More than a dozen Hondurans filed a class action lawsuit Wednesday in a U.S. federal court against the World Bank's private lending arm for financing, aiding and abetting violence and human rights abuses against campesino communities resisting palm oil projects in the Aguan Valley region.
Campesinos claim that the International Finance Corporation, or IFC, and its opaque financial intermediary, the IFC Asset Management Corporation, have funneled millions of dollars into Dinant corporation, despite scores of farmers speaking out against Dinant being violently murdered in the Aguan region. They believe that the World Bank arm was "knowingly profiting from the financing of murder."
“The horrendous spate of violence that followed the IFC’s loan to Dinant is probably one of the most severe instances of corporate-related human rights abuse and financier negligence in the past decade,” said a lawyer with EarthRights International, the human rights and environmental advocacy group which filed the lawsuit.
The IFC has invested tens of millions of dollars since the 1990s in the company, which was run by the recently deceased suspected drug trafficker Miguel Facusse. Facusse then began trying to acquire large swaths of land for his palm oil businesses, including Dinant, on lands that were the property of many campesinos in the Aguan Valley since the 1970s. Facusse's companies had been accused for decades of a bloody land-grabbing campaign in the region.
This, however, did not deter the World Bank's lending arm from investing.
The lawsuit states that the IFC "either knew about or were recklessly indifferent to the violent and tortuous means by which Dinant expanded its palm oil plantations and business in the Bajo Aguan ... including the murder, torture, assault, and detention of the Plaintiffs carried out by Dinant’s security personnel." It also claims that Dinant used paramilitary death squads to carry out this violence, which also included disappearing local land defenders.
“We want justice for what happened here in Honduras. A child like mine who is growing up after their father was killed should know that there will be justice for what they have done to him,” a widowed mother explained.
The IFC's most recent loan for US$30 million was also approved just five months after the U.S.-backed 2009 military coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya, a coup that the oligarch Facusse supported and which unleashed a wave of violence and repression that still plagues the country to this day. Since that loan, over 130 campesinos have been assassinated, while the killing continue. In fact, as recently as October 2016 two leaders of the Unified Campesino Movement of the Aguan, or MUCA, were killed by paramilitaries.
Even after the IFC’s internal watchdog scolded the IFC for the 2009 loan, finding that it had failed to adhere to its own policies of protecting local communities, IFC continued supporting Dinant, including through its financial intermediary, IFC-AMC.
An EarthRights International attorney representing the plaintiffs, who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons, told teleSUR that the case was brought to the court because “everything has been taken from them, their land and their loved ones so their only option available to them is to take these institutions to court.”
“They’re telling the IFC and the World Bank, and the world that you can’t get away with profiting off of what is essentially violence and acts of aggression in one most dangerous places in the world, just by virtue of a financial relationship or that it’s thought of as a good business deal.”
The attorney explained that for the victims, justice was not just about the law but also about a number of “remedies.” Victims wanted to be compensated for terrible harms such as the loss of family members, but also that the profits that the IFC has made off violence and fear be returned to them. Other proposed "remedies" for victims also included being able to finally expose the truth and to learn how such grave abuses could happen under such a huge financial organization.
Indeed, the attorney said that the case could help shine a light on how many people, organizations, companies and state institutions were typically involved in similar land grabs across the region. The attorney also explained systematic problems with accountability and transparency between state institutions in Honduras, in particularly between the military and Dinant.
Even while the Honduran military was accused of human rights abuses and under investigation by the International Criminal Court for aggression and extra-judicial killings against campesinos and protestors, the attorney explained one of the IFC’s “brightest ideas” was to recommend that Dinant work with the military to provide security for its projects.
The country's military has been linked to the still unsolved high-profile assassination of environmental rights activist, Berta Caceres.
According to the lawsuit, at least one unit of the Honduran military signed a memorandum of understanding with Dinant. The Aguan case was seen as a typical example of an “accountability gap” across the region, where if abuses are occurring, both states and companies say that “they are not acting under our watch” in an attempt to avoid responsibility.
“The IFC clearly cannot police itself and it should no longer be allowed to hide behind a veil of immunity. The courts of the United States must be open to hear this case because nobody — not individuals, not corporations, not governments, and not the IFC — can get away with aiding these human rights abuses,” another EarthRights International attorney said in a press statement.
The case will be the first time that a community has come together to sue the IFC in federal court for aiding and abetting crimes related to a project the World Bank Group funded.
“I’m an old man, but I feel young when I think of this struggle and the work that we have to do; we want to be left to our lands in peace," one of the campesino plaintiffs said. "We have advanced in this struggle for our rights and our peace. Each day, there are bullets but we will keep struggling.”