Honduras: Aguán land dispute partially settled

The government of Honduran president Porfirio ("Pepe") Lobo Sosa signed an agreement on June 5 under which some 4,000 hectares of farmland in the north of the country will be granted to members of the Unified Campesino Movement of the Aguán (MUCA), a large campesino collective that has been staging land occupations in the area since December 2009. The government is to buy the land from cooking-oil magnate Miguel Facussé Barjum for some $20 million and resell it to MUCA members, who are to pay the government back with a loan from the private Banco Hondureño de Producción y Vivienda (Banhprovi). They will need to repay the loan in 15 years with a 6% annual interest rate after a three-year grace period.

Talks between MUCA and the government stalled in late January over the financing of the loan. The impasse was apparently broken when a deadline for purchasing the land passed on May 31 and Facussé got a judge to issue an eviction order against campesinos occupying parts of his estates. This pushed the government to move faster to finalize an agreement. (Based on a garbled report from the Associated Press on June 4, US media said the campesinos had "agreed to move out"; in fact, the campesinos will remain on the land under the agreement. The AP report was partly corrected the next day.)

The campesinos signed the agreement "at gunpoint, under threats and pressure," MUCA spokesperson Vitalino Alvarez told reporters. "The fight continues." The June 5 agreement falls far short of a deal President Lobo signed in April 2010 granting MUCA members 11,000 hectares. For MUCA members the latest accord is only a partial, unsatisfactory settlement to a dispute that has reportedly left at least 47 campesinos dead since 2009, along with 10 security guards and two police agents.

The campesinos deny that Facussé and other large landowners in the area have any right to the disputed land, which they bought illegally, according to the campesinos, since it was dedicated to use in the country's agrarian reform program. President Lobo himself, a member of the center-right National Party (PN), supports the campesinos' claim. On June 5 he described the land dispute as "a problem that was generated by an error in other administrations in which men and women of the countryside were allowed to sell their lands, in a period which an agrarian counter-reform took place. An error was committed, which needs to be corrected."

The campesinos are also concerned about the cost of the bank loan. César Ham, the head of the government's National Agrarian Institute (INA), said the campesinos will be able to pay the loan off by selling the fruit of African oil palms, a major product of the Lower Aguán Valley, to companies that can process it into palm oil—that is, to companies like Facussé's Grupo Dinant. "In other words," the Honduras Culture and Politics blog notes, "MUCA is being asked to take on a large debt to a private bank, for funds that are being passed on, via the Honduran government, to the private individual who MUCA argues does not have a defensible claim to the land, and then to spend the next fifteen years at the mercy of the processing plants owned by the same individual (and others)." (Honduras Culture and Politics, June 4; AP June 6, via CBS News; Prensa Latina, June 6)

There have been no media references recently to earlier plans for Alba-Petróleos, a subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), to pay for a processing plant for the campesinos.

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, June 10.

See our last post on Honduras.