Honduran Campesinos in the Crosshairs

The US government and multilateral institutions must demand an end to the human rights abuses surrounding land disputes.

Source: Al Jazeera

Honduras now claims the dubious distinction of being the murder capital of the world as drug trafficking and gangs play an undeniable role in the violence plaguing the small central American country.

However, there is near complete impunity for the forces that have killed more than 300 people since the 2009 coup, including labour, political and land reform activists, journalists and lawyers. Members of the campesino land rights organisations in the Bajo Aguan have been the targets of systemic repression. Last Thursday, four more campesinos were murdered in Trujillo, bringing the total number of people killed in that region since January 2010 to 64.

The international community cannot sit idly by as these atrocities unfold.

The land disputes date back to efforts in the 1960s to entice landless farmers to the fertile region of the Bajo Aguan. The initial agrarian reform laws contained protections intended to ensure that the land remained in the hands of small landowners by limiting the amount of hectares individuals could accumulate. In 1992, the Law for Modernization of Land gutted many of the protections written into the original agrarian reform efforts, creating pressure on peasant land cooperatives to sell their land to large landowners.

In the two years following passage of the 1992 law, three large landowners used a combination of fraud, coercion and violence to consolidate ownership of 73.4 per cent of the land transferred under the prior Agrarian Reform. Palm oil magnate Miguel Facusse, well known to the US government for alleged ties to drug trafficking, owns a significant swath of land in the lower Aguan valley and is implicated in much of the ongoing repression.

Organising in resistance to the coercion, local campesino groups formed, known as Unified Campesino Movement of the Aguan (MUCA) and the Authentic Revindicative Campesino Movement of the Aguan (MARCA), to demand the nullification of the title transfers. In the absence of a functioning judicial system, campesinos were forced to navigate a byzantine dispute resolution process that promised no ready solution or relief.

Failed agreements

After years of delay, then President Manuel Zelaya oversaw an agreement in 2009 to review the land title claims of the MUCA campesinos that many presumed would set aside the fraudulent transfers. Zelaya’s ouster in the coup shortly thereafter invalidated a land reform bill that promised some relief for peasants, as the illegitimate administration of Roberto Micheletti sent the unmistakable message that it had no intention of honouring the agreement. In the face of escalating violence, the campesino movements have continued to demand the right to occupy the land they rely on to survive.