Farmer killed in restive Honduran rural area

A farmer was killed in a restive area of Honduras plagued by tensions between large landowners switching to higher-earning crops and landless workers, a group said Sunday.

Jose Trajo, 55, was shot dead late Saturday in San Isidro de Tocoa in the Aguan region of northern Honduras, the local farm workers' union reported.

More than 90 people have been killed in the past three years in the Aguan Valley.

In 2009, farm workers began squatting illegally on property owned by large landholders that was being converted to growing African palm. Landowners have hired guards to protect the holdings.

The farm workers, however, say the land should be theirs because the government gave it to them in a 1980 land reform.

Things were further complicated in 1992 by legal changes that enabled the farmers to sell their plots, which some apparently did to larger landholders.

Large landowners have converted extensive acreage to African palm cultivation as prices for palm oil have risen in international markets.

Those increases have been driven by global demand from the cosmetics and processed foods industries and more recently by its use as a biofuel.

Palm oil currently sells for about $950 a ton, double what a farmer can make from corn in the local markets. A farmer can make up to $4,000 a hectare (2.5 acres) raising African palms, which are easy to grow and require relatively little labor.

Honduras exported $200 million worth of palm oil, making it the nation's fourth export behind coffee, bananas and farmed shrimp.

But in the Aguan valley, the spread of large-scale African palm cultivation has also led to land grabs, less employment for farm workers, and disruption to local supplies of staples such as corn and beans.

Amid high tensions and murders, the legislature has passed a law making it illegal to carry weapons in the northeastern department of Colon, where the Aguan valley is located.