On April 17, peasants in six departments of Honduras moved to occupy land which should have been distributed to them under the land reform. In the Bajo Aguán area, close to the Caribbean coast, wealthy farmers and agribusiness companies have been annexing land to turn it over to large-scale production of palm oil for bio-fuel. Now peasant families have occupied the land and established six settlements to grow food for their families and local markets.
“Land, well, it’s our first mother. For us farmers, we don’t have life without land. That’s the reason we’re in this struggle.”
Lauren Elliott & Beverly Bell
In Honduras, as in most places, the government and the wealthy treat land as a commodity. In pursuit of the profits it offers, they have taken enormous tracts of land from indigenous peoples and small farmers, often through legally suspect if not outright violent means.
On April 17, several thousand Hondurans set out to take back some of this land. They occupied 30,000 acres of land that day, claiming a legal right to grow crops there. These occupations were part of the International Day of Peasants’ Struggle, organized by the several million-member, world-wide, small-farmer organization Via Campesina. From Mozambique to Palestine to Spain, farmers and activists took to the streets, hosted teach-ins, and established land occupations. Over 250 actions took place globally on that one day.
While the April 17 action in Honduras made international headlines, it was just a snapshot of a much larger national movement for land reform that is rarely reported. Documented or not, it’s making waves that can’t be ignored. In 2009, the democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya, who had been making concessions to the grassroots’ demand for agrarian reform, was ousted and replaced with a government whose favorite motto quickly became “Honduras is open for business.” But despite, or perhaps because of the coup d’état – as Consuelo Castillo suggests in the interview below – the resistance is growing.
Four days after these land occupations began, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) celebrated a long-fought victory: winning a community title to 741 acres of their ancestral land. COPINH and the Honduran Black Fraternal Organization (OFRANEH) are two groups demanding the right to communal control over ancestral lands, rivers, forests, and agriculture. Over the years, they and others have reclaimed ancestral lands, and stalled or stopped free trade agreements, hydro-electric dams, mining exploration, and logging. Their victories have come through the strength of their movements and their marches, national mobilizations, and direct actions such as road blockades.
For decades in the fertile Bajo Aguán region, the members of small-farmer cooperatives such as the Aguán Small Farmers’ Movement and the Unified Movement of Aguán Farmers have been peacefully occupying land they claim has been taken from them, mainly by bio-fuel agribusiness. Today, despite constant arrests, assassinations, and threats from the landowners and the government, they have established six settlements where they’re working towards their long-term vision of food sovereignty, liberatory education systems, collectively run media, cooperative businesses, and strong community.
In the fifth part of the Birthing Justice series, we’ll hear from Consuelo Castillo, an organizer with the land movement in Bajo Aguán and a resident of Lempira, one of the six land reform settlements.
My name is Consuelo Castillo and I have been fighting to defend the land for five years. Our goal is for everyone who is part of the land occupations to have access to land. Land, well, it’s our first mother. For us farmers, we don’t have life without land. That’s the reason we’re in this struggle.
We want a better Honduras, a different Honduras where there is equality for everyone. A Honduras where everyone can enjoy the wealth generated by this country and the fruits of our land. We’re fighting for the changes that we truly need and, well, I believe that with everyone’s strength and work, we’re going to reach the goal.
The [national] resistance has a lot of capacity. Those participating in the resistance are the people most marginalized, those suffering most because of the coup. There have been families that have lost their jobs, family members, and many other things because of the coup, understand? People are ready to give their lives for their country, and so we are going to continue defending what is ours. All of the small-farmer organizations are in resistance here in the department of Colón.
We think about having a society that’s truly participatory, where there is equality and all our rights are respected. This is our fight and, well, we are trying to change the whole capitalist system. We are trying to reinvent this chain from below because the changes are not going to suddenly happen from above. Those from above don’t think there should be change. But for us, including the humblest and the hardest hit, this is why we are fighting.
There are various small-farmer organizations in the struggle to recover the land. This all started on December 9 [2009, after the coup d’état], when we went to different areas, like Lempira and the western regions, to retake the farmlands. We’ve occupied this land for two years, struggling and continuing the fight amid forced removals, militarization of the lands, and assassinations. We put enough pressure on the government that in 2010 they made an agreement to relocate us to these six settlements.
Even though we’ve signed agreements, there’s conflict. The negotations are through the government, and the government is like a messenger of Mr. Facussé [a major landowner]. Since he has lots of money, he buys the authorities and we, the poor people, receive nothing from the government. There have always been murders and kidnappings and threats of fines and all that. So, these aren’t yet liberated territories. We’re fighting to liberate the land we’ve occupied.
That’s where we are right now. We must develop our education, health and housing so that we can live a dignified life as farmers. The situation is very critical. We don’t have hope that the government is going to address these issues. They don’t care if the poor are hungry. Our hope is in our struggle, in the fact that each citizen is going to make an effort to change our country.
Some of the settlements have been able to develop projects for water, light, and other things that benefit us. With everyone’s efforts we managed to build [a cooperative food store]. When we buy food from other places we generate profits for other people, sometimes for the imperialists themselves. So, we’ve all invested in the food store and it belongs to everyone. For example, this week we won’t get paid because production is low. But we have food, so even if we don’t get a salary at the end of the week our kids won’t go hungry. In short, we have this resource for difficult times.
About 50 percent of what we eat is nutritious food, food we grew ourselves, like corn, beans, some vegetables. And our milk, it’s natural milk taken directly from the cow, something real. Right now there are many health epidemics in the occupied territories. Too many! Our families aren’t accustomed to living where they are so vulnerable, where so many chemicals have been dumped in the ground. We are trying not to eat certain foods that both help our enemy and are very harmful to our health.
We’re fighting for our kids. They’re the foundation of this movement. They are what’s important. We’ve started this movement for our children so they can have their basic needs met, live in dignity, and have access to education. For example, the political assassinations have left some children without mothers, without brothers. The kids are the ones that are impacted the most.
No matter what happens, we’re going to keep on fighting for our sisters and brothers who gave up their lives, whose blood was spilled for this land God gave to us, the Honduran people, so that we could all enjoy the land’s natural resources and wealth. Our martyred sisters and brothers may be lying in the grave right now, but as far as we’re concerned, they’re still here with us, standing by our side in this fight. We are not going to give up the struggle; we’re going to keep at it to the very end, no matter what happens.
1. Most of the settlements are on cultivated palm plantations, where large levels of chemicals and pesticides have been used. Birth defects and other health problems have been documented at an alarming level.
To learn more about the resistance in Honduras see, hondurasresists.blogspot.com and www.ofraneh.org. To read more about land struggles globally, see the second article in the Birthing Justice series, “Without Firing an Arm, We Created a Revolution: Land Reform.”
Interview translated by Tim Burke, Monica Dyer, David Schmidt, and Gislaine Williams.