The World Bank, U.S. Intervention and Human Rights in the Aguan Valley: A Conversation with Annie Bird

Less than two months ago, indigenous activist Berta Cáceres, the General Coordinator of COPINH was murdered in her home in La Esperanza. Her murder is thought to be linked to her outspoken criticism of the Honduran government and COPINH’s struggle to stop the construction of a hydroelectric dam project, Agua Zarca on the Gualcarque river by international-financed Honduran firm, DESA. Berta is one of hundreds of activists and land defenders that have been murdered in Honduras since the 2009 military coup.

The Aguan Valley region in northern Honduras has been a hotbed of land conflict and the center of violence, muder and militarization in the country in the last few years. Various campesino movements have been fighting for the rights of hundreds of families to access and own land that is claimed by three large land owners and companies including Dinant Corporation, owned by the Facussé family.

One positive development in the Aguan was the declaration of freedom granted to Jose Isabel Morales “Chavelo” who spent seven years in prison related to a land dispute waged by the campesino community of Guadalupe Carney, home to the Movimiento Campesino de Aguan (MCA). Chavelo’s freedom was one of few victories for the campesino movement in the Aguan as well as national and international solidarity activists, including Berta Cáceres, and organizations that also worked for Chavelo’s freedom.

Despite this small victory, there is still a lot of struggles to support and very difficult circumstances for many campesino movement and land defenders in the region. Below is an interview with a long-time activist, Annie Bird who worked for over 15-years with U.S. and Canada-based Rights Action, but that has since left Rights Action to start her own initiative, Rights and Ecology. Annie has been involved in documenting the human rights violations in the Aguan valley since 2009.

This interview was conducted on October 22, 2015 but many of the topics discussed are still very relevant today.

 The Aguan river.

The Aguan river.

1. What are some of the challenges facing the campesino movements in the Aguan Valley today?

Annie: I think that campesino movements in the Aguan is at its most difficult and challenging moment right now, than it has been in many years because there is a concerted effort to essentially destroy the movements, even some of the oldest and strongest cooperatives which is being fueled by outside funding to promote Model City in the area, a Special Development Zone. And then with the presence of Columbian paramilitary groups that are specifically targeting the few campesino movements that still have land, MUCA and historic cooperatives, pressuring them to individualize land titles to facilitate the sale of the land titles in the same way that happened in the 1990s. And so, that is also accompanied by criminalization and its of course fabulous and amazing that Chabelos is free, but just a week ago [October 2015], another campesino leader from MUCA, Santos Lemos was arrested and put into prison on false charges of murder as part of a criminalization campaign related to a paramilitary group that is operating in the region. Criminalization will likely increase as there is more pressure from international investors in the region who are interested in taking over campesino land.

2. Can you elaborate more on the interests in constructing a Model City in the region? How do people know these interests exist and what exactly are they?

Annie: They know its related to Model Cities, because some of the investors that have approached them [campesino movements] and have expressed that explicitly. There is also a new investment model being promoted by INA [National Agrarian Institute] to fund campesino organizations, but essentially locking them into contracts in partnership with transnationals where they have a minority control of the business, of course reducing their profits and their pay.

Government officials have also said they are interested in promoting the largest palm oil agro-industrial zone in the world, including bigger than Indonesia, in the region, in the Bajo Aguan, the Sico Valley and probably La Moskitia. This is being said very explicitly. Also another element of that is the implementation of the water law, which is being piloted in the Aguan. They are implementing a decentralized water plan, which is an attempt to regionalize the state and put services in the hands of corporations that invest in the area.

What I’m beginning to sense and needs further investigation, the implementation of Model Cities is going to happen in a much more piecemeal way that we think so that small actions like decentralization of water, and shifts in the way that INA manages land and investment in the region are likely going to be the first signs of implementations of the Model Cities. Not necessary declaring a whole area as a Model City in an abrupt, radical change in governance.

3. During your time with Rights Action, and now with your current organization, Rights and Ecology, you have worked alongside partner organizations based in the Aguan Valley to push forward an investigation of the World Bank/IFC loans to Dinant. What is happening with the World Bank International Finance Corporation investigation? Has there been any legitimate and profound change since the IFC began investigating Dinant and its involvement in human rights violations in the Aguan?

Annie: I’m not even sure what to call what the IFC is doing in the Aguan – I wouldn’t necessarily call it an investigation. It is essentially coordination between a lot of different sectors in the government and in the region with this idea of addressing some of the governance challenges – I guess they would phrase it. So for example, trying to work with Dinant to make their security forces being more respectful of human rights but what we are actually seeing is, that, that has pushed repression into two directions: one is downsizing the role of private security and promoting more presence of the military which is just as bad or worse, and also more paramilitary activity which is also worse because that has less direct impact on the company. So that is just one example.

The other part is about land that there is not really much transparency about what the World Bank is doing about financing African palm corporations and given that the high interest in investing in the region, there are questions about where that is coming from. Another thing that is clear is that there has been no movement so far to help campesino movements be able to come to agreements about land purchases or revalue the land that they have already purchased or get lower interest. All of those things are at the point of forcing movements to stop payments to the lose of the land at any time, so basically, what we have seen so far is the failure to address the problem in anyway and made it worse. There are a lot of different approaches that we are thinking through about ways of address this.

Most of what I’ve been doing is monitoring what the Bank has been doing, and most of what we have seen has been negative.

4. What do you and your partners hope will come of this investigation and other work being done to denounce the role of the IFIs in financing palm companies in Honduras?

Annie: We hope that we can continue to pressure the Banks and hopefully in stronger ways and that that could hopefully – and also bring out to the public more about the violence and paramilitary activity that is part of what is going on in the region.

5. You were the principal author and researcher of the impressive Bird Report in 2012 documenting hundreds of human rights abuses in the Aguan Valley, particularly those related to the 15th Battalion and U.S. role in the region. Can you give us an update of the human rights situation in relation to U.S. policy in the region since the report’s publication?

Annie: I think since that report was published, the number of killings dropped a lot all of a sudden at the end of 2013, probably because of all the international attention but what happened is that other kinds of repression increased like criminalization and operation of paramilitary groups that intimidate people. So there is still a very tense situation – killings have happened. On August 30 [2015], the son of a MUCA member was killed in a similar way that others have occurred, while he was waiting for a bus at 8:30 in the morning. Then a MOCRA member, Rodriguez was killed on September 3rd [2015] as he was on his bicycle going to cut palm for his work and Rodriguez was also pursued last year by the Xatruch Task Force, they chased him through a palm field into the town and fired over 300 shots, the school had to be evacuated and the same person was killed on September 3rd. The discourse of the government that is out there, is a way of taking the responsibility away from the palm companies, is that the government got land for the campesinos but then they began to kill each other over the disputes. And this is obviously false, and killings by paramilitary groups are being passed off as killings by campesinos. and MUCA members have nothing to do with the violence are being dragged into the issue and blamed and even arrested. Miguel Pacheco, the President of Lempira was arrested in August [2015] and charged with a murder that happened on a day while he was in a meeting with INA [National Agrarian Institute] in another part of the country with Cesar Ham, the Ministry of INA and so luckily because he was in the meeting, they were able to show that, and he was released. But then not long ago, just two weeks ago, Santos Lemos the leader of La Aurora was arrested and in jail now and being charged for murder that his neighborhoods say he had nothing to do with. So there are different kinds of repression being used now.

The role of the U.S. – at the time I wrote the report it was clear that the U.S. Special operations command had trained the 15th Battalion in the Aguan, which had so much articulation with the private security forces. And so that is something that needs to be looked into but there continues to be reports that there are U.S. soldiers on the base.