Since 2009, the Bajo Aguán region of northern Honduras has been on the front lines fighting against the industrialization of previously private land reserved for collective ownership. In 1992, Honduras passed a series of agrarian laws allowing the sale of large tracts of land to agro-industrial companies. These parcels were formerly reserved for campesino communities, typically villages composed of small-scale farmers. However, the new laws allow these tracts to be sold for commercialization.
The campesino communities are taking action. They have filed administrative appeals, formed agrarian law reform groups, and, more recently, physically occupied contested land. The legal efforts pressed by the farming communities have attained little advance. Intimidation, threats, and violence seem to be in the weaponry of the new landowners—and one can see their frustration—but, according to a report by the National Human Rights Commissioner of Honduras, 92 people have been killed in land disputes from 2009 to 2012.
So why hasn’t the government intervened? They have, to some degree. The then President of Honduras, Porfirio Lobo, deemed the situation a national security crisis. The National Human Rights Commission, Attorney General’s Office, and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have all conducted investigations in Bajo Aguán. Their reports have unanimously found evidence of human rights violations including killings, abductions, forced evictions, and sexual violence. Additionally, the International Finance Corporation—an organization that offers investment advisory services in developing countries—is currently conducting an investigation over reports of abuse by private security hired by new landowners to strong-arm campesino communities off their land.
Recognizing the situation can no longer be swept under the rug, Honduras officials are now claiming that they do not have the administrative resources to investigate and prosecute offenders. Regardless of the government’s lack of resources, officials have had opportunities to employ protective measures in preventing future attacks, yet have failed to do so.
Despite the tepid efforts by the government, there is still little or no recourse for campesino communities. Fed up, campesino communities have resorted to taking matters into their own hands. A 72-page Human Rights Watch report indicates campesino groups have contracted illegally armed criminal organizations to fight back for them.
If the Honduras government continues to ignore the problem the potential for violence will intensify. However, Honduras prosecutors claim many of the killings are because campesino communities are illegally occupying land, and refuse to leave. In other words, prosecutors are implicitly, and maybe expressly, suggesting the communities should leave if they do not want violence. Is that a fair point? Should the campesino communities temporarily vacate contested land to prevent more unwarranted violence? Although the democratic process has appeared to fail, is there any non-violent recourse for the people of Bajo Aguán? Finally, many of the international bodies that have investigated the issue have suggested international support. Do you think the international community should jump into a seemingly domestic affair?
Source: Human Rights Watch
Image: Televi Centro