Peasant families in the small Central American country of Honduras are waging a courageous and unequal struggle for land. Very little has been reported in the international media, but since 13 April hundreds of poor campesino families have been occupying 15,000 hectares of land in eight of the country’s departments. Much of this land, they say, either belongs to the state or is uncultivated and should therefore be distributed under the land reform law. They want it to grow food crops for their own families and local markets. The situation is extremely tense.
In recent months there has been an escalation in violence between campesinos on the one hand and army, police and militias employed by rich landowners on the other. In just one area, Bajo Aguán, according to the Honduran human rights organisation COFADEH, at least 43 peasants and land rights campaigners have been killed in the past two and a half years. This is an area where landless peasants were given official incentives to settle on vacant lands in the 1960s. However, titles were never regularised and in the past two decades large landowners have been taking over swathes of land to plant sugar cane and African palm.
On 28 March, just before the occupations began, four peasants were killed and eight wounded in an ambush in Trujillo, Bajo Aguán. Their attackers were dressed as peasants but carrying automatic weapons. Confused reports from press and government sources claimed that the attackers were either the peasants themselves or drug traffickers. However, locals suspect them of being militia hired by landowners, one of whom, Miguel Facussé, heads Dinant, a company specialising in producing and marketing palm oil, used to make biofuel. According to US analyst Lauren Carasik, Dinant has received loans from the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation to support the production of palm-derived biofuels.
Facussé is a member of one of Honduras’s most powerful oligarchic families, and was one of the leading supporters of the June 2009 coup that toppled President Manuel Zelaya. He was also identified as a probable drug-trafficker in several US embassy cables from 2004 released by Wikileaks.
Honduran peasants are demanding action by the government’s National Agricultural Institute (INA) to regularise land titles under the terms of the land reform law, which has been steadily eroded in the past 50 years, notably by the ‘agricultural modernisation law’ of 1992. According to the peasants, this was a charter for large landowners to assume formal title to lands they had been accumulating for decades by illegal purchase or simple seizure.
For a brief period in the 1990s it seemed that the power of the landowners might be challenged when President José Manuel Zelaya shifted to the left in the middle of his administration and promised new laws, proper implementation of the existing land reform and regularisation of land titles. However, these hopes were dashed when Zelaya was ousted in June 2009 in a military coup that was condemned throughout Latin America and by the OAS, the UN and the EU.
Only the US dragged its feet, claiming ‘further study’ of the situation was required, and then acted swiftly to recognise the new government of Porfirio Lobo, largely made up of those who had staged the coup. This has been one of several factors (along with US unilateralism on drug policy, the exclusion of Cuba and trade) impelling Latin American countries to strike a more independent line, establish their own regional organisations excluding the US and sideline the discredited OAS.
Honduras is the third poorest country in the Americas (after Haiti and Nicaragua) with a GDP per capita of £2,700 (Britain’s is £22,400). The 2009 Honduran coup and the installation in 2010 of the right-wing government of Porfirio Lobo (himself the scion of a rich landowning family from Olancho) gave the green light to landowners to resume seizures, and to international financial organisations to fund them, partly in the name of promoting green energy.
The response to the latest land occupations has been swift, both from government forces and from militias employed by the landowners. Rafael Alegría of Via Campesina, one of the organisations co-ordinating the action, told the Latin America Bureau that 126 peasants have already been tried for various offences. One, Neftali Zúñiga, was beaten by guards belonging to the sugar companies that claim the land. In San Manuel the occupying peasants have twice been evicted forcibly – but each time they returned to the land.
‘They are being threatened and prosecuted by the sugar companies and the press barons, because it is the landowning bourgeoisie in the north of the country who own the land, the banks, the press, and control government ministries and the police,’ says Alegría. ‘They’re all in a conspiracy together against the peasants.’
The Latin America Bureau website (www.lab.org.uk) is covering the Honduran land occupations in detail, with interviews with some of the peasant organisations directly involved