Week 2. Honduras, palm oil and the repercussions of modernization

Nearly 25 years ago, the World Bank invested in a small jungle valley in Honduras. The land program the World Bank used, which lends money to impoverished countries around the globe, was ostensibly designed to bring much-needed wealth to rural communities through modernization. In this case, it involved loaning some $30 million to palm oil giant Dinant to help them buy up a few thousand acres of land in Bajo Aguán.

The plan was never popular in Bajo Aguán, but then-President José Manuel Zelaya — a leftist who raised the minimum wage by 80% and introduced generous subsidies for farmers — was a bastion against the complete exploitation of the locals, which kept a lid on the tensions. After he was ousted, though, in a 2009 military coup, conditions in Bajo Aguán rapidly deteriorated.

A 2015 investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found that since 2010 at least 133 killings were linked to land disputes in the area. Primarily the violence has been two-sided, with both locals and Dinant (and other corporate landholders) accused of beatings, torture and murder.

Elsewhere in the country, 109 environmental activists have been murdered since 2010 for standing up against dams, mining operations and agricultural projects, according to a report from Global Witness.  The most notable of which is Berta Cáceres who was shot to death in 2016. Cáceres, an internationally renown environmentalist who had most notably succeeded in halting the construction of the Agua Zarca dam in Rio Blanco, was killed in a safe house after telling her friends and daughter to prepare for a world without her.

Honduras, of course, is just one example of the repercussions of modernization and the pressures put upon developing nations by the Global North. In many ways, it is a forgotten poster child: The rate of murders in the country was 42.8 per 100,000 last year (down from 85.5 per 100,000 in 2011); it is one of the two poorest countries in the Americas, despite being resource-rich; and it bore the brunt of American intervention — or in this case, lack thereof.

In the wake of the 2009 military coup that toppled Zelaya, the United States (and, many like to note, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) was one of the only countries in the international community that refrained from calling the act a “coup.” The argument that Clinton and co. made was that to label the military intervention — which exiled Zelaya to Costa Rica and threw the country into chaos — a coup would mean that the U.S. would be required to cancel all aid to the country. But here we are, years after the democratically elected president was ousted, and Honduras has remained unstable.

I don’t mean to pick on Honduras, or to write flippantly about the strife that many millions of people are enduring. What I mean to do is work through my own knowledge about repercussions and about the consequences of modernization, and to get a sense for the struggles that activists around the globe face in the name of their righteous cause.

Berta Cáceres, for instance, was a dogged environmentalist who would have fit nicely into the American narrative of going green. But her most notable accomplishment was halting the construction of a hydroelectric dam — exactly the sort of project that American activists would be pushing for to undercut reliance on pollutants like coal and gas.

In Bajo Aguán things are more clear-cut, but still vague. Dinant is the sort of easily recognizable corporate landowner that is taking advantage of vulnerable communities, but they are operating with money from the World Bank doled out in the name of modernization, purportedly to help farmers and peasants adapt to a global world by injecting jobs and cash into communities.

And while these two brief stories don’t negate the importance of social, cultural and environmental progress and modernization, it’s easy to forget the reverberations; that nothing happens in a vacuum, and — even more — that everything is invariably inmeshed in a complex web of connections and crescendos: America support a military coup, drives demand for palm oil, lowers the cost of gas and inflates the value of renewable energy, and, in the process, forgets that people — often times people halfway across the world and living entirely foreign lives — make it all possible.