Johnny Rivas is a vocal member of the Unified Movement of Aguan Farmers (MUCA), an organization that claims over 3,500 families demanding the redistribution of land in the North Coast of Honduras. For over five years Rivas has fought for land rights in Aguan, known as the ‘capital of agrarian reform.’ MUCA formed in 2001 in order to reclaim lands that Rivas says “were transferred to corrupt businessmen under fraudulent terms.” Rivas has recently been a target of constant death threats for his participation in the movement.
Palm Oil Cooperatives and Big Business
The Aguan Zone (named after its river), is located in the department of Colon and claims some of the most fertile lands in the country. It is known for its African Palm Oil plantations, which occupy over 90,000 hectares according to a Jan 2008 report by the US Embassy. Palm oil is a common ingredient in many food products and can be used as biodiesel.
In 1962 the Law of Agrarian Reform reallocated land from the hands of transnational companies back to Honduran farmers. Cooperatives formed that managed the palm oil plantations. In 1992, 1994 and 1995 many cooperatives sold their land back to wealthy business owners. In a document presented on April 30, 2009 MUCA asked for the annulment of the sale from 1994, on the grounds that the sale was illegal under the Agrarian Reform Laws. The terms of the sale stipulated that the land would remain state owned, but the farmers could continue to cultivate it. The contract expired in February 2005 and has never been renewed.
As a strategy to apply pressure on authorities to negotiate with the farmers, in May 2009 MUCA occupied a palm oil factory that belonged to Miguel Facusse, one of the largest landowners in Honduras. A new agreement was signed on June 12, 2009 with President Zelaya that guaranteed state resources to resolve the conflict. On June 23, after a follow up meeting on the same factory, a member of MUCA, Fabio Ochoa was shot 7 times.
Coup d’etat Halts Negotiations
Although President Zelaya had shown the political will to deal with the country’s agrarian problems, his term was cut short with a coup d’etat last June. Most of the farmer organizations prioritized their efforts to protesting for his constitutional return, temporarily putting their land struggle on hold. Realizing that after several months of nonviolent resistance on behalf of the nations teachers unions, workers, indigenous groups, and farmers, they were unable to reverse the coup, MUCA resumed the land recuperations in December 2009.
According to Rivas, direct land recuperation is “the only strategy farmers have to be heard.” Living in rigged plastic tents among the palm oil plantations that occupy their land, the farmers participating sometimes eat only once a day, under constant threat from the authorities.
The farmers occupied four cooperatives; La Confianza, La Aurora, San Isidro, and San Esteban Cooperative.
The National Agrarian Institute which deals with the appropriation of land has measured 9,000 hectares that are under dispute thus far.
Since December there have been dozens of confrontations between the farmers and security forces in the area.
Under the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti, military forces were used several times to illegally evict the farmers. There have been dozens of detained farmers and there are over 80 orders of arrest for people involved.
On the evening Feb. 11 witnesses reported that two unidentified helicopters flew over communities participating in the land recuperations. The next morning crossfire left at least four guards from the private security company dead.
Security forces also entered the community of La Concepcion, a commuinty neighboring a land recuperation. When a pastor of the local Mennonite Church saw aggressive driving almost running over children in the community, he intervened and had a firearm pointed at him.
“They came here intimidating the community, pointing out houses. If one of the farmers is killed we will know who to hold accountable,” he said.
In a formal meeting on Feb. 16 with President ‘Pepe’ Lobo, known to MUCA as ‘the son of the coup,’ Lobo promised to disarm the farmers. MUCA maintains that they are not an armed struggle, but will defend themselves against aggression from security forces. Rudy Hernandez, also a member of MUCA, maintained that “we are not a group of delinquents, we are farmers who are here to claim our land because hunger forces us to be here.”
This week Lobo presented two options to resolve the conflict: either purchase a portion of the cultivated land or farmers will be relocated to neighboring areas. Both options look for an immediate resolution to the problem but do not deal with the underlying issue of the concentration of land ownership or the illegal acquisition in the first place.
As the second poorest country in Central America, Honduras heavily relies on international financing.
“One of the most important things for those of us in Honduras, is the image that we give to the investor” said Facusse.
Facusse admitted to a Honduran newspaper that the World Bank, the Interamerican Development Bank (BID) and an unnamed German Bank have authorized loans which are currently ‘paralyzed’ due to the situation.
“We paid for the farm and paid well for it, those of the agrarian reform had the money but did not invest and misspent the money, for that I believe that agrarian reform is not the solution,” he added.
Marco Ramiro Lobo, a legal advisor to the National Agrarian Institute (INA), previously the legal advisor to MUCA who presented the demand against Facusse in 1994, stated that Facusse’s business interests were never for the social good of the community.
“There are grand restrictions on the workers, miserable salaries, before they were associates and now they are workers. Now they have a salary less then the minimum wage. Most of the farmers live in extreme poverty, which is what is causing this situation,” said Ramiro Lobo. “I don’t think anyone is arguing that Facusse brings investment to the area, but what we are arguing is the form in which the lands were acquired. In reality there is no sustainable development, this is a business model that looks for lucrative pay, not social investment.”
MUCA has the support of dozens of other farmer organizations in the country, including international organizations such as FIAN and Via Campesina. They are also supported by the National Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP), an organization which grew out of the resistance movement opposed to the coup d’etat against President Manuel Zelaya.