Honduras: Bajo Aguan campesinos seek letters of solidarity to stop the repression and get titles to their land

Urgent Action Bajo Aguan, Honduras, June 4, 2012. ESCRIBANA

                         (See end here for partial resolution agreed on June 5th)

More than 20 Honduran organizations marched on June 1st in Tocoa in the Aguan region of northern Honduras to denounce the severe threats by agri-business tycoon Miguel Facusse, if the Unified Campesino Movement of Aguan (MUCA) does not sign an agreement with the National Agrarian Institute (INA) that would pay him the exorbitant price he has demanded in order to give back the land to the campesinos who legally own it according to agrarian reform laws.

Facusse has threatened to remove the 2,000 small farmers from the 4,000 hectares of land negotiated in an agreement with INA in 2010. In that agreement, the cost calculated by government institutions was 96,000 lempiras (4.9 thousand dollars) per hectare, but in 2011 the tycoon unilaterally raised the price to 135,000 lempiras ($7,000) per hectare.

The final agreement encompassed two separate pieces of land: 2,400 hectares on the east side of the Rio Aguan and 1,999 hectares to the west. MUCA had agreed to sign the contract for which the government would give them a loan through the BANHPROVI (Honduran Bank for Production and Housing) at a 6% annual interest rate.

But MUCA west side was not ready to sign the agreement on June 1 st. Two separate deasl will have to be negotiated.

On April 30th, the governmental INA designed a financial plan for the land that would finally grant MUCA its loan for the deal.  MUCA asked for more time to analyse the proposed plan, but since the day for signing the agreement was June 1st it would give the campesinos of MUCA no time to discuss the financial plan.

INA authorities stated that by delaying the signing of the Plan, MUCA was exposing itself to ‘whatever might happen’. Facusee’s Dinant Group delegates presented a request to the government to issue evacuation orders of the campesinos who did not sign the agreement to pay them.

The President of Honduras Profirio Lobo, in a press conference on June 1st stated that his government was not going to negotiate any more with MUCA, stating that MUCA wants the land “for free”.

                                       International Conference in Aguan, 2012
Foto Escribana

The claim to the land by MUCA has been a long struggle:

With the Agrarian Reform in the early seventies, the Honduras government created more than 84 cooperatives in Aguan, of which 57 were directed to grow and industrialize palm oil.

In the following decades, leading to the 1992 Law of Modernization and Development of Agricultural Sector, cooperatives of campesinos had a hard time producing the land. Instead of supporting them, the government created that new law that allowed them to sell their land to private entrepreneurs.

The impoverishment of the campesinos led many of the cooperatives to sell the assets of 40 cooperatives to entrepreneurs Miguel Facuse, Rene Morales and Reinaldo Canales and work for them for a salary. The meagre salaries and working conditions did not help the situation of the farmers and their families.

Later the campesinos realized it had been illegal for the government to allow them to sell the land. According to the Law, the land was to continue in state hands for the exclusive use of Agrarian Reform even though the assets could be sold in some circumstances. Furthermore, the campesinos realized that monoculture of African Palm was depleting the land and damaging the environment in the area.

In 2001 MUCA was organized “with a legitimate claim to the land that was declared for purposes of agrarian reform since the 70’s and fraudulently passed into the hands of corrupt businessmen.” (MUCA mission statement). A group of 28 cooperatives who have been beneficiaries of land reform comprised the movement.

The state had used “rights” recognized in the Law of 1992, in the form of “concessions” for private enterprises to use the land, but those concessions could only be given until 2005.

In 2006 when the land was not returned to the cooperatives claiming it, MUCA organized a 7,000 farmer peaceful takeover of the road up to Tocoa, Colon.

In 2009 MUCA presented a proposal for the negotiation of an agreement between government, business and campesinos through a dialogue commission, proposed and presented it to then President Manuel Zelaya Rosales in order to solve this problem. MUCA was willing to pay for the farming investment done by the enterprises who had received the temporary concessions and farmed the land.

But the events that occurred with the coup d’ etat in the country on June 28, 2009 broke  the negotiation process and required a concerted effort by MUCA together with other movements to start the struggle in the streets to demand the return of constitutional order and the negotiation of an agreement about Aguan land.

Upon lack of response, in December 2009 the campesinos decided to take back the land in exercise of their lawful rights. They took over a first block of 958 acres belonging to the cooperative Trust, 720 acres of the cooperative La Aurora and 786 of the cooperative San Isidro, all in the municipality of Tocoa, and 665 acres of the San Esteban cooperative in the municipality of Trujillo.

Since then, a series of conflicts emerged, resulting in a resistance of the organizations to give up their land. They have had to face the militarization of the area, assassinations, torture and persecution of campesino men and women and forced evictions have resulted in lack of access to land, the implementation of palm monoculture, large scale militarization of the territory and the absence of the State that has resulted in more than 48 peasants killed in less than three years according to human rights reports.

The march of June 1st in Tocoa has become a massive expression of resistance to the latest attach by Facusse with the compliance of government officials who have not stopped the threats. “We cannot sign something we have not discussed – said Sirel Yoni Rivas, General Secretary General of MUCA – by announcing its position INA is siding with Facusse who is using this to threaten us.”

For Banegas Esly of the Coordinating Committee of Popular Organizations of Aguan (COPA) and departmental leader of the National Agrarian Institute Union (SITRAINA), “today’s mobilization is a clear sign of the will of the people not to be intimidated by threats.”

MUCA also demanded the adoption of a draft Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law that was introduced in 2011 in Congress by campesino organizations. The proposed law seeks  women’s access to land and to equality, calls for the annulment of the 1992 Law; states that any agrarian transformation has to consider the protection of the resources; calls for programs for health, housing, jobs, and access to water; demands the expropriation of latifundios (big land tenure) and to provide farmers with financial resources  for technical assistance, to insure equal participation of farmers in production, transformation, industrialization and commercialization of productions; fair prices for their products, among other demands.

“Mobilization is the language of the people in response to repression, power and arrogance of the big landowners of Aguán,” said Berta Caceres of COPINH, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras.  She added that “the kind of agribusiness promoted by corporations in the region has only contributed to the impoverishment of the rural population and the deteriorating conditions of their lives.“

Caceres added that what drives the struggle for recovery of land by campesino movements is their need to produce food for thousands of families. “COPINH reaffirms its belief in the legitimacy of the struggle for land.”

Last March 8th International Women’s Day, Indigenous workers and African descendants in Honduras have launched the initiative of the Reform to secure women’s access to land and strengthen their rights as women in the country. More than 100 indigenous workers, campesinas and women of African descent marched in the capital of Tegucigalpa claiming access to land among rural workers and a new legal framework regarding gender.  “We, women, need land also – said Leoncia Solórzano, spokesperson in the march – we don’t have access to it because the Honduran legislation has always tried to make us invisible, as if women didn’t exist in Honduras.” The female protesters denounced evictions faced by rural communities and called for a new, comprehensive agrarian reform law, with 15% of the national budget allocated to a trust. Women also held a special event at the doors of the INA, demanding the cessation of violence against women and punishment for their attackers.

Aguan women’s wokshop with Foro mujeres por la vida
Foto Escribana

Aguan campesino women have been organizing activities to position their issues, concerns and rights in the agenda and to include the children in the resistance. Together with the Women’s Forum for Life, a Honduran women’s activist group formed in 2009 which since uses creative expression to explore the politics of women’s bodies in the repressive aftermath of the military coup d’état, women of Aguan have developed workshops where they have shared their testimonies, painted their dreams of the Aguan they want and taught the children about the nature of their struggle.

A recent Public Hearing and International Seminar on the human rights situation of rural communities last May 28th concluded that there is a lack of institutionality in the region and that impunity reigns in Aguan.  The events held in Tocoa, Aguan were attended by observers of the Secretariat of the Inter American Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States (OAS), a delegation of the European Union and of the Office of the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner of Human Rights.

                                                Music festival in Aguan, 2011

They concluded that in the last 15 years the land dispute in Bajo Aguán has become the most serious in all of Central America. They supported the complaint by social and human rights organizations that states that the Law of Modernization and Development of Agricultural Sector 1992 has reversed the land reform process, resulting in the concentration of land in fewer  more powerful hands. They recommended a full investigation of human rights violations and a moratorium on international loans until the situation is clarified.

UN figures show that 53% of Hondurans live in the countryside and, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America, 72% of rural families fall below the poverty line.

The original Land Reform of ‘62 outlined a programme of land redistribution that would distribute 120,000 hectares between 1973 and 1977.  In over three decades a total of 409,000 hectares (the equivalent of 12.3% of the agricultural area of Honduras) were handed over to 60,000 peasant families (the equivalent of 13% of the rural population) (FAO Report).

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the official statistics in 1993 when the Law was reversed show that more than 126,000 peasant families (27% of the rural population) did not have access to land nor a secure place of employment. Added to that figure are at least 80,000 peasant families who owned less than 1 hectare of land a piece, a disturbing figure that along with another 200,000 families, means that 44% of the rural population had no land or  very limited access to land. These families lived in extreme conditions and form the core of that group of the rural community who suffer from extreme poverty.

According to Food First Information and Actions Network (FIAN), the new Law in 1993 was based upon the neoliberal concept of land being no more than one of a variety of commodities that can be bought and sold without any state intervention. Thus, the Law  drastically compromised the professed aims of the implementation of the land reform.  Furthermore, the Law led to the frequent sales of land that had been previously distributed during the process of land reform.

Farmers continued to occupy their lands when Facusse began repressing them with the support of his private security forces and also the Honduran military who began to have a strong presence in the area.

                                            Partial resolution agreed on June 5th:

On June 5 at the Presidential House a first agreement between the Unified Peasant Movement of Aguán Right Bank (MUCA-MD) and the government was finally reached.

 The agreement provides for MUCA´s purchase of four properties – La Aurora, La Concepcion, La Lempira and Trust, for a total of 2,429.18 hectares already in possession of MUCA MD since April 2010.

MUCA MD agreed to pay about $ 16.8 million to BANHPROVI, in a term of 15 years with an interest rate of 6 percent and a grace period of 3 years. Similarly, the government granted an area of 32 hectares for housing.

The signing of MUCA MD is first part of a wider agreement involving the MUCA Left Bank (MUCA MI) and  Movimiento Auténtico Reivindicador Campesino del Aguán (MARCA).

In total, 32 cooperatives make up these organizations and represent nearly 3,500 families living in eight farms of about 4,600 for which they will pay  $ 32 million.

Organizations are demanding the repeal of the Agricultural Modernization Law adopted in 1992 in full neoliberal era, and the adoption of the draft Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law introduced last year to Congress.

They are also demanding thorough investigation of all killings of peasants and the countless human rights violations that bereaved families and terrorized farmers in recent years.

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