Massive UN-Supported African Palm Plantations Leading to Oppression, Kidnapping and Murder
Since the 2009 coup that overthrew the government of President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, the countryside of the lower Aguan Valley, a long embattled region and one of Central America's richest agricultural areas, has undergone a brutal rash of kidnappings, murders, detentions and intimidation.
The region has been long marked by conflicts over land and land reform; but today in the Aguan Valley -- prime real estate for plantations of African palm -- the stakes have increased dramatically. With the global biofuel rush, and with the expansion of carbon markets, which can provide massive underwriting for projects that appear "green," but in many cases may be anything but, the promise of carbon credits and free money from climate-financing schemes like the U.N.-backed Clean Development Mechanism, appear to be among the causes of renewed violence.
A signal occurrence was the recent kidnapping of a local campesino (peasant farmer) named Juan Chinchilla. Chinchilla is a leader of the Unified Peasant Movement of the Aguan (MUCA in its Spanish acronym) and a member of the National Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP), a movement that rose up after the 2009 coup that ousted President Zelaya. On January 8, Chinchilla was on the road when his motorcycle was fired on. He was quickly taken captive by men identified as wearing police and military uniforms and uniforms of the private security guards of Miguel Facussé, a Honduran businessman who owns vast plantations of African palm in the Aguan Valley.
By the time Chinchilla managed to escape two days later, he had been burned and beaten, though suffered no critical injuries. When he was interviewed, Chinchilla said his captors included "several foreigners who spoke English, and another language I didn't recognize." When asked why he thought he'd been kidnapped, Chinchilla said, "We're in a war with the landowners. We know that our enemies are Miguel Facussé, Rene Morales, and Reinaldo Cabales, and that the government sides with them, not with the people."
In poring over accounts from the Aguan Valley, including frequent reports by Italian journalist Giorgio Trucchi who has been in the Aguan during much of the past year, the name Facussé comes up again and again. A widely known figure in Honduras, Facussé owns thousands of hectares of African palm, among the fastest-growing biofuel feedstock crops. His agribusiness consortium, Grupo Dinant, has reportedly received millions of dollars from International Financial Institutions. If its registration is approved in coming weeks, one of Grupo Dinant's key projects will become the latest of about sixteen projects in Honduras -- including hydroelectric dams, biomass electricity, and methane capture projects -- to receive financing under the Clean Development Mechanism.
What Is The Clean Development Mechanism?
The Clean Development Mechanism, or CDM, is a policy approach to mitigating climate pollution built into the Kyoto Protocol, and likely to be extended under the recently signed Cancun Agreements. When the Kyoto Protocol mandated that signatories reduce their domestic emissions by an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels in the period 2008-2012, industrialized countries saw the challenge as too great to undertake through actually cutting emissions, so several market-based "flexible mechanisms" were developed. One of these market-based mechanisms, the CDM, was designed to allow industrialized countries to reduce emissions wherever in the world those reductions are cheapest, and then count those reductions toward their national target.
In theory, the CDM works like this: an investor from an industrialized country, or an industrialized country government, can provide financing for a project in a developing country that reduces greenhouse gas emissions compared to what would have happened without the CDM. The investor then gets credits toward meeting their Kyoto target. Third-party consultants are hired to validate that the projects being funded will actually result in reduced emissions in relation to what might have happened in the absence of CDM funding. Such an approach, byzantine as it may be to actually implement, monitor, and oversee, is lustily perceived by green investors as a "win-win."
Such a speculative approach, however, leads to many problems. The most widespread criticism of the CDM is that a project's legitimacy is based essentially on guessing what a country's emissions rate would have been without the project in question -- a number that is clearly impossible to quantify. A second problem involves the fact that many CDM projects are based on simply substituting fossil fuels with some alternative, such as waste-to-energy schemes, where trash is burned instead of coal to generate electricity, or biofuel refineries and biofuel feedstock plantations, where green carbon (living vegetation) replaces black carbon (petroleum) as a liquid fuel. The problem here is that most of these imagined clean energy schemes, analyzed over a project's lifetime, can churn out as much or more greenhouse gas emissions than oil or coal; considering such schemes according to a truly ecological metric sends the "win-win" up in a puff of smoke.
Further, many critics call the CDM a "zero sum game." In the words of Almuth Ernsting, a researcher with the European NGO BiofuelWatch, "for every ton of CO2 supposedly 'saved' in the South, another additional one is emitted in the North."
Another problem -- evidenced by the situation in Honduras -- is that CDM projects, by raining money from the sky, may incentivize land grabs, corruption, and human rights abuse. While the sums involved are relatively small compared to the investments already made by multilateral banks, CDM financing lends credibility to biofuel plantations, regardless of the associated human rights abuses, and thus attracts investment.
Viewed as a global phenomena, the concern is that, what the fossil fuel industry has done to get at the oil it needs -- disastrous spills, human rights atrocities, and a global game of Risk with the oil industry and the military on the winning team -- could be replicated by the biofuel rush. Only, oil reserves are where you find them, while biofuel feedstocks can be grown virtually anywhere.
The Violence in Bajo Aguan
While such global policies pretend to confront the climate crisis and the inequities between north and south by stimulating green investment, they appear to be causing what reporter Giorgio Trocchi calls "an agrarian conflict fueled by African palm and by monocultures in general, causing poverty and environmental destruction, while enriching very few."
In April 2009, some months before President Zelaya was removed from office, he oversaw the passage of a law called Decree 18-2008, that would promote agrarian reform by giving land titles to peasant groups across Honduras, including the MCA (Movimiento Campesino del Aguan) and the MUCA (Movimiento Unificado Campesino del Aguan) in the Aguan Valley. When Zelaya was forced out in June of that year, this law, like many other progressive policies he had endorsed, stagnated. A national resistance movement rose up, and the peasant organizations of the Aguan joined. By December 2009, the MUCA decided that the only way to carry out land reform under the coup government was to do it themselves, and they began an effort to recuperate lands held by the Aguan's large landowners, Facussé chief among them.
Since that time, dozens of members of the peasant movement have been killed.
Somewhere near the heart of the land struggle in the Aguan is a 5,000-hectare property formerly known as the Centro Regional de Entrenemiento Militar, the Regional Center for Military Training, or CREM in its Spanish acronym. A U.S. military training center during the wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador, the land has changed hands several times since then, and in May, 2000, a year after Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras, the land was occupied by 1,000 peasant families who had lost everything in the storm. The families built a village there, which they named Guadelupe Carney, after a Jesuit priest who'd been famously disappeared in the '80s, and they formed what soon became the Campesino Movement of the Aguan (MCA). The MCA began a long, uphill struggle to gain legal title to the land under Honduras' much-neglected agrarian reform laws.
"It's only just," one of the leaders of the MCA, Donaldo Aguilar Valle, told me in 2001, shortly after their takeover. "As campesinos, we are agrarian reform."
Unfortunately, the conflict does not end there. Several years ago, Miguel Facussé planted 700 acres of African palm on the former CREM land, and running gun battles have been a constant. Between August 2008 and September 2009, as many as 19 deaths resulted from conflicts between the peasants of Guadalupe Carney and the landowners.
By April 2010, after months of escalating violence, an agreement was signed between the MUCA and current President Porfirio Lobo Sosa, under which some 11,000 hectares of land would be turned over to the peasant movements in the Aguan, through the intermediary of the National Agrarian Institute (INA). In May, 2010, the INA turned over the first 3,000 hectares, and more than 2,500 campesinos were moved onto six newly established settlements.
At that same time, Miguel Facussé began a campaign to dismantle the reforms, pursuing legal injunctions against the families who were given land, accusing the peasant movements of guerrilla activity, and, according to many witnesses, sicking his private military guards on movement leaders in numerous violent confrontations.
On August 17, three members of the MUCA whose families had received new land, were killed by unknown assailants in the community of Aurora, near the town of Tocoa. On November 15, five more campesinos were killed, this time in broad daylight: a reported squad of more than 200 men, uniformed as private security guards of Miguel Faccusé, entered the community of El Tumbador, on the contested edge of the CREM property where Facussé had his 700 acre palm plantation, and opened fire with high-caliber weapons.
When the government failed to denounce the violence, a state of impunity began to grow throughout the region. On November 23, 500 federal troops appeared at the regional campus of the INA, in what became a two-month occupation. On December 7, the MUCA orchestrated a protest, blocking the main highway through the valley for nine hours. Two days later, on December 9, dozens of soldiers entered the nearby community of Paso Aguan and evicted all of the residents. Another eviction occurred on December 15, when 600 troops entered Guadelupe Carney without a judicial order and turned out the residents of El Tumbador.
Throughout the repression, the peasant organizations have resisted peacefully. "They want us to react with violence, to justify their repression," said Jose Santos Cruz, a leader of the MCA. "But we won't."
When the two-month siege of the National Agrarian Institute was lifted suddenly on January 20, workers there entered their offices to find filth, damaged computers and disarray. Esly Banegas, president of the Tocoa local of the Union of Workers of the INA said, "We have no doubt that the attack on our offices here was the first stage of a nationwide escalation of the conflict. All they gained was making us lose two months of work without any reason, stalling agrarian reform programs and impacting peasant families."
African Palm and the CDM Connection
Human rights organizations monitoring the situation express little doubt that the violence is fueled by lure of profits from African palm. Gilberto Rios, the Honduras Country Director for the human rights group FIAN International says "All around the [African palm] plantations in the hands of the large landowners, they've created belts of poverty. The workers live in conditions of exploitation, without labor rights, without social services. There is no interest in investing in food security; on the contrary, the only effort is to strengthen the model of production for export."
Following the coup in 2009, Rios says, the government of Honduras has "privatized natural resources and basic services, nullified the [previous] gains of the labor movement and social movements, made work precarious, and criminalized protest. What we're witnessing is an accelerated accumulation of money and power by the national oligarchy of Honduras."
Father Fausto Milla, a member of a Truth Commission newly established to redress the violence, says the number of murders in the region has reached 35, and sees the reign of terror as a means of maintaining control over workers whose conditions he equates to slavery.
"There is no law in Honduras," said Milla. "In order for African palm to reap profits, it must be planted on a grand scale. In order to do that, they need slaves."
As the crisis in Honduras begins to gain international attention, the German environmental organization Rettet den Regenwald (Rainforest Rescue), along with the European-based NGOs CDMWatch and BiofuelWatch, have raised concerns that human rights and ecological impacts should prohibit Grupo Dinant, Facussé's company, from receiving CDM financing. The groups are bringing the issue to the attention of the UN-based CDM Executive board as well as project backers, including the UK government.
"Unfortunately, the norms of the CDM don't include consideration of human rights impacts, and we consider this unacceptable," says Almuth Ernsting, a researcher with Biofuel Watch. Ernsting charges that allowing Grupo Dinant to receive CDM money "will aggravate the human rights situation in Honduras by authorizing additional profits for a company known for spending large sums of money to pay armed paramilitaries and causing grave human rights violations."
If the project is registered, Ernsting estimates that CDM credits paid to Exportador del Atlantico, the agricultural division of Grupo Dinant, could amount to 276,000 Euros annually, at 12 Euros per tonne of Co2.
"And," she adds, "they're applying for two CDM projects at two locations, which would roughly double the annual payments they'd get."
Last month, advocacy efforts paid off when one of the consultants that prepared the CDM application, Perspectives GmbH, agreed to withdraw. The hope among Rainforest Rescue and its allies is that the same concerns will send a signal to other parties involved, such as the UK government, to withdraw their approval.
The UN body in charge of the CDM, the CDM Executive Board, will decide the fate of the project in the coming months. But current CDM rules tend to allow financial interests to trump potential human rights abuses, even in the case of a coup government. And, if a CDM host country claims that a CDM project "contributes to sustainable development" -- a key requirement of the CDM -- there is no process to evaluate or dispute the claim.
"In the case of Aguan, it is hard to believe that the project auditors, [a consulting firm called TÜV SÜD] have actually visited the project site and talked to anybody but the project developers," said Eva Filzmoser, program director at CDMWatch. "Had they done so, they would have been informed about the real situation on the ground."
According to Biofuel Watch, aside from the potential earnings from CDM credits, Grupo Dinant has received significant aid from International Financial Institutions, including US $7 million from the Inter-American Investment Corporation (part of the InterAmerican Development Bank); US $30 million from the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank; and US $77 million from Banco Financiera Comercial Hondureña S.A. The latter, along with several other Central American banks, have in turn received a credit line of US $45 million from the Netherlands Development Finance Corporation and the German Investment and Development Company, as part of a loan portfolio for the agro-industrial business sector in Central America.
As a piece of the Kyoto Protocol, the Clean Development Mechanism has a mandate to promote sustainable development. But, just as the definition of "forests" under U.N. rules includes industrial plantations of African palm and even GE trees, definitions of sustainable development tend to favor the developer. One of the terrible ironies is that, while the Clean Development Mechanism pours funds into monoculture plantations and the attendant concentration of land in the hands of corporations and large landowners, small-scale, sustainable production of crops for local consumption is increasingly recognized as one of the keys to confronting both the climate crisis and the world's growing food insecurity.
Ten years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a week encamped in Guadelupe Carney, not as a journalist, but as a researcher looking at the bare bones of ecological development. The MCA -- 1,000 families with literally nothing but the clothes on their backs -- had occupied this land, and they were planting a dream of agrarian reform from the bottom up.
They spoke to me at the time of their ambitious goals: to reforest the slopes and the banks of lagoons, to plant diversified, organic crops, to establish a free university to teach ecological agriculture, women's studies and economics. One of their staunch defenders, a Jesuit priest named Pedro Marchetti who'd followed in the footsteps of Guadelupe Carney, walked me around the CREM and offered lessons in local history.
"One of the greatest threats we face," he told me then, "is African palm."
Mere weeks after my visit, Father Marchetti was forced to flee the country in fear for his life. Years later, his prediction has proved true: African palm plantations dominate the Aguan Valley, with the looming promise of CDM funding to ensure they reap a hardy profit.