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Human Rights Violations in Honduras: Land Seizures, Peasants’ Repression, and the Struggle for Democracy on the Ground

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Human Rights Violations in Honduras: Land Seizures, Peasants’ Repression, and the Struggle for Democracy on the Ground

In Honduras, arguably the most unequal country in Latin America, peasants are the victims of a glaring disparate land ownership structure. In 2009, when then-President Manuel Zelaya attempted to pass legislation that promised comprehensive land reform, he was ousted from power by a coup led by businessman Roberto Micheletti. Since the coup, peasants have suffered from increased repression, with death squads threatening and assassinating hundreds of campesinos while palm oil and hydroelectric companies accumulate land by dispossession. The return of the right-wing, pro-business National Party to power via the 2013 election of Juan Orlando Hernández to the presidency brought no tranquility to the Honduran peasantry. [1] Tragically, there seems to be no end in sight for the repression of land and human rights in the Central American country.

A Historical Perspective: The Pendulum of Agrarian Reform

A very small elite has largely dominated Honduras’ economic and political spheres, as is the case in most Latin American countries. [2] This trend began to change in the early 1960s, as then-President Ramón Villeda Morales (1957-1963) gave significant attention to the unequal pattern of land ownership and initiated a program to achieve democratic agrarian reform. In 1961, the National Agrarian Institute (INA) was created with the assigned task of preparing the Agrarian Reform project. The Agrarian Reform Law (Ley de Reforma Agraria) was passed in 1962. [3] This inflamed the conservative groups, particularly those who represented large landowners like the National Federation of Agriculturists and Stockraisers of Honduras (FENAGH). [4] In 1963, Oswaldo López Arellano seized power in a coup d’etat ten days before the elections in October of 1963. [5] Major reasons for the coup were the ongoing agrarian reform, which had distributed 1500 hectares of land, other progressive reforms, and the likelihood of another leftist candidate winning the presidency in the elections. Shortly after López Arellano came to power, the Agrarian Reform Law was nullified.

López persecuted and intimidated peasant unions and any leftist group that represented opposition to his rule. Peasants then mobilized and began to occupy lands illegally, since the legal system had failed them. In the face of such mobilizations, the government had to establish agrarian reforms once again. [6] Important developments occurred under López’s dictatorship, although they would not last long. In 1972, for example, a decree established a law that allowed temporary use of land “to assist in the short term the solution of the most pressing needs of the inhabitants of the country settled in the countryside.” [7]

Although López allowed general elections in 1971 (in which Ramón Ernesto Cruz won the presidency), he seized power again in a coup in 1972. Then, in 1974, a more comprehensive land reform law was drafted, and in 1975 it went into effect. The new law (Decreto No. 170), meant to “transform the agrarian structure of the country, destined to substitute for latifundio and minifundio a system of ownership, tenancy, and exploitation of the land that will guarantee social justice in the field and will augment the production and productivity of the farming and livestock sector…” [8] Nevertheless, these reforms did not address the underlying problems of land inequality and they only benefited nine percent of the rural population. [9] In 1975, the agrarian reform was again at a standstill and poor peasants continued to occupy land.

Neoliberalism and Structural Adjustment Policies 

By 1993, 44 percent of the rural population was either landless or owned less than a hectare of land. [10] In the context of the wave of neoliberal policies that spread throughout Latin America in the 90s and under the presidency of Rafael Leonardo Callejas, the Law for Agrarian Modernization (Ley de Modernización) was passed in 1992. This law transformed land into a typical commodity of a liberalized market in which supply and demand dictate the distribution of land rather than state intervention. [11] Contrary to previous efforts at reducing the latifundio (large estate ownership) the new law, as part of the package of the structural adjustment policies of the 1990s, led to the transfer of collectively-held land to the market and to increased concentration of land. Transnational companies began to buy lands (often through coercion) from the reformed sector to expand banana and palm oil production. [12] The media, mostly owned by the landowners and businessmen, supported the narrative that the agricultural sector was going to increase its productivity in the hands of businessmen. [13] In short, the Law for Agrarian Modernization “radically altered the structure of land-tenancy, as well as the rationale for land reform.” [14]

The 2009 Coup: Another failed Agrarian Reform

The pendulum came back when President Zelaya was ousted from power in a coup in 2009. The long-awaited agrarian reform seemed finally a bit closer when in 2008 President Zelaya began pushing forward the distribution of land through Decree Law 18-2008. This law would have given land titles to peasants who had occupied and produced on their lands for more than 10 years. This advancement came to a halt when Zelaya was ousted from power.

When Porfirio Lobo Sosa, a landowner, became the president of Honduras in 2010, the peasants began to protest and peacefully occupy lands, which only brought more state-sponsored repression against them. As a report from the Canadian Council for International Cooperation points out, “…the coup has provided the context for rolling back important gains in the peaceful and legal resolution of conflicts between peasant groups and powerful landed business interests over access to land titles.” [15] Before his ousting in 2009, President Zelaya faced strong opposition from the private sector. Business coalitions like the National Business Council (COHEP) and the Honduras National Association of Industries (ANDI) provided fierce and steady support for the coup. [16]

Miguel Facussé Barjum, one of the richest people in Honduras and the head of Dinant, was a strong supporter of the 2009 coup. Dinant Corporation is an important private entity in Honduras, as it is the largest palm oil producer in the country and owns one-fifth of all the agricultural land in Bajo Aguán. [17] Dinant is involved in land disputes with peasant farmers, who have organized themselves to pressure the company to distribute the land they claim they own. In recent years, there has been an explosion of land-related violence in the area. Assassinations, kidnappings, and forced displacement of farmers have plagued Bajo Aguán. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights revealed in its 2012 report that deaths, threats and acts of intimidation increased in the Bajo Aguán region since the 2009 coup. [18] Many people have died in the country’s ongoing land struggle (92 people in the Bajo Aguán area alone since the coup) [19] and impunity for the perpetrators is only helping to further the violence. Human Rights Watch reported that, “Distrust is particularly acute among peasant organizations in Bajo Aguán, whose members routinely expressed to Human Rights Watch the belief that government officials were at best incompetent, and at worst directly collaborating with private landholding firms.” [20] Palm oil plantations and corrupt officials are blamed for the displacements and violence.

Photo Source: The Guardian.
Photo Source: The Guardian.

Dinant Corporation, The World Bank, and Human Rights Violations

The search for alternatives to fuel (i.e., bio-fuels and dams) is having dreadful consequences for farmers, as well as the indigenous and Afro descendant communities of Honduras. Lands that were previously used by these communities to grow crops, like rice and beans, are now used by companies to plant African palm to produce bio-fuel. [21] During the last decade, the demand for palm oil in the global market has tripled from two million to more than eight million tons. [22] As Lakhani, a freelance reporter writing about Central America and Mexico for The Guardian and other publication, explains, “The west’s drive to reduce its carbon footprint cheaply is fueling a dirty war in Honduras, where US-backed security forces are implicated in the murder, disappearance and intimidation of peasant farmers involved in land disputes with local palm oil magnates.” [23]

There are claims that private security guards work for big agro-industrial companies (such as Dinant) to protect the land from peasant protesters, leading to widespread human rights violations. In January 2014, the Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman (COA), which is the accountability mechanism for the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC), began an investigation regarding a $30 million loan to the Dinant Corporation and found that the “World Bank has invested in a palm oil and food company implicated in serious rights abuses in Honduras.” [24] Evidence suggested that private security guards carried out torture and arbitrary arrests, but an inadequate investigation without an examination of crime scenes coupled with an improper investigation process has not brought justice to the victims. [25]

In Honduras, corrupt officials and the military are colluding with private security guards (Honduras now has 5 private security guards per police officer) in the repression of peasants and community leaders. An investigation of the Canadian group Rights Action revealed that the Battalion 15 was directly implicated in 34 acts of violence and crime. [26] In addition, Human Rights watch reported that government security forces have been involved in arbitrary detentions, tortures, and forced evictions. [27] The promotion of justice should be a primordial goal to end the cycle of impunity that has plagued Honduras in the context of the land dispute.

U.S. Support

According to the U.S. State Department, the U.S. government supports “the government of Honduras by assisting law enforcement entities in disrupting criminal networks; building investigative, prosecutorial, and judicial capacity; and implementing violence prevention programs for vulnerable communities.” [28] Nonetheless, Honduras has achieved little, if anything, during the last five years.  On the contrary, Honduras has gained the status of being the world’s most violent country outside a war zone, with 20,573 violent deaths during the first three years of the Lobo administration and a murder rate of 85.5 per 100,000 inhabitants. [29]

On the other hand, at the same time U.S. military presence and aid in Honduras increased, the violence perpetrated by state security forces to suppress protests against illegal land displacements, mining, dams and oil concessions also increased (especially since the 2009 coup). [30] In 2011, for example, the U.S. authorized 1.3 billion USD for U.S. military electronics in Honduras. [31] In 2012, the Defense Department contracts for Honduras reached 67.4 million USD, a three-fold increase from 10 years prior. [32] Also, the U.S. still has a military base in Honduras, the Soto Cano Airbase, which is the center of the U.S. war on drugs in Honduras.

The U.S. – led war on drugs only increased the perpetration of human rights violations as the Honduran military and police use it as a convenient cover to assassinate farmer and indigenous groups. [33] Therefore, as the U.S. increased its military support to Honduras, it simultaneously sponsored a repressive government involved in human rights violations. Innocent civilians are directly being affected by the war on drugs. In May of 2012, in an anti-drug mission, National Police officers with the support of agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) killed 4 innocent people because they thought they were drug traffickers (including two pregnant women and a 14-year-old boy). [34] 

A Hydroelectric Dam fuels Violence

Another example that illustrates what is happening on the ground and how companies are involved in land grabs and destroying the environment in which indigenous peoples depend is the construction of a dam in the lands of the Lenca people in Río Blanco. The construction of dams has been a controversial topic worldwide because of the negative consequences on ecosystems, health, and civilian displacement. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), 40 to 80 million people have been displaced by dams throughout the world, and there is a lack of appropriate compensation for resettlement. [35]

Following the 2009 coup, the government awarded 47 hydroelectric dam concessions to companies without prior consultation to the communities that were going to be affected. [36] In 2011, DESA (a hydroelectric dam company with foreign funding and the one which bought the Agua Zarca dam concession) proposed building a dam on the Gualcarque River in Río Blanco. Although the community rejected the proposal, Mayor Martiniano Dominguez gave the company a permit to construct the dam. [37] This created a confrontation between the Indigenous farmers and the omnipotent international companies. In 2012, DESA and SYNOHYDRO (the Chinese hydroelectric company hired by DESA, which later withdrew from the project) began invading the land of the Lenca people. [38] Moreover, people claim that DESA’s private security guards work together with the military and police to patrol the area. [39]

Photo Source: International Rivers.
Photo Source: International Rivers.

In response, and without any other alternative, the community began to mobilize in April 2013. The local population temporarily stopped the construction of the dam by peacefully blockading a main road in Rio Blanco, but the Indigenous resistance sparked a tenacious and unparalleled repression by security forces. Berta Caceres, who is a leader of the indigenous Lenca people and the Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), maintains that “The army has an assassination list of 18 wanted human rights fighters with my name at the top. I want to live… I have never once considered giving-up fighting for our territory, for a life with dignity, because our fight is legitimate.“[40] DESA filed charges against Berta Cáceres for encouraging the blockade, and on September 20 she was sentenced to jail. Nevertheless, this past December, the Court of Appeals of Comayagua issued a provisional dismissal to Berta Cáceres’ judicial persecution. Similarly, Tomás García, also a community leader, was murdered by the Honduran military during a protest in July 2013. [41]

Concluding Remarks

This analysis has highlighted a few  examples of what daily life is for many peasant and indigenous communities in Honduras. The intersection between profit-seeking multinational companies, the war on drugs, a broken judicial system, private security guards, and a repressive and corrupt military and police comes down to a doleful reality in which innocent people and communities reclaiming their lands are murdered, threatened, and displaced.

Without comprehensive land reform that protects the rights of Indigenous peoples and abides by the ILO Convention 169, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, as well as other crucial national and international agreements and laws, forced displacements and violence will continue to occur in Honduras. In addition, the judicial system needs to be revised, and proper investigations in the case of human rights violations need to take place. As the Inter-American Court of Human Rights asserts, “the State has the obligation to use all the legal means at its disposal to combat impunity, since it fosters chronic recidivism of human rights violations and total defenselessness of victims and their relatives.” [42]

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[1] Lakhani, Nina. “Dirty war over clean fuel: Farmers in Honduras terrorized by U.S.-backed security forces,” The Guardian, January 7, 2014. [Accessed on February 18, 2014].

[2] Perry, John. “Honduras – three years after the coup,” openDemocracy, June 27, 2012. [Accessed on February 18, 2014].

[3] National Agrarian Institute.

[4] Merrill, Tim. Honduras: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1995.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Agrarian Activism, Agrarian Reform and Agrarian Law in Honduras,” Honduras Culture and Politics, March 6, 2010. [Accessed on February 26, 14].

[8] Ibid.

[9] USAID Country Profile. Property Rights and Resource Governance: Honduras.

[10] Merlet, Michel. “HONDURAS: The fragility and limits of agrarian reforms,” Fondo Documental Dinámico sobre la gobernanza de los recursos naturales en el mundo November, 2002.

[11] Agrarian Reform in Honduras. Food, Land and Freedom.

[12] Baumasteir, Eduardo.  “Las iniciativas campesinas y la sostenibilidad  de los resultados de la Reforma Agraria en el Salvador, Nicaragua, y Honduras. UNRISD Discussion paper NO. 105, June, 1999.$file/dp105.pdf

[13] Ríos, Gilberto. “El caso MUCA, la reforma agraria y el neoliberalismo.” Radio ELM, Abril 10, 2010. [Accessed on February 28, 14]

[14] “Agrarian Activism, Agrarian Reform and Agrarian Law in Honduras”

[15] “Honduras: Democracy Denied,” a Report from the Canadian Council for International Cooperation’s Americas Policy Group with Recommendations to the Government of Canada. 2010, 4.

[16] Ibid, 3.

[17] Malkin, Elizabeth. “In Honduras, Land Struggles Highlight Post-Coup Polarization,” The New York Times, September 15, 2011. [Accessed on February 19, 2014].

[18] “There Are No Investigations Here:” The Impunity for Killings and Other Abuses in Bajo Aguán, Honduras. Human Rights Watch, 2014.

[19] Wilkinson Tracy. “Honduras fails to investigate land battle killings, report says,” Los Angeles Times, February 12, 2014.,0,6328230.story#ixzz2tmgTV7Ll [Accessed on February 19, 2014].

[20] Ibid.

[21] Field, Tory and Beverly Bell. “Without Our Land, We Cease to be a People: Defending Indigenous Territory and Resources in Honduras,” Other Worlds/Harvesting Justice Series, August 18, 2013.

[22] Holt-Gimenez, Eric and Tanya Kerssen. “Honduras: War on the peasants,” Third World Resurgence No. 269/270, Jan/Feb 2013. [Accessed on February 20, 2014].

[23] Lakhani, “Dirty War over Clean Fuel.”

[24] “World Bank funding a company implicated in human rights abuses in Honduras,” OXFAM, January 10, 2014. [Accessed on February 19, 14].

[25] “Honduras: No Justice for Wave of Killings Over Land,” Human Rights Watch, February 12, 2014 [Accessed on February 20, 2014].

[26] Lakhani. ““Dirty War over Clean Fuel.”

[27] Human Rights Watch, “There Are No Investigations Here.”

[28] U.S. Relations with Hondura. U.S. Department of State. [Accessed on February 21, 2014].

[29] “Honduras, el más violento de Centroamérica,” El Heraldo, Enero 26, 2013. [Accessed on February 24, 2014]

[30] Lakhani, “Dirty War over Clean Fuel”

[31] Frank, Dana. The Latin America Mistake: Memo to Secretary Kerry: Stop funding the bad guys in Honduras,” Los Angeles Times, February 12, 2013. [Accessed on February 24, 2014].

[32] Ibid.

[33] Lakhani,“Dirty War over Clean Fuel.”

[34] “Honduras: Investigate Killings of Four Civilians,” Human Rights Watch, May 17, 2012. [Accessed on February 24, 2014].

[35] “Dam Problems: Social Impacts,” World Wildlife Fund [Accessed on February 25, 14].

[36] Lakhani. “Honduras dam project shadowed by violence,” Aljazeera, December 24, 2013 [Accessed on February 25, 14].

[37] Bird, Annie. The Agua Zarca Dam and Lenca Communities in Honduras: Transnational Investment Leads to Violence against and Criminalization of Indigenous Communities. Rights Action, October 3, 2013.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Lakhani. “Honduras dam project shadowed by violence,”

[40] Ibid

[41] Sefan, Andrew. “Rio Blanco, Honduras: a Frontline of Indigenous Resistance,” Earth First! Journal, November 3, 2013. [Accessed on February 25, 14].

[42] Human Rights Watch, “There Are No Investigations Here.”