There Are No Peasants Here

Honduras’ brave new economic experiment is buoying an era of development by kicking poor farmers off their land.


Standing in the shade of his modest house in the still-sweltering Honduran heat, Santos Hernandez Ortiz pointed to the wall that had been recently built just a few feet from his home, cutting him off from the land and trees he has been cultivating for 40 years. The wall — which stands more than 10 feet tall and is made of stone, runs through Ortiz’s modest lot as well as his neighbors’ — was constructed under the watchful eye of seven balaclava-clad police officers after a wealthy landowner claimed it for his own. Now, the leaves of the partitioned trees hang over the wall, but its fruits are maddeningly out of reach. Ortiz worries that he might lose his house next.

Ortiz says that he has resided on the land in the community of Playa Blanca on Zacate Grande Island, off of Honduras’ west coast, for decades. The problem is that he doesn’t have a title to it, leaving him no recourse to the wall. His quandary is a common one: approximately 80 percent of the country’s privately held land is either untitled or improperly so according to a 2011 USAID report. Land grabs — often enforced through violence — have been well documented by groups such as Human Rights Watch, and the problem seems to have only gotten worse in recent years. Former President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya was working on agrarian reform that would have given land title to beleaguered peasant communities before he was ousted in a 2009 coup. The reforms, which were never fully implemented, have been identified by various analysts as one of the reasons for the coup.

Ortiz and his neighbors, however, are part of a new chapter of that fight. Their community of Playa Blanca is one of 10 longstanding communities engaged in a protracted fight between the peninsula’s campesinos — a term for peasant farmers — and wealthy landowners who are snapping up territory as the area is primed for a government orchestrated transformation. That struggle, in turn, is part of a larger one taking place across Honduras as the country embarks on a radical free market experiment.

In more than a dozen areas dotted throughout the country, including the region encompassing Zacate Grande, the government has designated swaths of land as possible sites of Zones for Employment and Economic Development (known by their Spanish acronym ZEDEs) — semi-autonomous cities allowed to write their own laws and field their own judges. The ZEDE project is overseen by a 21-person committee comprised of free market libertarians, and the projects will be beholden to their investors, not the Honduran people. Only a small handful of the committee’s members are Honduran, amplifying fears of foreign control in a country whose fertile land, cheap labor, and natural resources have long been exploited by transnational capital while its masses languish in poverty. Honduras’ congress passed a law authorizing ZEDEs in 2013. After a similar “model city” measure failed to pass constitutional muster the previous year, the four Supreme Court justices opposing the law were replaced with judges who supported the concept. Construction is expected to begin in the next several years, though no one knows for sure when.

As many of the sites are in territories occupied by marginalized indigenous and rural communities, the kind of land grabs that Ortiz described may only become more common as the ZEDEs are developed. The ZEDE law gives eminent domain powers to the government, allowing for unchecked land expropriation for private development if owners choose not to sell. Though information about the implementation of ZEDEs is shrouded in confusion and beset by rumors, the stories of those living on the front lines highlight the hardship they are already causing.

Zacate Grande Island, where only a few campesino families have title to their land, is a window into exactly what that process might look like. Though under the ZEDE law residents whose land is expropriated are supposed to be repaid, the majority of the island’s families lack the legal documents necessary to support claims for indemnities. And without legal and financial resources, Zacate Grande’s campesinos are unable to contest their evictions by establishing their long-term possession of the land. While they have legal representation in the criminal charges that have often accompanied community resistance, the lawyers working with them are simply too overwhelmed to take on their land title cases.

The disputes over land ownership — an issue since the island was connected to the mainland by an artificial land bridge several decades ago — have recently grown worse according to Pedro Canales, president of the Zacate Grande Peninsula Development Association (ADEPZA), an organization advocating for rights of the local communities. It has also come with the potential for violence: Canales claimed he has been repeatedly threatened with death for his activism for years. Global Witness, an international human rights non-governmental organization, designated Honduras as the world’s most dangerous place per capita for land and environmental defenders last year. The group documented 101 deaths between 2010 and 2014.

The ZEDEs, however, are not without their defenders. Libertarian and neoliberal policy advocates have supported them as a pathway to economic growth by importing successful development models from elsewhere. Mark Klugmann, a political strategist who served as a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, is on the ZEDE oversight commission. He claims that ZEDEs would create investor-friendly enclaves that would circumvent corruption, entice foreign investment, and foster the good governance and economic development that is impeded by weak state institutions. According to a 2014 interview with Klugmann in World Post, the project, “if it accomplishes what it’s capable of doing, will demonstrate inside of Honduras and to the world that capacity of solving problems and creating jobs in particular can go forward with a velocity that very few people have been expecting.”

Proponents commonly reference the success of similar special economic zones in Hong Kong and Dubai as proof that they thwart local impediments to development.

Their enthusiasm, however, may have blinded them to the problems inherent in Honduras’ ZEDE project, according to critics. Some go so far as to argue that the ZEDEs epitomize exactly the type of entrenched dysfunction and inequality they purport to dislodge.

Congressman Jari Dixon, a member of the opposition Libre party, has traced a direct connection between the ZEDEs and the 2009 coup that ruptured the constitutional order and ushered in a period of extreme neoliberalism. In an interview, Dixon explained he sees ZEDEs as neocolonialist, portending a new but hauntingly familiar era of plundering the country’s riches for foreigners and local elites. Instead of benefits flowing back to communities that desperately need them, ZEDEs are more likely to endanger them, as post-coup struggles to defend territory have become more deadly and widespread, as documented by Global Witness and Human Rights Watch.

Carmen Aguilar, local coordinator for the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH), said in an interview that the money is lining the pockets of the wealthy, not trickling down to the local communities. As OFRANEH characterized it in a statement, “A small group of elite businessmen and politicians are trying to auction off parts of the country to foreign capital in order to create islands of affluence surrounded by a sea of poverty and violence.”

Despite the government’s claims that ZEDEs do not infringe upon the rights of Hondurans, areas of low population density are exempt from citizen approval through plebiscites, including territory adjacent to the Gulf of Fonseca. As a result, already besieged communities will have no meaningful say over their fate. Municipal mayors will have no ability to halt the removal of territory from their democratically elected jurisdictions, and the state of Honduras would have little influence over their governance.

As the experiment plays out, communities such as Ortiz’s are fighting to hold on.

A short way from Hernandez’s house, where campesinos launch boats into the Gulf to fish against the sweeping vista of nearby Tiger Island, community leader Santos Tomas Cruz points toward the small island where the locals bury their dead. The crosses erected to mark their final resting places, he says, had been pulled out by someone who was hoping to claim the island, but the communities managed to secure their right to the burial site. Cruz didn’t pause to savor the rare victory, however, going on to list the area’s once public beaches that are now the exclusive province of the wealthy.

The campesinos’ concerns, however, are graver than beach access and places to launch boats. Some 30 of the inhabitants of Zacate Grande, including Ortiz, have been criminally charged with usurpation and destruction of property. If they’re pushed out, they will have little choice but to join the ranks of the urban poor or settle in another area where they have an even more tenuous claim to the land. And as the South Korean government reportedly plans to build a ZEDE megaport in the municipality of Amapala, which encompasses Zacate Grande and nearby Tiger Island, their situation may grow only more dire.

Given the grave climate for human rights in Honduras since the 2009 coup — for much of that time, it has been dubbed the murder capital of the world — Cruz seemed resigned to how this story unfolds: he expects that someone in the community will be killed for resisting dispossession.

Similar scenes are playing out in other sites in Honduras where ZEDEs are being planned. On the country’s northern coast, the area’s embattled Afro-Indigenous Garifuna people are already being displaced, “bit by bit” as they describe it — again. As they tell it, they were first taken as slaves from Africa to the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, then pushed off the island to the coast of Honduras, on land that was then of little worth. Now, that land’s idyllic Caribbean beaches are of tremendous value as a prime site for tourism megaprojects. A ZEDE there would likely also involve expanding and privatizing the port, mining, and agro-industrial development for African palm.

Community leaders fear that a third major dispossession will rob them of even more of their ancestral land, as ZEDEs threaten state-sanctioned evictions that imperil the very survival of their culture that relies on the land and the sea.

Given the country’s rampant corruption, ZEDE’s future expansion seems bounded only by the state’s ability to attract investors, not concern for the affected communities or their ability to alleviate poverty. The Garifuna communities along the north coast have pursued legal remedies domestically and internationally to halt their forcible dispossession, but the state has defiantly refused to respect their rights. Foreign investors creating their own legal regime would be even more insulated from accountability. So communities have organized in peaceful resistance to reclaim their ancestral lands, but they too face criminalization, threats, and hardship.

Though ZEDEs are the latest front in the battle between the country’s poor and rich local and foreign investors, they are simply a new front in an age-old problem. Whether by large-scale appropriation authorized under ZEDEs or smaller but cumulative incursions in anticipation of the increased property value they create, poor local communities are at risk.

Just steps from the lapping waves at Playa Blanca stands a stone house owned by one of the men with pending criminal charges. A brightly colored painting posted on a door asks “development for who?” Under ZEDEs, the answer seems clear.


Lauren Carasik is a clinical professor of law and the director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Western New England University School of Law.

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