One of the farming communities I got to know during the week I spend in Honduras with a BALASC sponsored delegation is in serious trouble right now.

Their struggle over land rights is representative of many small farming communities in developing countries stuggling with vast wealth gaps and powerful agro-businesses fighting over the same land.   At one point in Honduran history, the government attepted to close the gap between the poorest and richest by redistributing land by giving poor families organized in farming cooperatives titles to land. With property, small farmers have autonomy over their business decisions such as what crop to plant, where to market it, and have access to financial credit. The land reformation in Nicaragua gave many of the small farmers I work with here the titles to their land.

Members of the MUCA talking to us in La Ceiba, Honduras

The difference is that wheras the revolution in Nicaragua (aided by the American embargo which prevented American owned private agri-business corporations to take hold in Nicaragua) prevented a large portion of the wealth from falling back into the hands of foreign elite, in Honduras the oligarchy maintained its hold on the vast majority of land and wealth.  In 1992 a law was passed allowing lands distributed to agricultural cooperatives to be sold if a majority of the associates voted in favor.  This allowed large landholders to reclaim their lands, and in instances where the cooperatives were “uncooperative” to the desires of the landholders they resorted to assassinating and bribing leaders of the cooperatives until the remaining members felt threatened into selling.  The prices paid for the land was in some case less than 10% of the agricultural worth of the land.  In this way, 28 cooperatives in the Bajo Aguan region of Honduras, today representing 3,500 poor families, lost almost 50,000 acres of land to three landholders: Miguel Facusse, Rene Morales and Reinaldo Canales.

Honduran agrarian law requires a series of documentation to be filed an legal requirements to be met in order to hold the title to land.  Although the purchase of land from these 28 cooperatives was never legally filed, the government allowed the landholders to hold the title to the land in a concession that expired in 2005, during Mel Zelaya’s presidency.  Meanwhile, the landless families from the cooperatives formed a unified movement called the MUCA (Movimiento Unido de los Campesinos de Aguan) and began filing lawsuits in 2001, demanding that the details of the land purchases be examined and their legality examined.  Their lawsuits were continually ignored, despite established time limits for judicial review.  On June 12, 2009, the MUCA signed an important agreement with Mel Zelaya, where the farmers agreed to vacate the premises during a period of investigation during which the landowners would be obligated to prove that their land was purchased legally and the accusations of bribary, fraud, and assassination involved with the land purchases would be investigated.

One of the MUCA leaders looks at a poster from La Prensa in Honduras, picturing a group of campesinos. The title reads "Guerillas take up Arms in the Bajo Aguan" Everyone in our group examined the picture; we couldn't even find a machete in the hand of any campesino pictured, let alone a gun.

This past Saturday, April 10, the MUCA began sending reports of heavily armed troops entering the Aguan, both in vehicles and boats.  The numbers reported were 3,000 troops – nearly one per campesino family – and the date of invasion is suspiciously timed three days before the April 13 negotiations where Profirio Lobo’s government was to present their “settlement deal” to the MUCA for the fourth time.  The fear of a masacre in the event that the MUCA refused to sign the deal was real, and alarmed reports surged through social justice and human rights watch networks.

The settlement proposed by the Honduran government sells 6,000 of the contested 20,000 hectares back to the campesino, under the premise that the farmers continue farming African Palm on half the land and sell the product to the refinaries and export companies owned by the three businessmen.

The latest news report released by the Quixote Center, a Washington DC based social justice watchgroup, is that the group has signed a preliminary agreement with the Honduran government, who agreed to withdraw military and police from the zone.

Are we living in 2010 or in the middle ages?  Since when are serfs part of a modern societal structure?  In exchange for selling you my land (which may or not even be legally mine to sell), you have to continue to farm what I tell you and sell it to me at a price I set for an indefinite amount of time.  Oh and by the way, and if you don’t agree to it I have military, paramilitary, and police forces surrounding your house and my friends in the government have put a restriction on civilians entering the area so you can’t call for help from your neighbors.  This is what our current free-trade transnational agribusiness-run food system apparently endorses.  Is this the direction you want to take rural development in?

Thanks to Annie Bird from rightsaction.org who compiled a history of the struggle in Bajo Aguan.  More information on the Honduran coup and resulting current political situation can be found at http://www.rightsaction.org/index.htm

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