Honduras: rights abuses may catch up with Aguán landowner

On April 8 a German development bank, DEG Deutsche Investitions- und Entwicklungsgesellschaft mbH, cancelled a previously approved loan to Grupo Dinant, a large Honduran company that produces snacks, other food products and cooking oil; the loan was reportedly worth $20 million. Shortly afterwards, EDF Trading, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the French energy firm Electricité de France SA, cancelled a contract to buy carbon credits from a Dinant subsidiary, Exportadora del Atlántico, under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) for carbon trading.

Although the two European companies didn’t explain why they were backing out of their Honduran deals, the moves appeared to result from an international campaign around allegations of human rights abuses in northern Honduras’ Lower Aguán Valley by Dinant’s founder, wealthy landowner Miguel Facussé Barjum.

Along with other big landowners, Facussé has been engaged in a longstanding, often bloody dispute over land in the Lower Aguán region claimed by campesino families living in the area. In a recent incident, five private guards killed five members of the Campesino Movement of the Aguán (MCA) on Nov. 15 at Facussé’s El Tumbador African palm plantation, in Trujillo, Colón. In addition to raising African palms on Lower Aguán land for cooking oil, Facussé and Dinant have been trying to use African palms to get a foothold in the international biofuel market. Dinant has secured a $7 million loan from the Inter-American Investment Corporation (IIC) and a $30 million loan from the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) in part to expand the company’s African palm cultivation.

A number of environmental and human rights organizations—including two German-based groups, the environmental watchdog CDM Watch and the human rights group FoodFirst Information and Action Network (FIAN)—have been working to publicize Honduran activists’ charges of human rights violations by Facussé and Dinant. On March 25, a FIAN-led fact-finding mission submitted a report to the rapporteur for Honduras of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) saying that 23 peasants were killed in the Lower Aguán between January 2010 and February 2011 and stressing the five deaths in the Nov. 15 incident. DEG and EDF decided to withdraw their support for Dinant a little more than two weeks after release of the report.

The environmental and human rights groups are now putting pressure on the United Nation’s Clean Development Mechanism Executive Board to reject Dinant as a recipient of CDM carbon credits. The United Kingdom’s CDM agency has also authorized the Dinant project, and in March 76 organizations sent the British government an open letter calling for an end to the authorization.

Dinant is responding with claims that the company might have to close because of “misleading statements” by the rights groups. “Eight thousand people could lose their jobs” if Dinant closes, company treasure Roger Pineda told the Bloomberg business news service on April 19. Pineda said Dinant is investigating the deaths of 10 security guards and a 13-year-old boy in relation to “trespassing” on its land, and he charged that the human rights organizations “don’t seem to care about the people who get killed by the peasants.” (CDM Watch press release, April 18; Bloomberg April 18, April 21; Honduras Culture and Politics blog, April 21)

Miguel Facussé continues to push Dinant’s biofuel project, which he said could help fight the recent rise in oil prices in Honduras. “Not only is palm oil magnificent for health, even if used for frying, but it also could be a tremendous substitute for petroleum, which is constantly getting scarcer and more expensive,” he told the Tegucigalpa daily La Tribuna, which is owned by his nephew, former president Carlos Flores Facussé (1998-2002). Currently Honduras is the third largest African palm oil exporter in Latin America, according to the Honduran government. Facussé said the industry could create 120,000 jobs but is now being hurt by the land disputes.

Facussé also told the paper about his “a strong presentiment that things will go much better” for the country, “especially with the new law that seeks to strengthen education.” He was referring to a proposal for decentralizing the public school system that helped set off a month-long strike by teachers starting in March. (La Tribuna, April 12)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, April 24.

See our last posts on Honduras and land struggles in the Aguán Valley.