[Marxism] In Honduras, Land Struggles Highlight Post-Coup Polarization
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Fri Sep 16 11:42:21 MDT 2011
NY Times September 15, 2011
In Honduras, Land Struggles Highlight Post-Coup Polarization
By ELISABETH MALKIN
TOCOA, Honduras — The settlement on the giant Marañones plantation
looks like a refugee camp, where children play between rows of
huts and chickens peck at garbage heaps. But the farmworkers
living here plan to stay, laying claim to land owned by one of the
country’s richest men.
At the gate, a handful of men sit guard with shotguns and machetes
under a red flag painted with defiant words: “Justice, Liberty, Land.”
“If they give land to the people, the problem can be resolved,”
said Marcos Tulio Paredes, one of the community’s leaders.
In the past few weeks, a long-running battle over land in Bajo
Aguán, this fertile valley near Honduras’s northern coast, has
flared. At least 15 people have been killed in recent weeks alone,
including two of the workers’ leaders, and the people here are on
edge, fearful that the unrest could spread.
The conflict in Bajo Aguán is the most volatile example of the
social divide that burst into view in this tiny impoverished
country two years ago, when the country’s power brokers
orchestrated a military coup to expel the president at the time.
A veneer of normality has returned. A new president was elected on
schedule, and the ousted former president finally returned from
exile in May. But the political polarization that the coup
revealed and the violence it stoked — including the murders of
journalists and government opponents — have persisted, and no
place more so than in Bajo Aguán.
“The opportunity was lost to introduce some very significant
reforms that were sorely needed in Honduras,” said Kevin
Casas-Zamora, an expert on Central America at the Brookings
Institution in Washington. “Honduras is a country with obscene
social imbalances, and very little is being done to address that.”
In Bajo Aguán, where oil palm tree plantations occupy most of the
farmland, President Porfirio Lobo has alternated between sending
troops and brokering agreements between farmworker groups and the
businessmen who own vast sections of the valley. But events
rapidly slip beyond the government’s control.
“This is a country where there are no institutions,” said Elvin
Hernández, a researcher at the Jesuit-supported Reflection,
Research and Communication Team in the city of El Progreso. “It is
the law of the strongest and Aguán is the place where you see that
The government appeared to move forward on negotiating a solution
last week, when Congress approved a mechanism to guarantee bank
loans that would allow the farmworkers to buy land. An estimated
4,000 families will be eligible for 15-year loans to buy more than
But the 1,400 families camped on the Marañones plantation since
last year have been frozen out of the latest pact. Without a
title, they fear they could be evicted at any time.
“It is better to die here,” said one leader, who asked that her
name not be used because she had received threats. “We don’t have
anywhere else to go. We can’t give up on the struggle. Where would
that leave the deaths of our comrades? In vain?”
The presence of hundreds of troops sent here after the latest
round of violence could also set off more conflict. “It’s a very
critical situation,” said Sandra Ponce, the Honduran attorney
general for human rights. “What is latent elsewhere has already
developed in Bajo Aguán.”
The conflict here goes back to the early 1990s, when wealthy
landowners bought up plantations from farmer cooperatives.
Farmworker groups argue that these purchases were illegal because
members of the cooperatives were tricked by their leaders or
signed deals they did not understand.
The largest single landowner in the region is Corporation Dinant,
owned by Miguel Facussé, the octogenarian patriarch of one of the
handful of families controlling much of Honduras’s economy. The
company owns about one-fifth of all the agricultural land in Bajo
Aguán, more than 22,000 acres of well-groomed plantations that
supply oil for export and for its snack foods, margarine and
cooking oil business. It acquired that land legally, said Roger
Pineda, the company’s treasurer.
“The country needs agrarian reform,” Mr. Pineda said. “Too many
people don’t have land. But not on the lands that are already
under production. It can’t be, ‘I like your car, and then I take
Just days before he was ousted in June 2009, former President
Manuel Zelaya intervened in the disputes, signing an agreement to
start talks on redistributing land. In December that year,
farmworkers staged coordinated land invasions to put pressure on
The occupations cost Dinant $20 million in lost revenue last year,
Mr. Pineda said. In addition, pressure by rights groups this year
prompted a German investment bank to withdraw a loan, he said.
The choreography of evictions in Bajo Aguán unfolds violently but
fails to sap the workers’ resolve.
In June, 300 families who had been living for 11 years on a farm
of orange groves outside the hamlet of Rigores were expelled by
soldiers and police officers who gave them two hours to gather
their possessions. Then the men torched and bulldozed their
houses, their two churches and their school. Three days later, the
farmworkers came back to the farm and began to rebuild.
Against the backdrop of negotiations, murders have continued. More
than 40 people, most of them workers, have been killed in the
region since the beginning of last year, said Ms. Ponce, the
government’s human rights prosecutor. “Not a single investigation
has been concluded,” she said. When impunity is the rule, she
added, “it does not contribute to discouraging the violence.”
The workers have accused the landowners’ security guards of
carrying out the killings. Mr. Pineda denied that, except in the
case of five workers killed by Dinant guards during a land
invasion last year.
Adding to the combustible mix is the rise of drug trafficking in
the region, which has become an important transshipment point,
like much of Central America. Drug traffickers may be encouraging
some groups to take over land that could be used for landing
strips, Ms. Ponce said.
The latest violence flared up last month when four Dinant security
guards, a company employee and a teenager were found dead after an
unknown group invaded the Paso de Aguán plantation. Five more
people were killed the next day.
In late August, two farmworker leaders, both of them involved in
negotiations with the government, were also killed. One of them,
Secundino Ruíz Vallecillo, was shot by a motorcyclist as he was
driving home after making a withdrawal from the bank. Eliseo
Pavón, his close friend and the group’s treasurer, was slightly
wounded in the attack.
Mr. Pavón waved off the government’s theory that the motive was
robbery and accused the landowners of ordering his friend’s slaying.
“They think that with this they can weaken the group, stop the
fight,” he said. “But it won’t happen.”
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