TEGUCIGALPA, Aug 3 – Growing demand for African palm oil, a key ingredient in cosmetics and processed foods, is fueling deadly land disputes in the Honduran countryside, pitting large landowners against landless peasants.
At least 78 people have been killed over the past three years as a competition for land heats up in Honduras’ rich Aguan Valley, the center of the country’s burgeoning African palm industry.
Large landowners have turned extensive acreage to African palm cultivation as prices for palm oil have risen in international markets.
Those increases have been driven by global demand from the cosmetics and processed foods industries and more recently for its use as a biofuel.
“There is a boom now with the African palm because, as oil prices rise, everyone wants to shift to biofuels,” said analyst Gilberto Rios.
Palm oil currently sells for about $950 a ton, double what a farmer can make from corn in the local markets.
A farmer can make up to $4,000 a hectare (2.5 acres) raising African palms, which are easy to grow and require relatively little labor.
Honduras exported $200 million worth of palm oil, making it the nation’s fourth export, behind coffee, bananas and farmed shrimp.
But in the Aguan valley, the spread of large-scale African palm cultivation has also led to land grabs, less employment for farmworkers, and disruption to local supplies of staples such as corn and beans.
Thousands of families of farm workers are occupying some 7,000 hectares of land in the valley, challenging the hold of a small number of landowners who have put together huge tracts of land from what were once small plots.
The growing tension this week prompted the Honduran Congress to pass a law making it illegal to carry weapons in the northeastern department of Colon, where the Aguan valley is located.
Police began enforcement operations Thursday, setting up checkpoints on roads to search cars for weapons. Exempted from the ban were private security firms and law enforcement in the region, which also is dealing with drug-related violence.
“On the one hand, the disarmament is good because there is a lot of crime here,” said Arnulfo Lopez, 66, as he left his 13-hectare (32-acre) farm.
“But those who go armed are the landowners’ guards because what the peasants carry are machetes.”
The deputy director of the National Agrarian Institute (INA), Ramiro Lobo, recalled that it was the local government that first began encouraging farmers in the Aguan valley to shift to African palms in the 1980s.
In 1992, the administration of Rafael Callejas paved the way for big business in the palm oil trade, passing the Agricultural Modernization Law, which allowed farmers to sell land they had received through agrarian reforms.
Directors of farm cooperatives used the law to sell off arable land held by poor farmers to big landlords.
“Participants in the cooperatives were not aware of the sales, which is why they continue to insist that the land belongs to them,” Lobo said.
Palm cultivation multiplied rapidly on the landlords’ newly acquired estates, leaving in its wake many people angry over the loss of their livelihoods.
The leftist government of Manuel Zelaya (2006-2009) decreed that vacant land parcels owned by landowners would be redistributed to farmers, but after a June 2009 coup, the government annulled the decree, favoring the big landowners.
Half a year later, peasants began a series of land occupations that today involves some 7,300 families, the director of the Unified Peasant Movement of Aguan (MUCA), Yoni Rivas, told AFP.
In April, some 3,500 Honduran farming families launched a coordinated land occupation, squatting on 12,000 hectares (29,652 acres) nationwide, ratcheting up the tensions over land rights, authorities said.
In August 2011, unidentified assailants killed four people, including the leaders of two farm workers unions, in Aguan.
The military-police in the region told AFP the incident “was just a common crime. It had nothing to do with the agrarian conflict.”
Farm workers’ leaders however have insisted that they had been deliberately targetted because of their activism.