy landowners in a violent crackdown on small farmers struggling for land rights in the Aguán Valley in the northeastern region of the country. More than forty-six campesinos have been killed or disappeared. Human rights groups charge that many of the killings have been perpetrated by the private army of security guards employed by Miguel Facussé, a biofuels magnate. Facussé’s guards work closely with the Honduran military and police, which receive generous funding from the United States to fight the war on drugs in the region.

New Wikileaks cables now reveal that the US embassy in Honduras—and therefore the State Department—has known since 2004 that Miguel Facussé is a cocaine importer. US “drug war” funds and training, in other words, are being used to support a known drug trafficker’s war against campesinos.

Miguel Facussé Barjum, in the embassy’s words, is “the wealthiest, most powerful businessman in the country,” one of the country’s “political heavyweights.” The New York Times recently described him as “the octogenarian patriarch of one of the handful of families controlling much of Honduras’ economy.” Facussé’s nephew, Carlos Flores Facussé, served as president of Honduras from 1998 to 2002. Miguel Facussé’s Dinant corporation is a major producer of palm oil, snack foods, and other agricultural products. He was one of the key supporters of the military coup that deposed democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya on June 28, 2009.

Miguel Facussé’s power base lies in the lower Aguán Valley, where campesinos originally settled in the 1970s as part of an agrarian reform strategy by the Honduran government, which encouraged hundreds of successful campesino cooperatives and collectives in the region. Beginning in 1992, though, new neoliberal governments began promoting the transfer of their lands to wealthy elites, who were quick to take advantage of state support to intimidate and coerce campesinos into selling, and in some cases to acquire land through outright fraud. Facussé, the biggest beneficiary by far of these state policies, now claims at least 22,000 acres in the lower Aguán, at least one-fifth of the entire area, much of which he has planted in African palms for an expanding biofuel empire.

Campesino living standards in the region, meanwhile, have eroded dramatically. In December 2009 thousands of organized campesinos began staging collective recuperations of lands in the lower Aguán that they argue were stolen from them, or else legally promised to them by the government through previous agreements or edicts.

The campesinos’ efforts have been met with swift and brutal retaliation. According to Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras (COFADEH), the independent, highly respected human rights group, at least forty-four have been killed, at least sixteen this past summer alone. The victims include leaders of groups such as the Movimiento Unificado de Campesinos de Aguán (MUCA), which is involved in land occupations, but also members of stable communities that have been in place for decades, such as Guadalupe Carney, Rigores or Prieta, whose residents believed they had secure title to their holdings. According to a recent statement by Human Rights Watch calling for investigation, no one has been arrested or prosecuted for any of these murders.

Many of these killings and related attacks have been attributed to Miguel Facussé’s private security guards, as well those of his associates. Known locally as sicarios or hired assassins, they wear either plainclothes or Grupo Dinant uniforms and are reported to number between 200 and 300. Facussé himself admits that on November 15, 2010, his guards shot and killed five campesinos from the MUCA at the El Tumbador community. A July 2011 report from a joint fact-finding mission from the World Council of Churches, Foodfirst Information and Action Network (FIAN) International, and other international groups on the killings of campesinos in the Aguán, states: “In all cases, according to witnesses and members of the peasant movements, the security guards working for Miguel Facussé and René Morales are seen to be the primary actors,” including in the deaths of three MUCA members on August 17, 2010.

Alleged assassinations and armed attacks by Facussé’s guards continue. On October 5, Facussé’s security guards allegedly shot at and gravely injured two MUCA members at the San Isidro campesino community, according to FIAN. On October 11 at La Aurora, FIAN and other human rights groups report, at least six security guards on lands claimed by Facussé’s Dinant Corporation, together with police and military forces, shot and killed Santos Serfino Zelaya Ruiz, 33, and opened fire on fifteen women spreading salt, who hid for hours afterwards in the palm trees.

On January 8, 2011, opposition activist and journalist Juan Chinchilla was kidnapped in the Aguán Valley, tortured and interrogated. He escaped after two days and reported in an interview that his captors “almost all wore uniforms of the military, police and private guards of Miguel Facussé.”

Human rights groups worldwide have denounced Facussé’s attacks on Honduran campesinos. On April 8, the German development bank DEG (Deutsche Investitions und Entwicklungselleschaft mbH), cancelled a $20 million loan to Dinant after investigating the situation. A week later EDF, a major French energy corporation, announced it was canceling plans to buy carbon credits from Dinant.

Facussé has lashed back aggressively with full-page advertisements in his defense. He also recently sued both Honduras’ Bishop Luis Alfonso Santos and Andres Pavon, President of the Comité para la Defensa del Los Derechos Humanos (CODEH), a well-known human rights group, for defamation.

In tandem with the killings and disappearances of individual activists, in the past year and a half, the Honduran police and military have launched successive waves of repression against entire campesino communities, both newly occupied sites and stable ones with long-term legal status. On December 15, 2010, between 500 and 1,000 police and military surrounded the small campesino town of Guadalupe Carney with snipers and helicopters, and staged a house-by-house search for alleged arms—which they never found. Troops have remained encamped in the middle of the town ever since. In April 2010, 2,000 Honduran police and military occupied the entire lower Aguán valley, controlling access and intimidating its residents.

The situation has worsened since May, and continues to escalate. Five security guards, a policeman, and five others, in addition to over sixteen campesinos, have died. The region is once again occupied by 1,000 troops in a military operation known as Xatruch II—which is aimed at combating armed guerrillas, of whose existence there is no evidence. Nor has any evidence been produced linking campesinos to the other deaths.

Overall, the occupation and repression of the lower Aguán have assumed terrifying proportions. “With the militarization of Xatruch II they are trying to convert our zone into Iraq,” COFADEH and the MUCA charge. “Our settlements are being submitted to a permanent state of siege.”

On June 24, with one hour’s notice, police burned down almost the entire ten-year-old community of Rigores of over 100 houses and bulldozed down its three churches and seven-room schoolhouse. The residents began to rebuild their homes with tarps and sticks, but on September 16–18, in response to the death of a policeman nearby, police rampaged through the town, randomly grabbing and detaining people, including children. One of them was a 16-year-old boy who has testified that police put a bag over his head, sprayed him with gasoline and threatened to kill him. On September 20 police and military successfully ejected all those who remained in the community .

Multiple eyewitnesses and human rights groups report Facussé’s private guards, police, and military all working together in these violent evictions and associated deaths— at El Tumbador on November 15, 2010; in Guadalupe Carney on December 15, 2010; in Rigores on June 24, 2011; and at La Aurora on October 11, where the women hid in the trees—as well as during Chinchilla’s kidnapping. This past August 15, COFADEH reports, Facussé’s guards along with police and members of the military brutally attacked campesinos on the African palm plantation known as Finca Panamá.

According to Rights Action, the Washington, DC, and Toronto–based human rights group, “Military, police and private security forces are reported to exchange uniforms depending on the context, to mobilize jointly both in police patrol cars and automobiles that belong to private security companies employed by the African palm planters.” COFADEH concludes: “The relationship between the military and the private security guards demonstrates clearly that the security guards are acting as paramilitary forces.”

In the past two years since the coup US funding for the Honduran military and police has escalated dramatically. The US has allocated $45 million in new funds for military construction, including expansion and improvement of the jointly operated Soto Cano Air Force Base at Palmerola (supplied now with US drones) and has opened three new military bases. Police and military funding, almost $10 million for 2011, rose dramatically in June with $40 million more under the new $200 million Central American Regional Security Initiative, supposedly to combat drug trafficking in Central America—which is, indeed, rampant, dangerous and growing in Honduras under Lobo’s post-coup government, especially in the Aguán.

Honduran military operations in the lower Aguán valley, including joint operations with Facussé’s guards, benefit from these funds, as well as special training. This summer seventy members of Honduras’ Fifteenth Batallion received a special thirty-three-day training course from the US Rangers. According to the Honduras Solidarity Network, members of the Xatruch Special Forces group in the Aguán Valley, in a September meeting, “confirmed that they had received training from the United States military in special operations, which include sniper and anti-terrorism training.” Eyewitnesses informed Rights Action they saw US Rangers also training Facussé’s security guards.

Most recently, on October 6 members of Operation Xatruch II captured, detained without charges, and tortured Walter Nelin Sabillón Yanos, a MUCA member, FIAN reports. Sabillón testified to FIAN that while he was in detention at the Tocoa police station, authorities beat him, repeatedly placed a hood on his head, and three times applied electric shock to his hands, abdomen and mouth while interrogating him about the campesino movement.

On September 17 I called the Tocoa police station to inquire about the condition of more than thirty campesinos that had been rounded up and were being detained. “Tell her they’ve killed all the campesinos,” the official laughed, and then hung up. A colleague who called immediately afterward was told the detainees were being treated “like dogs.” “Are they being tortured?” she asked. “I hope so,” the official replied.

Now cables released by Wikileaks on September 30 suddenly shed light on the US military and State Department’s role in the Aguán Valley conflict and in Honduras more broadly. A March 19, 2004, cable from the US embassy in Tegucigalpa, entitled “Drug Plane Burned on Prominent Honduran’s Property,” reports that “a known drug trafficking flight with a 1,000 kilo cocaine shipment from Colombia…successfully landed March 14 on the private property of Miguel Facusse.” According to the cable’s author, Ambassador Larry Palmer, sources informed police that “its cargo was off-loaded onto a convoy of vehicles that was guarded by about 30 heavily armed men.” The plane was seen burned and its wreckage then buried by a “bulldozer/front-end loader.” Palmer writes that “Facusse’s property is heavily guarded and the prospect that individuals were able to access the property and, without authorization, use the airstrip is questionable.” One source “claimed that Facusse was present on the property at the time of the incident.”

Ambassador Palmer also reported that “this incident marks the third time in the last fifteen months that drug traffickers have been linked to this property owned by Mr. Facusse.” In a subsequent cable on March 31, 2004, Palmer noted the confiscation by Honduran authorities of “approximately 700 kilos of cocaine” and conveyed the belief that the drugs may have come from the burned plane on Facussé’s property.

On February 22, 2009—four months before the coup—El Heraldo, a right-wing Tegucigalpa newspaper, reported that, according an official of the Honduran government’s anti-narcotics office, a Cessna aircraft with 1,400 kilos of cocaine had been found in Farallones, east of the Aguán Valley in the department of Colon, “on a landing strip that according to our information belongs to Miguel Facussé.” It seems safe to presume that the US embassy reads El Heraldo daily and carefully.

Other cables released by Wikileaks establish that embassy officials met with Miguel Facussé in June 2006 and on September 7, 2009, ten weeks into the coup, when the embassy had lunch with Facussé and Rafael Callejas, another of the coup government’s powerful backers.

A new US ambassador, Lisa Kubiske, arrived in Honduras this August. She is an expert on biofuels—the center of Miguel Facussé’s African palm empire.

How does this all add up, then? First, the US embassy met at least twice with a known, prominent drug trafficker. Second, it was aware that he was a backer of the coup and met with him as it was playing out, as if he were merely a “prominent businessman.”

Third, most importantly, the United States is funding and training Honduran military and police that are conducting joint operations with the security guards of a known drug trafficker, to violently repress a campesino movement on behalf of Facusse’s dubious claims to vast swathes of the Aguán Valley, in order to support his African palm biofuels empire.

Current Honduran President Porfirio Lobo was in Washington, DC, the first week in October, trumpeting his commitment to defending human rights and fighting drug wars—with President Obama’s full blessing. In reality, both are providing cover and support for a war against impoverished campesinos, to promote the economic interests of Honduras’ richest and most powerful man.

http://www.thenation.com/article/164120/wikileaks-honduras-us-linked-brutal-businessman

World Bank’s ethics under scrutiny after Honduras loan investigation

Members of the Peasant Unified Movement of Bajo Aguán, Honduras

Members of the Peasant Unified Movement of Bajo Aguán, in Tegucigalpa, carry mock coffins bearing pictures of people murdered in land clashes. Photograph: AFP/Getty

The verdict could not have been clearer: the World Bank‘s private lending arm failed to comply with its own ethical standards when it lent millions of dollars to a Honduran palm oil company accused of links to assassinations and forced evictions.

This was the damning verdict by the World Bank’s Office of the Compliance Adviser/ Ombudsman (CAO) on Friday. It had investigated whether a $30m (£18.2m) loan by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) to Corporation Dinant, an agribusiness owned by one of Honduras‘s richest and most powerful men Miguel Facussé, was made after proper environmental and social due diligence.

The investigation was triggered by local NGOs accusing Dinant of direct and indirect involvement in a campaign of terror against campesinos, or peasant farmers, in the fertile Bajo Aguán valley in the north. Dinant claimed any violence was either unconnected to the company or legitimate self-defence.

The audit, one of the most critical issued by the Bank’s internal watchdog, was unequivocal. The IFC failed to spot the serious social, political and human rights context in which Dinant operates, or if it did, failed to act effectively on the information; and failed to disclose vital project information, consult with local communities, or to identify the project as a high-risk investment.

The CAO also said staff were incentivised “to overlook, fail to articulate, or even conceal potential environmental, social and conflict risk”. They warned that such incentives could lead to, as indicated by the loan to Dinant, the IFC taking “uninformed risks with serious consequences for people, the environment and/or the Bank Group’s reputation”. The CAO refers to allegations that 102 campesino leaders have been murdered since 2010 in Bajo Aguán, 40 of which were linked to Dinant properties or security guards. This is vigorously denied by Dinant.

Strong stuff from the CAO, but the IFC’s written response, also published on Friday, was predictably weak.

In the first paragraph the IFC rejects some of the CAO findings, though fails to specify which ones or provide evidence to support its rebuff. The IFC states that at the time it approved the loan to Dinant in 2008 the project risks were manageable and there was no evidence of land claims. But this is not correct. The Bajo Aguán land disputes date back two decades to another World Bank-funded land modernisation programme, when campesinos claimed thousands of acres used for subsistence farming were transferred fraudulently and coercively to Facussé and other palm oil industrialists.

The IFC goes on to say that it could not have foreseen the coup d’état in June 2009 that toppled president Manuel Zelaya, days after he ordered an investigation into the land conflicts, nor the social unrest, arms and drugs trafficking, and violence that have since plagued the region.

But the IFC gave Dinant its first instalment of $15m in November 2009, when there was already evidence of worsening security problems relating to the land disputes in Bajo Aguán.

Add to that the US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, which suggests Facussé backed the 2009 coup, which he denies. What’s more in 2011, by which time Honduras was officially the most murderous country in the world, the Bajo Aguán had been militarised by US-trained troops, and allegations of human rights abuses perpetrated by Dinant security guards in conjunction with state security forces were piling up – the IFC approved a $70 loan to one of Dinant’s biggest creditors, Banco Financiera Comercial Hondureña.

This loan, which gave the IFC a 10% stake in the bank, is subject to another CAO investigation, due to report before the end of June. The IFC’s pattern of investing in financial intermediaries over the past decade is criticised by some observers as a way of circumventing its own safeguard policies.

Dinant, whose lucrative African palm plantations dominate the Bajo Aguán, issued a statement rejecting some of the CAO findings. The company, which pointed to multiple killings of its security guards since 2010, said it would continue working with the IFC to comply with its performance standards. The problem is, according to the CAO audit, in practice these standards are not very high.

Many civil society organisations believe continued support from the World Bank is grossly negligent and endorses violence with impunity. The IFC generally prefers to effect change from within, and says it will steer Dinant to collaborate with the authorities if credible allegations emerge against its security forces.

But across Honduras state authorities are implicated in countless human rights abuses, especially in the Bajo Aguán, where operations are reportedly conducted jointly between state and private security forces. Impunity is the norm; the justice system is broken.

The CAO has pledged to keep the case open until it is satisfied the IFC is compliant with its own ethical standards. The only lever it has for exacting change is through reporting its findings to the World Bank president, board and public. The president, Jim Yong Kim, has pledged that the Bank will learn from past mistakes. Half of the IFC loan, $15m, is yet to be paid to Dinant. Now is the time for Kim to put his money where his mouth is.

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.