Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 230 | Septiembre 2000



Land Occupation Opens the Way For Agrarian Reform

Land takeovers by peasants and the struggle for agrarian reform seemed to be a thing of the past, an outdated event in Latin America. Recent events in Honduras, however, prove such assumptions wrong.

Ricardo Falla

A round mid night on May 14, 700 landless peasants of Aguán, on Honduras’ northern coast, occupied lands that belonged to the now dismantled Regional Military Training Center (CREM) and are currently claimed by local cattle ranchers and farmers. A number of armed attacks by the ranchers against the encampment set up by the peasant squatters culminated in the death of rancher Diógenes Osorto on July 27, but the occupation continues and is proving to be a transcendental event.

Transcendental in three ways

It is a transcendental land occupation for three different reasons, the first of them historical. Anyone who knows about the Central American wars of the 1980s is familiar with the acronym CREM.
This was the center where US troops trained their Salvadoran counterparts in counterinsurgency operations and Nicaraguan contras to carry out the US-backed war against the Sandinista government. The occupation of these lands by Honduran peasants thus represents a symbolic, historical and patriotic act.

The second reason is economic and social. This occupation seems to be rekindling the much-needed idea of agrarian reform and could lead to the launching of a new, effective agrarian reform model as a way to fight rural poverty.
Agrarian reform has been rejected as a failure, an outmoded and inefficient instrument, but it could be taken up again as a way of helping peasants out of their current situation of prostration and abandonment.
Properly adapted to our particular cultures and the specific needs of the peasants, agrarian reform could also reemerge in other countries.

The third reason is geopolitical. The CREM lands in the department of Colón’s Caribbean coast area act as a corridor for drug-trafficking activities. There are almost certainly unmentionable and shady "economic dealings behind the particular attachment for the lands displayed by their truly illegal occupants—the local ranchers—and the impunity that covers land transactions in this area. As one peasant leader told us, the peasants are not struggling only against the cattle ranchers and farmers, but also against a far more powerful "monster."

Under the national flag

A small hill on the former CREM lands called El Mirador provides a good view of the encampment of the peasants squatters. The soldiers visible on another summit no longer represent any mortal threat. To the north is the sea, concealed behind a small mountain range. The US soldiers chose this place because it was very close to the sea and protected by these highlands. From up here it is possible to make out the freshwater Guaymoreto lagoon, which has fish of up to a meter long. Closer to us is the plain that has been invaded by the peasants and closer still, at the foot of the hill, is the Aguán Campesino Movement’s "Guadalupe Carney" encampment, named after a priest who worked with the peasants in this area and was disappeared by the army on the border with Nicaragua in 1983.

The encampment consists of nearly 700 huts with roofs of woven palm leaf fronds and fenced off using the rib of the palm branch. Although some peasants deserted following the armed confrontation between the squatters and the ranchers on July 27, the camp is still home to 636 of the occupiers and their families, a total of over 5,000 people. Some roofs in the middle of the encampment shine in the afternoon sun. They are the sheet metal roofs of the offices of the different teams into which the peasants have organized themselves. The longest building is the school, which also has several palm-roofed classrooms. The school was erected on a concrete platform that the military used for maneuvers. "People were taught how to kill here," commented one female teacher. "Now we’ll teach children how to live." Near the gate to the camp is a soccer field and a straw-roofed building where the camp’s representatives meet every week under the flags of Honduras and of the movement. Whenever urban or rural land is occupied in Honduras, the national flag is always raised.

A drug and banana route

It is just possible to make out a white house in the distance to the northeast. It is the Tumbador Farm, a mansion belonging to multimillionaire Miguel Facussé, who owns land all over Honduras and has a predilection for tourist spots. At times a four-wheel- drive Pathfinder can be seen leaving the mansion along a dirt road, its chrome fittings glinting in the sun. It is said that this road is used to transport Colombian drugs that come in across Guaymoreto lagoon, or are brought in by helicopter or light aircraft if the rumors are true that there is a secret landing strip nearby. But to talk about drugs we need hard evidence.

Two buildings are at the junction where the dirt track finally meets the paved highway. One houses a platoon of Cobras sent in after July 27 to keep the peace, although some say that they came to protect the drug outlet. The other is a large concrete house that belongs to rancher and former military officer Henry Osorto, who is the ranchers’ spokesman and one of the fiercest enemies of the Aguán Campesino Movement (MCA). It is from this house that the first shots rang out during the confrontation on July 27. Osorto has accused Jesuit priest Pedro Marchetti of having masterminded the death of his brother Diógenes and inciting the peasants who shot him.

The asphalt highway disappears westward toward Trujillo. It is an important export route used by trucks loaded with bananas from Standard Fruit’s plantations in the High Aguán and bound for Puerto Castilla. Although hills block the view of the magnificent Trujillo Bay, which has a phenomenal tourist potential, the glow of the city at night can be seen from here. The ranchers accuse the peasants of being nothing but vulgar land merchants who have occupied the lands to later sell them off to tourist businesses.

Behind us, at the foot of El Mirador on the other side of the camp, are 100 houses built after Hurricane Mitch for homeless families from Marañones, a village located on the CREM lands that was flooded during that disaster. These families did not have to invade the land as the government gave them the plots they are currently living on. That was the first step toward recognizing the right of poor people to these lands over the self-proclaimed "right" of the ranchers.

The Aguán peasant movement

Two factors favored the creation of the MCA. One was the space opened up by President Flores’ government when it appointed Aníbal Delgado Fiallos director of the National Agrarian Institute (INA) at the beginning of 1998, as he had enough backing to start formulating a new agrarian policy. The other was Hurricane Mitch, which forced many poor people to emigrate from the riversides and other high-risk zones where they lived. In several of the country’s departments, some peasant organizations were able to attract the floating mass of people searching for land. In Aguán, Mitch also made it necessary to organize using new management methods to help the population. The Trujillo diocese, and particularly its Social Pastoral coordinated by Pedro Marchetti, played a decisive role in this task. The Social Pastoral initiated the organization of Local Development Committees (CODELs) [see the May 2000 issue of envío] as an alternative to the traditional and politicized local boards, or patronatos.

INA’s concerns coincided with that of the landless peasants, supported by the Social Pastoral and organized into national peasant organizations. The MCA’s Founding Committee was created on April 13, 1999, involving the National Association of Honduran Campesinos (ANACH), the National Confederation of Rural Workers (CNTC), the National Campesino Association (ACAN) and the Honduran Association of Campesino Women (AHMUC). The Movement’s board of directors was made up of three men and two women representing these organizations. The competitiveness and tension that had previously existed among the different national peasant organizations began to dissipate for the first time around this joint effort.

Very well organized

INA helped investigate the legal situation of the former CREM lands that had been appropriated by the ranchers. On June 4, 1999, the MCA presented the INA director with a project for recovering the lands in question and INA subsequently carried out the first field inspection of the area. Despite its director’s good intentions, however, INA is a heavy piece of institutional machinery that has trouble moving with any speed. The issues were further complicated by the unwillingness of other ministries to help.

After a year of fruitless paperwork and governmental indifference, the MCA decided to take over the lands. During the course of that year, the peasant organizations had drawn up and revised their lists of landless peasants, both men and women, a process that involved excluding 40% of the original claimants who did not need land because they were not peasants, already had land or had previously sold their land. Those included on the final lists were organized into 40 Campesino Agricultural "Companies," which were recognized by INA. When the time arrived to take over the lands, the people were already organized and just waiting for the word.

The peasants who occupied the CREM lands were not from the surrounding areas and no one from Marañones took part. The Campesino Companies were organized in the departments of Colón, Olancho, Yoro and Atlántida, and when the decision was made on May 10 to occupy the CREM lands and was announced to certain government officials in Tegucigalpa as a sign of the year 2000 Jubilee, the peasants hired 50 trucks to meet up at a crossroads near the CREM lands four days later. From there, they would enter the former US military base at midnight.

Breaking down fences

The ranchers were forewarned about the occupation and met the caravan of trucks with gunfire, shooting AK automatic rifles into the air or over the heads of the would-be invaders in an attempt to intimidate them. The soldiers guarding the former CREM lands put up token resistance for a few minutes, but were not strong enough to hold off the occupiers, who proceeded to pull down the wire fences. When the first truck made it through, the others followed and unloaded their cargo of people and possessions. It was raining and the children were crying. The occupiers quickly put up nylon tents and some people sheltered under a few sheets of corrugated iron they had brought along with them. And that’s how they woke up the next morning on the day of Saint Isidro, the patron saint of peasants, who some believe advocated the occupation.

The grassroots Companies, each consisting of 10-30 families, immediately started to erect the African palm roofs that can now be seen from El Mirador and to create walls out of palm ribs bound together with nylon twine. Initially, several families occupied each house so when the journalists arrived on the scene it seemed that there was only a limited number of "invaders." Two months later, each family had its own house and the true dimension of the camp became evident, along with all of the problems involved in organizing so many people.

A model of organization

The whole camp is organized both territorially and sectorally. In territorial terms, it is organized by Company, each of which met to name its board of directors. One board member also acts as the Company’s representative, for a total of 43. Sectorally speaking, they are organized into 12 teams, each involving at least five volunteers in a highly interesting organizational system:
Despite its vital role, the production team has not been very active so far as the occupied lands have either not yet been recovered or are still not safe from attack by the ranchers. They have only managed to sow 40 hectares of corn and five of rice in the encampment area, while 100 hectares have been prepared a certain distance away. To cultivate these lands, the peasants must pass in front of Henry Osorto’s house and are continually threatened when they do. The MCA has only occupied 50 hectares of the former CREM lands and still does not have control over the remaining 5,000 hectares, which it plans to recover gradually.

The logistics team, which is responsible for obtaining and distributing food, is very important as long as production levels remain limited. It is calculated that 14,000 lempiras worth of food enters the compound every ten days as support from the Trujillo diocese’s Social Pastoral, the CNTC, various NGOs and, somewhat reluctantly, the World Food Program.

The discipline team is responsible for controlling all people who enter and leave the encampment—not just the members of the different companies—as well as guaranteeing order and internal harmony. It has forbidden the sale of alcohol.

A health team is responsible for attending to the sick or finding them adequate treatment elsewhere and for negotiating the construction of a health center and the installation of latrines and a potable water system. It recently got five hand pumps from SANAA, the national water company, to extract water from a number of shallow wells, although the water is not clean. In addition, the team keeps checks on local hygiene, particularly the state of the latrines, so that they do not emit unpleasant odors and attract flies. As they learned the hard way at the start of the occupation, the flies damage foods and spread children’s illnesses.

The education team provides the school with two teachers who are paid by the Ministry of Education and three popular education teachers. They attend a total of 500 children as well as 18 adult education circles following the PRALEBAH plan and 30 others that use the Home Teacher radio education method. Although the two teachers paid by the Ministry of Education were involved in the occupation, they did not lose their jobs.
Meanwhile, the legal team is responsible for obtaining the necessary land title deeds and maintaining relations with INA and the information and propaganda team is in charge of documenting the experience, passing information on to the media and producing banners and posters. There is also an infrastructure team, responsible for the construction of houses, offices and other community works, and an arts and sports team that organizes parties, social events and sports teams and matches. There are two soccer fields, the one near the entrance of the occupied lands and an old CREM one.

Grassroots democracy

The security team, whose members carry conventional weapons, is one of the encampment’s most important teams. As the conflicts with the ranchers intensified, the team increased in number but decreased in decision-making effectiveness. Some of the occupying peasants had served in the armed forces in the past, which gives the team a latent militarism. It operates the same way as the popular militias set up to guard war-zone encampments in other Central American countries. They organize patrols and night watches and quickly show up when the ranchers or their hired thugs threaten to invade.

The penultimate team is a recently organized women’s team. The women have their own cornfield and a vegetable garden they created with the men’s help. Finally, the faith team was organized after the peasants had occupied the land and recognized the need for a joint ecumenical effort given that they belonged to many different denominations. Every Wednesday the faithful from various churches attend a joint service, while on Sundays they worship at different times. They are also thinking of sharing one common church building because "we only have one God," as one member of the team put it.

Above the sectoral and territorial branches in the organizational hierarchy is the MCA board of directors. While its two female and three male members each have their own separate identities because they come from the different peasant organizations involved, they have been gradually forging a common identity as the MCA. Sixty people theoretically attend the weekly meetings held under the flags of Honduras and the MCA: the 5 board members, the 43 company representatives and the 12 team representatives. The movement’s real power is concentrated in this "assembly," which also smoothes out any differences that emerge between teams or companies.

Ranchers v. peasants

The MCA has not confronted the armed forces or the police. It is not pitted against the state, but rather against the ranchers and farmers who possess the lands and claim to have bought them from the Trujillo municipal government in 1991.

There have been threats and armed skirmishes ever since the MCA occupied the former CREM’s lands. In July, when the peasants stepped up their pressure on the attorney general to annul the deeds issued by the municipal government, the cattle ranchers were themselves pressuring the district attorney’s office to evict the campesinos. The state is not monolithic. There were two moments of serious danger during that month even before the bloody events of July 27. On the 8th, the ranchers sent their farmhands to set fire to a field near the encampment, but 400 peasants were waiting for them. They surrounded the farmhands, capturing 14 of them and confiscating one AK, three pistols, a machine gun and twelve machetes, which they later turned in to the Police’s General Criminal Investigations Office (DGIC). During another attack on July 23, the peasants captured more farmhands and confiscated three firearms.

Bloody July 27

On Thursday, July 27, a burst of gunfire came from Henry Osorto’s house, aimed at peasants who were meeting with the district attorney who had come to evict them. As large groups of peasants advanced toward the house, Henry’s brother Diógenes fled from the building with an AK automatic rifle in hand and headed into some scrub about a hundred meters from the highway. There he ran into a group of peasants and was killed in the ensuing exchange of fire. The peasants left the body lying there and news of his death was not reported. Indeed, the ruckus in the encampment was over the death of two peasants on the highway. Temperatures were rising on both sides.

The next day, several peasants attempted to work on lands they had prepared on the other side of Henry Osorto’s house, only to be met by gunfire. The peasants reacted by taking over the strategically important Trujillo highway. At that point, Henry believed that his brother was dead and secretly buried or had been kidnapped by the peasants.

That night was very tense. The peasants feared that the ranchers would attack under cover of darkness, burn down the huts and kill women and children—there are some 1,500 children under five in the encampment. The ranchers in turn feared that the squatters would launch a night attack to wipe them out. On Saturday, a group of peasant guides helped the DGIC locate Diógenes Osorto’s body, which was turned over to his brother. During the funeral and later when the funeral cortège ran into a group of peasants and members of SIRAINA, the INA union, on the highway, Henry Osorto swore revenge. This highly-charged atmosphere did not calm down until a high-level commission named by the President of the Republic himself, consisting of the ministers of Government and of Security, the director general of the National Preventive Police, the head of the armed forces’ Joint Chiefs of Staff and the former INA director, arrived on the scene. The current director was not included because the ranchers did not consider him impartial. The commission was not there to solve the land problem, but to ensure a peaceful climate that would prevent more bloodshed. In Tegucigalpa it was rumored that civil war had broken out in Aguán.

Listening to both sides

The commission met separately with the peasants and the ranchers at the Puerto Castilla naval base. Both sides agreed to hand over all illegal weapons, to maintain their current territorial positions, to tone down their statements and accusations, not to block the highways, disturb the peace or carry out evictions and to act according to the Constitution and the law. The authorities established protection posts in strategic places and the police force was charged with investigating the death of Diógenes Osorto. Meanwhile, the commission would keep the President informed and make recommendations on how to resolve the agrarian conflict "through acquiring lands and issuing deeds for them."
The commission also listened to the comments of the president of the Chamber of Commerce, Pedro Marchetti, the mayors of Tocoa and Trujillo and a number of other individuals.

The legal history of the lands

It is impossible to understand the legal problems surrounding these lands without looking at recent history. The following are the key events in this particular story, as published by the Trujillo diocese in a pronouncement issued on September 1:
In 1977 Temístocles Ramírez, a US citizen of Puerto Rican origin, bought 5,700 hectares of land in the coastal region of Colón department in flagrant violation of article 107 of the Constitution, which prohibits foreigners from owning land on the country’s coasts or international borders.

In 1983, the United States decided it needed this land for the CREM. In line with its decision to turn the country into a platform for counterinsurgency activities, the Honduran government expropriated the lands from Temístocles Ramírez.

In 1987, Ramírez appealed to the US government, demanding compensation for "his" lands. On June 29, the US House of Representatives agreed to reduce a US$51 million loan to Honduras by $17 million until the Honduran government paid Ramírez that same withheld sum. Thus the Honduran government actually indebted its own people by granting the US military the use of 5,700 hectares of land on which to establish the CREM. These lands were effectively paid for with foreign debt and were legally defined as fiscal lands in the name of the Honduran government.

In 1991, the Honduran government promulgated the new Municipalities Law, according to which (article 68) the municipalities were allowed to sell all non-deeded lands. The municipality of Trujillo sold the lands that had once belonged to the CREM to local ranchers for just 20-30 lempiras per hectare. In other words, the municipality sold for under $50,000 lands that had cost the government $17 million. Furthermore, this sale was illegal because the lands were neither common nor national (without title), but were registered in the name of the state.

In 1993, at the request of the Honduran Congress, the attorney general’s office formerly transferred these lands to INA to be distributed among landless peasants and those with land. The ranchers are thus definitely in illegal possession of lands that belong to the Honduran state and are specifically intended for distribution to agrarian reform beneficiaries.

The Catholic Church speaks out

The Catholic Church has publicly made some very concrete demands during this conflict. First, it has asked the state not to delay correcting the fraudulent sale of the CREM lands any longer. This delay was ultimately responsible for the death of Diógenes Osorto. The Church also called on the government to compensate the ranchers, starting with those closest to the encampment who are generating the violence. This compensation should not involve buying the lands from them, but rather paying them for improvements they have already made: fences, pasturing, houses and the sowing of African palm, which is the most costly crop. In all, the improvements could amount to around 60 million lempiras.

There are two means of dealing with

The fraudulent sale of the lands, one administrative and the other judicial. Both are necessary, but while the administrative path is almost immediate, the judicial one is very slow. As it is the administrative path that will ensure the MCA possession of the lands, the Church is asking INA to award the MCA those lands where no significant improvements have been made immediately, and to duly compensate the ranchers. This would represent a first step in the right direction and would not involve a great deal of money. The MCA would then be able to produce and could plan a more definitive housing project with the necessary basic services. The Church is also calling on the municipal government to annul its acts authorizing the sale of CREM lands and on the attorney general’s office to process the application to annul the documents that legitimize the illegal sale of the land in the courts. This judicial aspect is what could take several years.

Time for an agrarian reform

This whole experience is revealing that agrarian reform is possible and indeed necessary in Honduras for a number of reasons. First, the precisely coordinated mobilization of 700 families from four of the country’s departments without any help from the state has shown that the poor are capable of any sacrifice or struggle to obtain a piece of land. One CNTC leader said that this was the first time anything like the MCA encampment has ever been seen in Honduras. In 1975, the state organized large mobilizations of peasants to Aguán and Nueva Palestina in Olancho, but this is the first peasant mobilization organized by civil society alone.

Second, although the government wanted to stop the mobilization, the state is now more open to the need to launch another agrarian reform. The INA minister has proved unbribable in his investigations into the illegal nature of the ranchers’ title deeds and has even defended to the President of the Republic the peasants’ right to the lands. On August 24, the minister also told the extended presbytery of the Trujillo diocese that CREM occupation will be the starting point for relaunching the agrarian reform. Some other ministries and state dependencies are showing a certain level of openness and even the Cobras are sympathizing with the peasants’ cause.

Third is international support. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recognizes that an increasing number of Latin American governments are backing the idea of agrarian reform. The United Nations Development Program is talking of the need to struggle against poverty and for people to have access to land. Both these organizations, the Church, the Jubilee movement, World Bank officials and technicians and consultants from international organizations are convinced of the need to offer a solution to over 300,000 Honduran families that have either no land at all or less than a hectare. All this is proof of a new attitude that favors relaunching agrarian reform.

But it needs to be a new kind of agrarian reform, one that combines the state and the market; that combines the distribution of illegally titled land and lands from a land bank; that combines the strengths of civil society, NGOs and different churches with those of the state ministries; and that combines national-level planning with local spontaneous mobilizations. If carefully studied and strengthened, experiences such as the occupation of the CREM lands could provide useful guidelines on how we should start to think and act to open up new horizons for the rural poor.

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