Farmworkers to stay on disputed Honduras land

Farmworkers, the government and a Honduran agribusiness giant have worked out a solution in a deadly dispute that will allow the farmers to buy land they already occupy and continue to work its African palm plantations.

"This is putting an end to a problem that has caused so many deaths," President Porfirio Lobo said Tuesday at the presidential residence before dozens of guests including cabinet members, diplomats, farmers and activists.

Honduran officials and workers signed an agreement Monday in which the government will buy 10,000 acres (4,000 hectares) in the Bajo Aguan Valley near the Caribbean coast from Miguel Facusse of the Dinant agribusiness corporation. The farmworkers, who have already built a city on the property, will then repay the government $16 million through a long-term, low-interest loan to legally acquire the land.

Vitalino Alvarez, spokesman of the Unified Farmworkers Movement of Aguan, said the occupiers had wanted the government to give them the land without charge, but gave in and agreed to the settlement. He said they were "signing at gunpoint, under threats and pressure."

"The fight continues," he said, adding the government still needs to return more land to the people in the region.

A judge granted an eviction notice in the Bajo Aguan Valley last week because the government had not kept its end of an earlier deal to pay Facusse. Officials were sending hundreds of officers to force about 5,000 people from the plantations that remained occupied after a series of earlier evictions, Security Minister spokesman Hector Mejia said.

Farmworkers in the Aguan Valley have been demanding ownership of about 25,000 acres (10,000 hectares), mostly oil palm plantations, since 2009. The dispute has led to at least 60 deaths since December 2009, including 48 farmworkers, 10 employees of the corporation and two police officers.

The government has deployed hundreds of soldiers and police to the region to respond to the conflict.

Activists have argued that the farmers had the right to grow crops on public property under Honduran law.