"There is a war here in the Aguán,” says Juan, surveying the distant fields of African palm from the vantage point of his recently planted field of beans and corn. A young Honduran farmer, wearing a beaten cowboy hat and a bandana bearing the name “National Front for Popular Resistance,” Juan lives in an encampment of 60 families, dedicated to growing basic grains and reclaiming their food sovereignty. “But the war is not against the drug traffickers, other countries or even organized crime,” he says. “It is a war against the campesinos.”
In the Lower Aguán River Valley in northern Honduras, more than 3,000 families have claimed their right to the basic necessities of a dignified life: land, food, health, education. Living in make-shift tarps and temporary thatch-roofed huts, with nothing but machetes to clear the land, they daily face off against the goliath forces of the Honduran oligarchy, their private guards, and 1,000 Honduran military and police forces deployed by the coup regime to militarize the region – the local security apparatus of big business and the State.
The second major military here, “Operation Xatruch II,” was launched in August, 2011 with financing and training by the United States government. Honduran Security Minister, Oscar Alvarez justified the militarization of the region by describing the campesinos as “so-called farmers and possibly drug dealers who are wanting to settle in that area”.
But these “so-called farmers” are not just arriving. They were recruited by the State into this backwater rainforest region in the 60s and 70s through agrarian land reforms that granted collective titles to peasant cooperatives. The reformist program used campesino labor to cultivate the land and grow African Palm for export. The land was inalienable, designated solely for small-holder production.
The aggressive neoliberal policies of the 90s and the country’s Agriculture Modernization Act of 1992 definitively ended land reform in Honduras and opened up collectively-held land to the market. Vulnerable to global economic forces, cheap imports from the North, massive debt, and a campaign of intimidation, many farmers were forced to sell their land for a mere 1,000lempirasper manzana (about $52 US dollars for 1.7 acres). Forty peasant cooperatives disappeared. The land was rapidly concentrated into the hands of three powerful landowners, Miguel Facussé, Rene Morales and Reynaldo Carnales.
Realizing they had been swindled, the movement began to occupy and reclaim their lands. Before the coup took place on June 28,2009, President Zelaya, affectionately known as Mel by his campesino supporters, sat down with the Aguán farmers to redistribute disputed land and resolve the conflicts. Decree 18-2008 would grant titles for land that had been peacefully occupied for 10 years. The farmers were within days of receiving their titles when the coup took place. But the decree was abolished as one of the first acts undertaken by de facto President Roberto Micheletti and the coup regime. In December 2009, the United Campesino Movement of the Aguán (MUCA), decided to reestablish its nonviolent land occupations.
Welcome to Liberated Territory; Photo Credit: Greg McCain
While public officials and the Honduran press have used allegations of armed guerrilla activity or drug trafficking to criminalize the peasant farmers, they have failed to report on the 55campesino leaders selectively assassinated, or the countless others who have been disappeared, captured, tortured and intimidated since January 2010.
Facussé and his company, Grupo Dinant, have received millions of dollars in loans by international financial institutions to promote African palm oil biofuel production. While being promoted as a green energy solution, the profits of Grupo Dinant are being used to pay armed paramilitaries and private guards to terrorize peasant farmers in order to drive them from their land, resulting in grave human rights violations – not to mention the severe ecological damage through mono-cultivation, water depletion and contamination from heavy toxic chemical inputs.
According to Dana Frank, a history professor at UC Santa Cruz and a regular contributor to The Nation, “The U.S. is funding and training Honduran military and police that are conducting joint operations with the security guards of a known drug trafficker to violently repress a campesino movement on behalf of Miguel Facussé’s dubious claims to vast swaths of the Aguán Valley, in order to support his African palm biofuels empire.”
Human Rights Delegation
On January 6-15, I joined a dozen other US and Canadian citizens on a delegation to the Aguán organized by Rights Action, Alliance for Global Justice, and Food First, to accompany campesino communities defending their rights to land, and to hear their testimonies.
Our hotel was filled with camouflaged soldiers carrying military rifles, ignoring signs on the restaurant doors prohibiting weapons. Day and night, the streets were patrolled by large green pickup trucks with tinted windows and without license plates – known locally as the kind used by paramilitaries in drive-by shootings and political kidnappings. I did not feel more secure by their presence.
After driving down long dirt roads, through oceans of dust-covered palm trees, and passing several military checkpoints along the way, we arrived in the small village of Rigores, a farming community of 135 families who were violently forced off their land by security forces last June. The police destroyed their crops and set fire to their homes, schools, and church. They are slowly rebuilding their community under the constant threat that the police will evict them again.
Norma, a shy woman cradling a newborn baby in her arms, showed us her newly rebuilt home of dry cracked mud. Norma doesn’t sleep much, she told us, because she is fearful for the day the police will return.
Norma and her rebuilt home, Bajo Aguan, January 2012; Photo credit: Aryeh Shell
She described the day when they attacked the community and burned their homes to the ground: “When they came to capture the men, I begged them to leave us alone. I told them, we are not guerrillas, we don’t have any weapons. We are women. We are farmers. They pointed their guns at me and told me to shut up or they would kill me. My baby was only 40 days old. She was screaming. I ran into the palm trees to escape.”
In a cramped room we gathered to hear other testimonies. Children lined up along the windows, peering in at the strange group of gringos in bright blue International Human Rights Observer T-shirts. At first, people were shy to share the trauma of the police attack. But before long, the stories poured out.
Rodolfo, a leader in the Campesino Movement of the Aguán, began, “Our community has been heavily persecuted. Many people have been kidnapped. Some have been beaten, and injured, including my 16-year-old son who was captured. They doused him with gasoline and threatened to set him on fire.”
A boisterous woman named Maria stood up. “It was a terrifying experience. Everyone had to leave their homes running. They burned our houses and killed our animals. It left us with a psychological trauma. My son is still really scared. Whenever he hears a noise, he says, ‘the police are coming, the police are coming’.
Despite the trauma of the eviction and ongoing repression, most of the families have returned, even more determined to claim their right to plant corn, beans, and yucca.
Rodolfo concluded, “They haven’t succeeded in breaking us. We continue to resist.”
As we walked through the rubble of the village that once was Rigores, small green cornstalks were poking through patches of earth.
Young girl in Bajo Aguan; Photo credit: Greg McCain
The campesino cooperatives are working to redefine the very notion of security – not through increased militarization, but through integral agrarian reform and food sovereignty. This includes not only land titles, but also technical support, native seeds, favorable credit, dignified permanent housing, schools, healthcare and the autonomy to decide what they will produce. It includes securing the rights and participation of women and youth. The first point on their security agenda, however, is to unite.
When asked what it would take to create true security in the region, Wilfredo Paz, the coordinator of the new Permanent Human Rights Observatory in the Aguán, responded, “There is one fundamental requirement, and that is the solidarity and love that we have for our brothers and sisters. Here in the Aguán, there is no guarantee of life. There is no respect for human rights. Here the only law that is respected is that of the military, of the powerful landowners and their hired assassins. Neoliberalism and the oligarchy want us to be divided. If we don’t create a collective strategy, we won’t survive.”
We attended a Campesino Congress that brought together nearly seventy leaders to discuss their strategy. The meeting started with a full minute of applause – a collective ritual to recognize the martyrs of the movement. During the long minute, my hands burned and my eyes filled with tears for all the blood that has been spilt in the struggle, in defense of our mother earth.
Odelfo, Bajo Aguan, January 2012; Photo credit: Greg McCain
The first agreement of the meeting was to unify thecampesino organizations. The peasant farmer movement in the Aguán is striking at the core of capitalism, and solidarity is at the heart of their movement. As Odelfo, a 79-year-old campesino, puts it, “Todos para uno y uno para todos. Para que todos de una tortilla la compartamos, y que comamos de una misma tortilla todos” – All for one and one for all, because we all share the same tortilla.