Despite Aguan “Land Agreement”, Continued Repression in Honduran African Palm Oil Plantations

Events occurring on the northern coast of Honduras around the agrarian conflict in the Valle de Aguan remain largely unreported, even as the human rights situation continues to deteriorate. According to a local human rights organization, if the conflict is not resolved it “will multiply and will be manifested in different parts of the country as seen in the 60’s and 70’s, with hunger as the only instigator.”

Events occurring on the northern coast of Honduras around the agrarian conflict in the Valle de Aguan remain largely unreported, even as the human rights situation continues to deteriorate. The mainstream media in the country, highly responsible for ignoring or distorting the widespread resistance to the June 2009 coup d’ etat, recognizes that any additional signs of ‘instability’ might further deter foreign investment.

The Aguan Valley was once known as the country’s capital of ‘Agrarian Reform.’ The fertile land is covered mostly by palm oil plantations, the country’s third largest export crop.1 It is located in the department of Colon, an export area due to its proximity to the Atlantic ocean and a crucial passageway for the drug trafficking industry moving its product north.

The capital city of Trujillo is also the future site of “Banana Coast,” a $15 million Canadian investment with LifeVision Properties and Miami-based Global Destinations Development, slated to create the first cruise ship destination on the mainland of Honduras.2

The International Food Information Action Network (FIAN), which forms part of the country’s Human Rights Platform, reported in May 2010 at least 10 deaths this year directly associated with the agrarian conflict in the Aguan Valley.

Rich Land, Poor Distribution, Strong Biodiesel Interests

It is estimated that one third of the best agricultural lands in Honduras are owned by one percent of the country’s producers.3 Meanwhile, Oxfam International reports that 67 of every 100 persons in Honduras live in extreme poverty, without the ability to generate sufficient income even for the basic food staples.4 The Dinant corporation, “dedicated to the packaging and commercialization of oil, vegetables and fruits,” owns 17,000 hectares (approximately the size of Washington D.C.) in the Aguan and Lean Valley.5 A large portion of this land is contested by the Unified Movement of Aguan Farmers (MUCA), which claims the land was illegally acquired. MUCA represents over 3,500 families in the area.

In a USDA GAIN report, Dinant is listed as a leader in African palm production with the installed capacity to produce 36,000 gallons/day of biodiesel. “Honduras is the only Central American country that has approved laws and regulations for both bio diesel and ethanol production. The law provides exemptions from customs tariffs, income tax, and other related taxes for 12 years.6 (Dinant is also represented on the national chapter of CEAL, the Business Council of Latin America, who paid at least $210,000 to lobbying firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP to lobby “on the US Policy of the removal of Mr. Zelaya from Honduras.”)7

The land dispute was progressing through the Zelaya administration until his term was cut short with the coup. When it was clear President Zelaya would not be reinstated, farmers seized lands once cooperatively owned in an effort to pressure the new regime.

Agreement Signed under Hostile Conditions

After months of hostility, intimidation, evictions and sometimes even armed confrontations with authorities, a deal was finally signed with MUCA. On April 17, 2010, 24 of the 28 cooperatives involved agreed to the new terms. Four of the cooperatives refused to sign preferring to challenge the land titles in the courts instead. The agreement called for the farmers to abandon the plantations being occupied in return for 3,000 hectares of cultivated and uncultivated land within 90 days. Within one year they would be given land titles to another 1,000 hectares with cultivated palm and another 4,000 hectares of uncultivated lands for a total of 11,000 hectares. The government also promised to build at least 100 new homes for farmers, many of whom have been living in plastic tents on the occupied lands under extreme poverty conditions.

Yet authorities sent mixed messages to MUCA even while representatives were meeting at the presidential palace. Days before the negotiations there was complete militarization of the zone, located some 10 hours away from the capital.8 Troops from all over the country were mobilized with headlines from government-friendly press reading, “Military arrives to protect the Aguan Valley.” Security forces had lists of people they were to detain, stopping all buses in an effective manhunt in the area.

Intimidation from State & Private Security Forces Blurred

The four cooperatives that refused to sign onto the deal; La San Isidro, El Despertar, San Esteban and La Trinidad were awaiting judicial decisions guaranteed in the April 17 agreements. However, on June 5 three of the four cooperatives were violently evicted by the police, military and private security forces despite explicit language in the agreement stating “trespassing crimes will be revised in light of this agreement.”9 Shots were fired at the Despertar cooperative.

Later on June 20 the body of 17-year-old Oscar Yovani Ramírez was found dead near the Aurora cooperative. La Aurora is one of the five cooperatives (in addition to La Lempira, La Confianza, La Concepción y Camarones) that the farmers have consolidated into while awaiting the deeds for the 11,000 hectares. FIAN warned that, “All the [government] concerns are in vain without a resulting solution beyond the pretext and bureaucratic language.”

A lawyer working closely with MUCA, Rodolfo Zamora, stated on June 30 that despite the agreement signed between MUCA and the Lobo regime charges continue to be presented to the Public Ministry against farmers affiliated with the movement. The charges have been brought by “Atlantic Exports,” an agricultural division of Dinant, and arrest warrants have been issued for the farmers on the basis of “theft and trespassing” on the land.

Then on July 28 Mario Portillo, a lawyer representing MUCA, was arrested. Portillo, along with the three other farmers, Dennis Javier Ramos Flores, Anner Alejander Ayala and Juan Angel Resinos Garcia, were accused of illegal possession of firearms. In a zone rampant with drug trafficking, most guns are not registered.

The Committee in Defense of Human Rights (CODEH) explained, “The department of Colon is a territory where people carry and have illegal arms, not only for commercial use…prohibited arms are [also] used by the security forces who act in confidence of the acquiescence of the state and with a degree of complicity from police.”10 On Aug. 2 another statement was issued condemning the climate of insecurity following the arrest of another two farmers participating in the land recuperations, Salvador Flores Aguilar and Olvin Alexander Rivas.

The lawyer (Portillo) was ultimately released with pressure from human rights groups, after sending the intimidatory message to those involved in the Aguan land struggle. CODEH stated “the facts show that the justice system like the Public Ministry and the Police are allied with the land owners of the zone to persecute those who try to challenge their privilege.”

Without Resolution, Cycle of Poverty Continues

Miguel Facusse Barjum, owner of Dinant, published an open letter to the National Agrarian Institute affirming that the conflict has not been resolved because the government has not yet paid for the initial 3,000 hectares of cultivated African palm plantations put in the farmers disposition. He claimed the lands continue to be property of Dinant and therefore the crime of trespassing has continued.

“We have not been able to appropriately maintain our plantations which is of serious detriment and is losing value,” wrote Dinant.

In a press conference held by MUCA, representative Johnny Rivas denounced Facusse for attempting to charge the government 750,000 Lempiras ($40,000 USD) for the 3,000 hectares of cultivated palm plantations. There is currently a study being undertaken by the National Agrarian Institute to determine the property value. FIAN quoted local experts assessing the value at 60 percent of Facusse’s asking price. FIAN has also criticized that some of the fields came with stipulations that the farmers could only sell the palm fruit directly to Facusse’s company.

FIAN warned that “By not resolving the agrarian problem…meaning, to permit farmers access to land and to other services so that they can be producers for themselves, the agrarian conflict will multiply and will be manifested in different parts of the country as seen in the 60’s and 70’s, with hunger as the only instigator.”

Tamar Sharabi is an environmental engineer usually based in Central America. If you are interested in supporting grassroots media empowerment consider getting in touch here: