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Land occupations

This week we focus on the recent occupations of land across Honduras and the pressing need for land reform that underlies these actions. These perfectly illustrate the themes we explored in our last newsletter: who controls the natural resources and how this is being contested; struggles by indigenous groups and small farmers to lay claim to land in order to feed themselves and their communities; the protection of the environment and the role of large scale agribusinesses and large corporations.

On the 17th April, the International Day of Peasant’s Struggles, 3,000campesinos occupied 30,000 acres (12,000 hectares) of land across six  regions of Honduras, as part of a global movement to reclaim land organised by La Via Campesina, the worldwide small farmer organisation (www.laviacampesina.org).

While these actions have received some international attention, the underlying issues are not regularly addressed. The land dispute between small farmers and landlords in the northern Aguán Valley alone has led to dozens of deaths among farm workers in recent years. We carry a piece originally written for Al Jazeera, in which Lauren Carasik explains and contextualises the conflicts. Read more.

Focusing on the most recent land occupations of 17th April, LAB’s Tian Spain interviewed the coordinator of La Via Campesina in Honduras, Rafael Alegria. He points out that the situation is very tense, with 126 campesinos arrested, mostly without proper arrest warrants, and he asks for organisations around the world to protest to the Honduran government. Some 700 women are taking part in the occupations, he says, and their role is crucial. Read or listen to the full interview here. According to Quintin Flores of COCOCH (The Council of Campesino Organisations in Honduras), those arrested were forced under threat of torture to sign legal documents swearing they would not occupy land ever again. Read the summary here.

In another interview, Consuelo Castillo, one of the organisers of a land occupation in Lempira, Bajo Aguán, describes how agribusinesses has illegally pushed families off the land to turn it over to the cultivation of palm oil for bio-fuel. Read more.

Opinions are polarised over the occupations. While activists say the seized territory is arable public land which, under Honduran law, small farmers have the legal right to grow crops on, large landowners contest this, saying they bought the land legally from the government. Not all of the peasant organisations support the occupations. For instance, Quintin Flores argues that the activists should pursue their claims via legal channels, although it might be a lengthy procedure.  However, COCOCH is providing legal help for those detained.

According to many activists, it is desperation that is leading campesinos to take radical action. They live under an authoritarian and repressive military regime, which denies them access to land and therefore to adequate livelihoods. Over two-thirds (68%) of the rural population are living in poverty and 40% in abject poverty, according to the CEPAL/FAO report of December 2011. The country produces only 35% of the food it needs to feed itself and malnutrition is at the shockingly high level of 49%.

LAB’s Tian Spain interviewed Vitalino Alvarez from the Movimiento Unificado Campesino de Aguán (MUCA) who explains how the 1992 Agriculture Modernization Act did away with the Agrarian Reform that had been in place up until that time, and that this opened the way for land grabbing by big landowners, encouraged and supported by the IMF (International Monetary Fund). Read or listen to the full interview here.

Another grassroots organisation, ACAN, (the National Association of Campesinos) says that on 1st May the government offered to revise the current Agrarian Reform Act and the Agricultural Modernisation Act but what it offered was a ‘mockery’. They pledge to keep up the struggle and to continue occupying and protesting for a new Agrarian Reform Act and to evict the large agribusinesses which are occupying land that historically belonged to them. Read their statement here.

Elsewhere in the region, indigenous groups and grassroots organisations are also finding innovative ways to protect their land. In the Focus section this week we carry a review of a new book, ‘Harvest in Times of Drought’ produced by a group of 50 peasant farmers in the Brazilian state of Pará. The book brings together a collection of poems and stories written in their struggle to reclaim their land and protect it from the wave of industrialisation of the Amazon basin. Read more. The book can be purchased from LAB. Contact Sue Branford (branford.sue@gmail.com).

In Bolivia, the second indigenous march against the controversial road through indigenous territory set off on 27th April from Trinidad. Emily Achtenberg explains how the issues have become more complicated since the initial march in August 2011 and now include indigenous, environmental and human rights. According to TIPNIS leader Fernando Vargas, the march is “not against President Evo Morales, but against his policies that violate the rights of Mother Earth and the Bolivian Constitution, approved by the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) government.” Read More.

Last but not least, the Ecuadorean NGO, Acción Ecológica, which has been leading the campaign to stop the oil companies moving into the Yasuni National Park, which is one of the most biologically diverse regions of the world, has brought out a game as an app that summarises the conflict. Naturally, you win if you stop the companies moving in and you lose if they trick their way in! You can purchase the app here.