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Bajo Aguan’s Modern Tragedy of the Commons

December 3, 2012

Human rights abusers who help stop climate change, and the global system that
keeps them in business

Image from Flickr via Honduras Delegation

In the Bajo Aguan, a Somersault in Land Philosophy Brings Widespread Inequality

Carmen* watches as steam rises from the coffee mug between her hands and dissolves into the cool morning air. She leans against the clay walls of her family hut and sighs, tired from a dawn spent pounding dough into breakfast tortillas. Her husband and their six year-old son left for work on the African palm tree plantation about an hour ago. In a few more hours, the boy will return to Guadalupe Carney, their rural Honduran community, to collect lunch for himself and his father. Carmen is eager to bask in the morning quiet while it lasts.

The road that led Carmen to the foot of her husband’s fresh grave began nearly two centuries ago.

Suddenly, her son skips back through the door, chewing a blade of grass. “Weren’t you going to help Daddy today?” she asks, her eyebrows knitting with concern.

“Nope,” the boy shrugs. “He sent me home.”

Her cell phone rings. Carmen begins to feel faint as she registers her husband’s words: “Things are getting ugly here. I don’t want any of you on the plantation today. I’ll see you tonight.”

It is November 15th, 2010. Shortly after she hangs up the phone, Carmen’s husband and at least three other farm workers are shot to death.

*                      *                     *

The “Tragedy of the Commons” scenario is commonly used to explain why fighting climate change is difficult. It describes “a group of livestock farmers who share grazing land [and] allow their animals to overgraze on the communal turf, despite knowing that they are ultimately destroying everyone’s resource, including their own.” A farmer could choose to limit his livestock’s grazing time in order to protect the communal resource, but that would mean less food for his animals. The challenge for curbing climate change has been to find a way to incentivize the choice to protect the commons. And quite a challenge it has been: as environmentalist Bill McKibben put it in a recent article, “Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself.”

One proposed solution is known as the Green Economy, which purportedly protects the environment while creating wealth. It accomplishes this through programs like the carbon credit market, and the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation program (REDD+.) Through these programs, international organizations like the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) have begun paying for the protection of ecosystems that do valuable things for the environment. When a tree absorbs greenhouse gases, for instance, it is considered to be performing an “ecosystems service.” From the green economy perspective, this service should paid for, just like any other. “We see the green economy as the only type of economy that can deliver sustainable development and really solve the problem of persistent poverty… the only kind of economy that can manage to do all this while reducing ecological scarcities and reducing environmental risks,” argues Pavan Sukhdev, former special advisor to the UN Green Economy Initiative, in a videotaped interview from March 2011. “It means it’s the only economy for the future,” he explains.

The creation of a “carbon market” also allows for the industrialized nations of the global north to avoid making the significant changes necessary to reduce their own carbon emissions. Now, they can choose instead to pay for the protection and expansion of ample natural ecosystems in other countries, mostly those in the developing global south. Transnational corporations can go into the business of ecosystems protections, buying undeveloped territory and promising to keep them pristine. In theory, where trees are being planted does not matter, because they lower the total amount of climate-changing carbon emitted to the atmosphere from wherever they are.

The green economy is exacerbating existing social inequalities in the name of saving the environment.

Thus, natural resources have acquired a new business value. In this way, the green economy aims to incentivize protection of the commons. In fact, it can now be more valuable for a landowner to protect a forest than to raze it for planting crops.

According to recent estimates, humanity has very little time to slow climate change—possibly as little as sixteen years—or we will have passed a critical limit. The green economy seems to make saving the planet an easy choice. Why, then, are protests breaking out in resistance to it, especially across the developing nations of the global south?

An example from the Bajo Aguan region of Honduras exposes the major problem: the green economy has caused a modern Tragedy of the Commons by incentivizing practices that hurt the common good, like resource hoarding. Whether by omitting necessary safeguards, or because it is simply untenable by design, the green economy is exacerbating existing social inequalities in the name of saving the environment. In fact, in the Bajo Aguan, the green economy has even cropped up in the middle of a low-intensity war that has consumed entire communities.

*                      *                     *

The road that led Carmen to the foot of her husband’s fresh grave began nearly two centuries ago. And, just as with the green economy, it is related to pressure from international institutions. Honduras has functioned under an enclave economy for the majority of its existence: first, with mining in the nineteenth century; and later as a “banana republic.” This economic model concentrated the country’s resources in the hands of local elites and international corporations. In the 1970s, farm worker groups organized. They refused to continue to accept a system created by local and foreign elites, which did not benefit the majority of Honduran citizens. They succeeded in pressuring the government to mandate agrarian reform that redistributed national territory relatively equitably. Under the reform, cooperatives of 80-100 families like Carmen’s took control of African palm tree plantations. The families had direct control over production and enjoyed equal distribution of profits. This model of the government, according to Héctor Hermilo Soto, currently the director of the World Lutheran Federation in Honduras, when I interviewed him in June.

Suddenly in 1992, agrarian reform was annulled under the Agricultural Modernization Law, which according to the president of the time, Rafael Leonardo Callejas, “allowed tired peasants to sell their land.” Despite the fact that the reversal of agrarian reform was unconstitutional—something that farm worker groups have argued repeatedly over the last two decades, Gilberto Ríos of the FoodFirst Information and Action Network assured me by email in October–Ministry of Agriculture dismantled its system of loans and agricultural training that supported the cooperatives.

The decision to roll back agrarian reform can be largely explained by international pressure on the Honduran government, Ríos says. In fact, it was not the only country pushed to do so if it wanted to continue to be eligible for loans from international financing institutions. “The structural adjustment of the agricultural sector under neoliberal ideology was propelled all over the world at this time by international institutions, and, of course, by governments in the industrialized world,” Ríos explains. “In the case of Honduras, for instance, the participation of USAID was evident when it hired a consultant to write a proposal that would support changing the Agrarian Reform Law.”

The Modernization Law was billed to help the common good. It did the opposite.

This policy shift caused great tension in farming communities, explains Hermilo Soto, who was a union organizer for farm workers in the early 1990s. While some farmers found the money an attractive option and chose to sell, he says, many others didn’t. “There were a lot of allegations of irregularities and outright corruption during that time. By law, the majority of the members of a cooperative had to agree to sell, and in many cases, members who didn’t want to faced threats and intimidation from members who saw the money as a great opportunity. Others found themselves with no option but to sell, now without any national agrarian support system.” Thousands of farm workers would lose their land by the mid-1990s, and many not by choice.

However genuine the intentions or well-researched the methods may have been for this new land philosophy, from the very start it caused problems for the people it was supposed to benefit most. According to a study sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the European Community, and the World Bank, and carried out by academics at the Universities of Wisconsin, California, and Florida, it also ended up hyper-concentrating land in the hands of the few citizens who were economically poised to take advantage of it, and decreasing the quality of life for the vast majority. When the Modernization Law was passed, the study explains, it was supposed to include integral reforms to make credit and other inputs more accessible to small farmers. These reforms were never put into place. The study concludes that this governmental lack of follow-through effectively barred the majority poor from taking part in land reforms, leading to a “sizable increase in the degree of inequality in both land ownership and land operated over the 1994-2001 time period.”

The Modernization Law was billed to help the common good. It did the opposite. It encouraged natural resource hoarding by a few, while thousands with little schooling and training only in agriculture were landless. They were also jobless, unless hired back to work the fields they used to own. The payment they received for the sale of their plantation shares ran out fast. Honduran farm families fell into the tired pattern in which the disenfranchised of the global south seek opportunity elsewhere: emigrating to the cluttered urban centers of the country, or to the United States. Others sought refuge in illicit activities like joining gangs or apprenticing to the drug trade. And for those who remained in places like the fertile Bajo Aguan region of the country, where agriculture is the principal economic activity, the future looked dim.

These families are, in the eyes of the law, squatters. Landowners resisted the encroachment on their territory, hiring squads of private security guards to evict the farm workers and protect the properties.

By the time former President Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a 2009 coup after promising a move toward widespread land reform, many desperate farm workers had moved back onto the Bajo Aguan lands they lost under the law. Families like Carmen’s again refused to accept policies that they see as ineffective for the majority of the citizenry. They banded together to build homes, schools and health clinics, and to resume cultivation of the African palm.

However, these families are squatters in the eyes of the law. Landowners resisted the encroachment on their territory, hiring squads of private security guards to evict the farm workers and protect the properties. Soon, a wave of violent attacks and assassinations began. The majority of the more than sixty victims have been farm workers; the most recent, Antonio Trejo Cabrera, gunned down in September 2012, was a human rights lawyer who represented them.

The Facussé Dilemma: Human Rights Abusers who Help Solve Climate Change

There were few people poised to buy the land that the farm workers sold under the Modernization Law. Those who were amassed extensive territory. In fact, the majority of the Bajo Aguan region ended up in the hands of three men: René Morales, Reinaldo Canales and Miguel Facussé. Facussé, the most powerful among them, is the owner of the multiple companies in every Central American country, including Exportadoras del Atlantico, which manages the factories that process oil from the thousands of hectares of African palm plantation that he owns in the Bajo Aguan. The mother company, Dinant Corporation, left Facussé with a profit of $315 million, according to his spokesman Roger Pineda in a June interview in Tegucigalpa. Facussé has also hired private guards who have been repeatedly accused1 of assassinating dozens of farm workers—among them, Carmen’s husband—and he has been implicated in the drug trade by the U.S. government.2

Honduras’ weak government makes it a prime place for shady characters to grow deep and prosperous roots.

In a surprising twist, Miguel Facussé also expects to receive money through green economy. A program called the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), established under the Kyoto Protocol and backed by the United Nations, rewards initiatives that reduce carbon emissions. The Facussé enterprise fits that requirement. “We are part of the CDM program certified by the UN. When we were authorized… it meant income near $1 million per year,” Pineda explained via email in November. “It is also important to emphasize that … the selling of carbon credits is not an important financing mechanism for Dinant. The development and implementation of this type of projects is part of the Social Responsibility of this company.” What Pineda is saying is that Miguel Facusse, accused human rights abuser, will be handsomely rewarded for helping to save the environment. (In a June interview in Tegucigalpa with UNDP Governability Coordinator Sergio Membreño Cedillo, Pineda stated that he was not aware of this and had no comment.)

Of course, the Facussé Dilemma did not start with the green economy. Honduras’ weak government makes it a prime place for shady characters to grow deep and prosperous roots. The current administration seems crippled by persistent corruption, organized crime, the drug trade, continuing poverty and the highest murder rate in the world. “Of the 6,700 assassinations recorded during 2011, about 5 percent will see resolution in the courts. There is no real interest on the part of the government—including police and security forces and the department of justice—in transparency,” speculates Manuel Torres, a Honduran independent journalist. The government has been almost totally absent from the Bajo Aguan conflict. In fact, in lieu of a functioning national authority, in May 2012 international institutions gathered in the Bajo Aguan to hold a public hearing for victims of the conflict. “With the coup, the international community has already seen how democracy is denied in Honduras,” stated María Silvia Guillén, the director of the Foundation for the Study of the Application of the Law who presided over the hosting commission at the hearing. “If State institutions were working, we wouldn’t be here.”

He is an accused human rights abuser, and his government seems unable to rein him, or people like him, in. He is now likely to be the Honduran who receives the most benefit from the international institutions’ newest program—the green economy.

The Facussé Dilemma shows how the green economy is exacerbating problems like violence and corruption. It rewards people or corporations who have hyper-concentrated natural resources, which is clearly detrimental to the common good. These actors were often able to hoard territory because of prior programs that international institutions pushed in the global south. Miguel Facussé is the prime example. He was one of the few who benefitted from the Modernization Law. He is an accused human rights abuser, and his government seems unable to rein him—or people like him—in. He is now likely to be the Honduran who receives the most benefit from the international institutions’ newest program—the green economy. The problem is that the green economy is apparently blind to all of this. It doesn’t hesitate to do business in ways that exacerbate social inequality—in ways that hurt the common good.

Honduras is Not Alone

An international community concerned with stopping climate change would be smart to see the Facussé Dilemma as a forewarning, because Honduras’ problems are common in many nations of the global south.

The rich reserves of forests and wetlands that offer ecosystems services are mostly located in the nations of the developing global south, whose best-case governments struggle to protect citizens from powerful transnational capital. In the worst cases, they collude with Capital, to the detriment of the citizenry.

Honduras was one of many developing nations that took on neoliberal structural adjustment packages in the 1990s and now have similar unequal land distribution. Problems like widespread poverty and impunity plague the majority of governments in developing nations. Natural resource hoarding helps a few but hurts the vast majority, and it is an increasingly lucrative business under the green economy. Furthermore, the rich reserves of forests and wetlands that offer ecosystems services are mostly located in the nations of the developing global south, whose best-case governments struggle to protect citizens from powerful transnational capital. In the worst cases, they collude with Capital, to the detriment of the citizenry.

In fact, the Bajo Aguan is only the beginning of this renewed gold rush. “The greatest storehouses of terrestrial and aquatic biomass are located across the global South, and they are safeguarded primarily by the peasant farmers, livestock-keepers, fisherpeople and forest dwellers whose livelihoods depend on them,” explains a report by a watchdog organization, the ETC Group, which has spent more than thirty years following corporate mergers and buyouts of vital resources around the world. The ETC Group estimates that as many as 80 million hectares of land across the global south are now under the control of international investors. “(We) warn that the bioeconomy will spur even greater convergence of corporate power and unleash the most massive resource grab in more than 500 years. The corporate ‘BioMasters’ are poised to commodify nature on an unprecedented scale, destroy biodiversity and displace marginalized peoples.”

The Bajo Aguan is proof that the green economy has gone very wrong. It is one of many examples that lead to the same point: either this system lacks necessary safeguards, or it is designed to fail. The way that it engages with the real world is hurting the people it is supposed to help. It should be no surprise that the resulting disparity produces violence. Indeed, just in Latin America over the past few years, Paraguay, Bolivia, Brazil, and Peru, among others, have all experienced bloody conflicts over land.

The Tragedy of the Commons scenario emphasizes the fact that we cannot save the planet without prioritizing the common good over narrow individual interests. The green economy was billed as the way to encourage the right choice. Instead, it incentivizes practices that hurt the common good. Indeed, this is the modern Tragedy of the Commons: an international system that rewards social inequality in the name of saving the planet.

Would The Real Green Economy Please Stand Up?

Nevertheless, the UNEP continues to insist upon the green economy’s merits. It even recommends in its 2011 World Economic and Social Survey an investment of $1.9 trillion annually in green technologies over the next forty years.

In Central America, the concern grows as the flagship green economy program, REDD+, is set to begin in Honduras and neighboring El Salvador in the coming months. REDD+ rewards reforestation projects that absorb carbon emissions. However REDD+ has been criticized in part because it counts monoculture plantations like Facussé’s as reforestation. This would only reinforce the same cycle of resource hoarding and violence that the international community sees in the Bajo Aguan.

If the UNEP truly believes that the green economy can be arranged in such a way that it halts climate change and promotes equitable development, it has yet to prove that in the messy real world.

However, the UNEP has begun to acknowledge that the green economy might need some adjustments. For instance, the recent Rio+20 international environmental conference was dedicated to discussions about how to ensure that it is compatible with poverty reduction. Post-Rio+20, the groups who expressed early criticism of the green economy, even before the Bajo Aguan erupted, are arguing that the troubling systemic aspects of the approach did not change.

The UN is also expected to devote time to addressing the controversial aspects of REDD+ at the COP 18 Doha Climate Change Conference. Central Americans eagerly await the results of those talks.

If the UNEP truly believes that the green economy can be arranged in such a way that it halts climate change and promotes equitable development, it has yet to prove that in the messy real world. A solution to climate change that works for governments and individuals alike is undoubtedly necessary, and it must come quickly. But the Bajo Aguan shows us that the green economy, as it is implemented now, is not the solution to the Tragedy of the Commons. Ironically, it has merely led to a new version of the Tragedy, in which we are “ultimately destroying everyone’s resource, including (our) own.” The international community must return to the scenario’s original lesson: the solution is only found by choosing the common good over narrow individual interests.

*Carmen is a fictitious name given to a Guadalupe Carney resident who chose to remain anonymous. The details of her husband’s murder are accurate.


[1] For instance, human rights lawyer Trejo had warned prior to his death that, if murdered, Facussé was responsible. Facussé has publically denied his involvement since. In the June interview, Pineda pointed out that they have repeatedly visited their local courthouse, and that there are no official human rights violations on file against his boss, or Dinant Corporation. He also claimed that at least 10 of the victims in the conflict have been Facussé-hired security guards. None of the homicide cases related to the Bajo Aguan have gone through the Honduran justice system, so none of the claims can be substantiated.

[2] Pineda explained that Facussé was wrongly-accused of the drug trade: a drug plane did indeed land, according to Pineda, but Facussé was unaware of it. There has since been no legal follow-up. Whether one believes Pineda’s explanation or not, it seems to be problematic to place thousands of hectares of land, which sit squarely on the path of the drug trade, in the hands of one individual. Indeed, in a June interview with the staff of Diakonia Honduras, director Reina Rivera Joya mentioned that a map that charts the most common points of drug plane entry, provided by the regional security monitor organization Friedrich Ebert Foundation, shows exactly the parts of the country that are dominated by large plantations owned by the landowners: Aguan, Colon, and Mosquito. The latter was the site of a recent drug raid gone awry in which several civilians were killed while U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials were present.


Danielle Marie Mackey is a freelance journalist and interpreter based in San Salvador. She writes about conflict, social movements, and structural injustice. She is originally from Iowa. More of her work is available here.

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3 comments for Bajo Aguan’s Modern Tragedy of the Commons

  1. Comment by Alan Mairson on January 4, 2013 at 10:15 am

    This is one of the most illuminating pieces I’ve ever read about the real cost of going Green. I hope Guernica & Ms. Mackey are finding effective ways of getting this story in front of the widest audience possible.

  2. Comment by Jill on January 4, 2013 at 10:19 am

    Nice article, Danielle, this has me thinking and reflecting. Though I do think attributing the death sentence to the green economy is overstated…I believe payment for ecosystem services is a good idea worth exploring, but as you point out the people able to take advantage of it are often those already in power. Not necessary the “green economy’s” fault (but due to a much longer history of oppression by those with resources), but a good thing to highlight that can be missed. Messy world indeed. How do we do it better?

  3. Comment by Terry Mock on May 6, 2013 at 8:53 am

    Good article. Jill asks, “How do we do it better?”

    A New Conservation Ethic for the 21st Century

    A Budding Model of a Truly Sustainable Community

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