Honduras: Return to Rigores

Exactly one week before our July 1 visit, police entered Rigores and at gunpoint burned the homes of 135 families, killed their animals, bulldozed their orchards, the school, and two churches. Six months later all but four families remain on their land. They have rebuilt their houses, although now from branches and mud wattle where before stood larger block or poured cement homes.

Photo by Irene Rodriguez.On Jan. 9, 2012 an Alliance for Global Justice (AfGJ) delegation of US and Canadian citizens visited the farming community or Rigores, Honduras in the fertile Aguan Valley near the country’s Caribbean Coast.

It was a far different visit than was experienced by a previous AfGJ delegation just six months earlier. On that July 1st morning our delegation stood in a line at the top of a wash, standing between 40 police armed with military grade weaponry, and peasant farmers determined to hold their land against an illegal eviction. For 3-1/2 hours our delegation faced down the police, who had pistols drawn and snipers targeting us from the tree line.

Unable to produce an eviction order and unaccompanied by a lawyer as required by Honduran law, the police did not know what to do when faced with nearly 20 North Americans wearing blue t-shirts reading “Observador Internacional de Derechos Humanos” (International Human Rights Observer). After hours of tense discussion, negotiation, and demands, the police decided that they could leave the community. We accompanied them to their vehicles and then stayed with the community for another couple of hours during which the police drove through several times to see if we were still there.

But July 1, 2011 was neither the beginning nor the end of the story for the peasant farmers of Rigores. Rigores is a long-established community of farm cooperatives. The cooperative which we helped shield from eviction was 10-years-old, a tenancy under Honduras’ Law of Agrarian Reform which should have insured them title to the land. But one of Honduras’ rich landowners wants their corn fields, bean fields, grazing land and orchards so he can expand his African Palm plantation with this tree that produces an oil that is used in the majority of food products in First World supermarkets and supplies an increasing share of the European and US biofuel market.

Exactly one week before our stressful experience, police entered Rigores and at gunpoint burned the homes of 135 families, killed their animals, bulldozed their orchards, the school, and two churches. When we arrived on July 1, the community was living in the town’s community center and a large tent provided by a Catholic charity. The police had arrived that day to drive off or kill the people, breaking their tenancy and weakening their legal case of ownership.

Photo by Roger Harris.Six months later all but four families remain on their land. They have rebuilt their houses, although now from branches and mud wattle where before stood larger block or poured cement homes. Their corn is waist high, a few banana and orange trees survived the depredations, and chickens, pigs, turkeys, and cows which survived the slaughter are breeding quickly.

Today Rigores is poor in material wealth but the people are rich in courage and determination that they will not be driven from their land; land that is their hope for their children. As a person privileged to have visited Rigores both on that fateful day in July 2011 and again today, the current visit was an emotional experience. To witness growth where previously there was only destruction, to see chicks and piglets where previously there were only carcasses, but most of all to hear the stories of courage and defiance of a people who will be pushed no farther,  was to renew my faith in solidarity and struggle. This peasant Occupy Movement long precedes our own. We can only hope to show the same courage as these people who daily face death defending their right to land to grow food to feed their families and their communities.

But this is not a fairy tale. There is no happy ending where the people of Rigores get to live happily ever after and we get to feel satisfied by performing a good deed.

Police, military, and private “security guards” still drive through the community and fire their weapons. On Sept. 16 and again on Sept. 19, the military invaded and terrorized the community. The 15-year-old son of the community spokesperson and another boy were kidnapped by the military, beaten, doused with gasoline and threatened with being set on fire.  

Community members gave testimony to our delegation about the trauma they are suffering, especially the children. One man said, “Whenever my son hears a noise he shouts, ‘The police are coming. The police are coming.’” A woman said her young child crawls under the bed when he hears noises. When their houses were burned in June 2011, children were torn from the arms of their mothers and literally thrown from their houses. Mothers were shot at inside their houses to force them to leave. They were brutalized in ways that are hard for us in the United States to comprehend, and impossible for those who suffered through the terror to remain unmarked.

And now, as they still struggle to rebuild their lives and livelihoods, they have learned from the media that an official eviction order has been signed by a judge with an eviction date of later this month. At this point the eviction order may or may not exist. It is certain that they are receiving daily threats of violent eviction from the hired thugs of a rich landowner. However, they do not intend to leave their homes and we have an obligation to shine the light of international attention on the repression and injustice suffered by the people of Rigores and by the many other communities of the Aguan which are under similar threat.

Our report six months ago of the horror that the people of the Aguan have lived under since the June 2009 coup against democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya, resulted in more press attention to the human rights situation in post-coup Honduras. The US State Department recently cut off Millennium Challenge Fund grants to Honduras. A few months ago 87 Members of Congress signed a letter to the Obama administration calling for a cut-off in military aid. The Defense Authorization Bill signed into law recently holds back a portion of military aid until the Secretary of State certifies that the human rights situation is improving. Even the corporate media, usually the reliable propaganda machine for the 1 percent (in the U.S. and abroad), is beginning to worry about the shocking degradation of human rights in Honduras since the coup.

All this shows the value of solidarity actions, even for the people of a country largely absent from the consciousness of most of us and from the foreign policy calculations of our government. We will ask people to take action on the specific case of Rigores as soon as we get solid facts. But the reality is that Rigores is just one small place in a global war by the 1 percent against to poorest people of the world who sit on the world’s richest resources. However, another reality is that peasants no longer have a place to go. There is no place left for them to be displaced to. The so-called agricultural frontiers are gone. Peasants have no other choice but to defend their land.

At a conference of all the peasant movements of the Aguan that our delegation attended this before traveling to Rigores, Wilfredo Paz, Aguan coordinator for the National Front for Popular Resistance, told the 80 community leaders present that the Aguan land struggle is the most important land struggle in the world. In a way, his words are true and not just parochial.  The peasant movements in the Aguan are among the most highly organized in the world, and among those with the clearest vision that their backs are to the wall and they can retreat no further. Failure now is a failure of life itself. Neither they nor their children have anywhere else to go.

One of the ways they are fighting back is to insure that the terror they are living under can no longer operate in the shadows invisible to the world at large. They have opened a Permanent Human Rights Observatory of the Aguan to host international accompaniers and to expose and denounce the repression and the impunity for crimes against humanity enjoyed by the oligarchy and its subservient police and military. The Alliance for Global Justice is a member of the North American Support Group of the Observatory. Along with other groups, we are looking for people with fluent Spanish who will commit to join a team of international human rights accompaniers in the Aguan. During its start-up we are particularly interested in finding people who have previous accompaniment experience in other countries. To learn more or to offer your time and skills, send an email to AFGJ(at)AFGJ.org.

Most of us have neither the skills nor the time to become long-term accompaniers. But we can support those who do, and we can support the people who are under threat by educating our communities and by insisting that our elected officials implement new priorities that stop funding violence and instead support policies that address the inequitable distribution of wealth and resources.

The people of Rigores do not intend to abandon their struggle. Our job is to change the political paradigm so that their struggle will prevail to the enrichment of all of us. 

Chuck Kaufman is National Co-Coordinator of of the Alliance for Global Justice.