International press has recently brought attention to the agrarian conflict in an area known as Bajo Aguan, which is in the Honduran department of Colon. The Adelante Foundation team has received inquiries from our generous supporters about the on-going land crisis. For this reason, we would like to take this opportunity to inform our followers about the discord and human rights violations taking place in Bajo Aguan.
The conflict involves a land dispute between peasant farmers and wealthy landowners. Peasant groups are occupying African palm plantations that they believe belong to them, arguing that the land was illegally sold to wealthy landowners in the 1990s. Over the last two years, dozens of people have died, many of those killed were peasant farmers who reclaimed their lands as part of the movement.
In recent months, CNN and the New York Times have published articles on the violence in Bajo Aguan, and international organizations have been recognizing human rights violations since the conflict erupted. A fact finding mission to Bajo Aguan, undertaken by several international organizations, documented the repressive tactics aimed to quell peasant movements, from intimidation to murder. The director of Human Rights Watch released a statement calling on the Honduran government to conduct an impartial investigation into the killings of peasant farmers. Amnesty International urged its supporters to take action against the forceful eviction of peasants. These and other organizations are concerned about the state’s failure to protect its citizens in Bajo Aguan, and they criticize the Honduran government for not developing a comprehensive resolution to the dispute.
The Adelante Foundation’s branch office in Tocoa serves the department of Colon with microcredit, which contributes to poverty alleviation in rural Honduras. Clients from Bajo Aguan have been affected by the persistent tension in the area. The main problem cited by our clients is the general climate of insecurity, which encourages delinquency and petty crime. Women face a greater risk venturing out to sell their products, and the recent instability has impacted their small business sales. Under the current circumstances, many people are reluctant to leave their immediate neighborhoods. President Lobo has escalated military and police presence in Bajo Aguan, stationing personnel permanently in order to maintain security. An Adelante Foundation client admitted that the military occupation is not a solution to the land conflict, a sentiment presumably shared by many residents of Bajo Aguan.
The current land dispute has its roots in the 1970s, when the Honduran government launched an agrarian reform campaign, redistributing lands to various peasant cooperative associations in Colon department. In the early 1990s, these lands were sold to wealthy landowners eager to expand African Palm cultivation. Dinant Corporation is the most prominent actor in the dispute, with over 22 000 acres of African Palm plantations, which is over one fifth of the agricultural lands in Bajo Aguan(1). African Palms are cultivated in order to produce palm oil, which is exported as a biofuel and also used in the production of numerous household products and processed foods.
Peasants claim that the lands in question were illegally sold, an assertion supported in a report published by an International Observation Mission, which documented human rights abuses in Bajo Aguan. The most notable peasant group to have emerged is MUCA (Movimiento Unificado del Aguan or the Unified Peasant Movement of Aguan), which is demanding land sales from the 1990s be voided. Prior to the coup that ousted Manuel Zelaya in June 2009, an agreement was negotiated in an attempt to resolve the agrarian conflict. Following the coup, the agreement was never enacted by the interim government or by President Lobo’s newly elected government. MUCA aimed to pressure the Lobo administration by undertaking land invasions of selected plantations in Bajo Aguan. These actions have sparked a wave of violence against the peasant movements, and since President Lobo was elected, over 40 peasant farmers have been killed, and several others, including private security forces, police, military, and innocent bystanders have lost their lives in Bajo Aguan(2).
In September 2011, the National Congress of Honduras approved a deal that attempts to resolve the discord. The state will buy land from Dinant Corporation, allowing members of two peasant groups to purchase land with state guaranteed bank loans. Dinant Corporation is expected to earn 546 million Honduran lempiras (or nearly $29 million) from the state’s land purchase, if the transaction occurs this coming January(3). However, other peasant groups claiming lands have been left out of these negotiations. Furthermore, the militarization of Bajo Aguan is of great concern given the documented collaboration between state security forces and private guards in repressing the peasant movements(4). No arrests have been made for the murders of peasant farmers, extending impunity to perpetrators of violence. Last month, a human rights observatory was permanently established in Tocoa in order to document on-going human rights abuses in the area. Hopefully, the mounting international attention on human rights violations will push the Lobo administration to confront these injustices.