Will the World Bank Stop Investing in Campesino Assassinations?

March 08, 2013

Arthur Phillips

On February 27, the office of the Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman (CAO) for the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) launched an audit of the lending arm’s $30 million investment in Tegucigalpa-based Corporación Dinant, which produces palm oil and food products. The audit comes in response to widespread claims of violence, intimidation, and illegal evictions carried out by Dinant’s private security guards in Honduras’ Bajo Aguán valley, the center of the country’s ongoing land struggle. In offering its resources and reputation to the company, the World Bank and its member countries are complicit in the deaths of countless innocent farmers.

The COA’s review began just two days after the United Nations Working Group on the use of mercenaries urged the Honduran government “to properly investigate and prosecute crimes committed by private security guards and to ensure that victims receive effective remedies.” A delegation from the Working Group was in the country from February 18 to 22, when it met with government officials and representatives of civil society and the private sector, including security firms. The delegates voiced their particular concern about the “alleged involvement of private security companies hired by landowners in widespread human rights violations including killings, disappearances, forced evictions and sexual violence against representatives of peasant associations in the Bajo Aguán region.” Dinant is the largest single landholder in the region.

An appointed panel of unnamed experts is currently convened in Washington, D.C., to review both the IFC’s adherence to its social and environmental policies and the role Dinant has played in the abuses. Many human rights observers consider the company’s owner, Miguel Facussé, to be one of the country’s most powerful men and hold him responsible for the killings of dozens of campesinos.

The audit had been a long time coming. On November 19, 2010, the human rights organization Rights Action wrote a letter to the World Bank’s then-president Robert Zoellick demanding that the financial institution suspend its funding to Honduras. The group cited the “context of grave human rights abuses and lack of independence of the justice system” as grounds to withhold funding, and characterized support for Dinant as “a case of gross negligence of the World Bank’s human rights and due diligence obligations.” In the letter, Rights Action also noted that “at least 19 farmers in this region have been killed in the context of conflicts with biofuel industry interests.” (In a new report released two weeks ago, the same group declared that 88 farmers and their supporters have been killed in Bajo Aguán since January 2010, most of them in targeted assassinations.)

In the ensuing period, the office of the CAO maintained discussions with local civil society organizations and in April 2012, CAO Vice President Meg Taylor informed the IFC that her office was initiating an appraisal of the funding group’s investment in Dinant. That appraisal, having found sufficient grounds for further investigation, culminated this August in the decision to conduct the current audit.

A diverse group of international organizations, including Oxfam, Vía Campesina and the Latin American Working Group, welcomed CAO’s decision. In a co-signed letter, though, the groups expressed their firm demand that the IFC halt its financial cooperation with the palm oil company

until a) clear evidence is provided of significant progress in overcoming impunity of crimes and human rights abuses committed against organized peasants and their supporters in the Lower Aguán; and b) a comprehensive, just, peaceful and sustainable resolution is provided to the conflicts over land between the Corporación Dinant, the government of Honduras and the local peasant movements.

The panel is scheduled to conclude its audit on March 8.

On Friday, March 1, while the CAO panel gathered in Washington, journalist Carlos Augusto Lara Cruz was reportedly threatened by a Dinant employee while covering a confrontation between campesinos and a military unit. It must be noted that Honduran human rights defenders have consistently and credibly accused military and police units of collaborating with Dinant security guards in kidnapping, torturing, and murdering land rights activists.

One of the latest assassinations in the area took place on Thursday, February 21, when lawyer José Andrés Andrade Soto was shot dead in the town of Tocoa. Andrade Soto led the regional office of the National Agrarian Institute until former president Manuel Zelaya was deposed in the June 2009 coup. Today, farmer organizations continue to struggle for land titles that the Zelaya government granted to them shortly before it was overthrown.

As part of its Summary of Proposed Investment, written before the program’s approval in order to boost the institution’s transparency, the IFC described its cooperation with Dinant as an opportunity to help small farmers in Bajo Aguán. It also declared that there was no controversy regarding the land in question. “Land acquisition is on a willing buyer-willing seller basis, and there is no involuntary displacement of any people,” the report assured.

Since that report was published, scores of campesinos have been assassinated for efforts to re-appropriate their rightful land. The World Bank and its member countries bear some degree of responsibility for their deaths. No matter the outcome of the CAO audit, the IFC should apologize for the suffering in which it has been complicit and should immediately revoke its support for Facussé and Corporación Dinant.

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