By Douglas Gillison
The World Bank hosted a Honduran agribusiness company to speak at a bank conference in Washington on security and human rights matters last week, months after the bank’s own audit findings linked the company to scores of killings and a violent land conflict.
The company, Corporación Dinant, appeared at an annual conference on sustainable business practices, despite intense controversy over the bank’s support for the company, which human rights groups have tied to death squads.
The appearance came as Dinant announced it had built barracks to house Honduran military forces on one of its plantations, while disarming its own private company guards. Last year, one human rights organization cited witnesses who said that state security forces and company guards had acted interchangeably.
Roger Pineda, the spokesman for Dinant, did not respond to requests for comment. But the company has long denied targeting its opponents for violence.
A spokeswoman for the International Finance Corporation, the bank’s private-sector lender, said Pineda had been invited to discuss the company’s efforts to improve its human rights practices.
In January, auditors reported that the I.F.C. had violated its own rules in extending a $30 million loan to the company — suppressing information about risk and ignoring the “acutely violent” land conflict surrounding the company’s plantations.
Pineda appeared as part of a panel to discuss his company’s adoption of voluntary guidelines on security and human rights.
In light of the audit findings, “Mr. Pineda was able to share Dinant’s progress in implementing the voluntary principles in a conflict-affected area,” Serene Jweied, an I.F.C. spokeswoman, wrote in an email.
Pineda was scheduled to be joined by representatives of the Bermuda oil company Kosmos Energy, the Canadian miner Barrick Gold and the Fund for Peace, an organization in Washington that seeks to resolve conflicts, according to an agenda.
Krista Hendry, executive director of the Fund for Peace, who appeared on the panel, said all of the companies on the panel had partnered with her organization in adapting their conduct.
Panelists generally spoke of the importance of adhering to the voluntary principles on security and human rights, a set of guidelines for companies seeking to avoid human rights violations while securing their operations, according to Hendry.
The panel was held under the Chatham House Rule, meaning that remarks during the event may not be attributed to the individuals who make them.
The two-day “Sustainability Exchange” drew people from over a hundred companies and organizations, such as Nestlé, the mining giant Rio Tinto and the Worldwide Fund for Nature. Subjects included “food, water, minerals and energy,” as well as “integrating local farmers into supply chains.”
The World Bank’s governing board in January rebuked the I.F.C. for its response to the Dinant audit and the organization pledged to improve its proposed “action plan,” which was widely seen as inadequate.
The plan called for the I.F.C. to ask Dinant to cooperate with local law-enforcement investigations, even though the rule of law is widely seen as weak in Honduras.
In a letter sent Wednesday to Secretary of State John F. Kerry, more than a hundred U.S. lawmakers cited Associated Press reporting on continuing “death-squad style killings by Honduran police” and said “indigenous and campesino activists are being targeted and killed.”
Signatories to the letter, which called on the State Department to enforce restrictions on U.S. military aid to Honduras, were led by the Illinois Democrat Jan Schakowsky, a chief minority whip.
Dana Frank, a professor at the University of California Santa Cruz and critic of U.S. policy toward Honduras, said Pineda’s presence at the conference was unseemly.
“There are widespread allegations including a lot of documentation that Dinant security guards have killed, threatened or intimidated land rights activists in the Aguán valley for the last five years with complete impunity,” said Frank, who said she was not present at the panel.
“This is clearly part of a P.R. offensive that Dinant is coordinating right now,” she said. “I find this terrifying.”
“Is the World Bank legitimating what Dinant is doing here?” Frank asked. “Or are they using the occasion to put this guy on the carpet and say, ‘What’s going on here?’”
Update: Following publication of this article, Pineda sent a four-page letter to 100Reporters defending Dinant and taking issue with what he called “unfounded assertions” made in the I.F.C. audit. He said that the allegations of violence associated with the company had not been substantiated.
Pineda said his appearance at the I.F.C. sustainability conference “focused on the progress that Corporación Dinant is making — with I.F.C.’s support — in improving our policies and procedures regarding security and community engagement.” He said the company “has zero tolerance for human rights abuses, such as excessive use of force, harassment, or improper searches of persons or property.”
Click here to download a copy of the letter.