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The New York Times: In Honduras, Land Struggles Highlight Post-Coup Polarization
TOCOA, Honduras — The settlement on the giant Marañones plantation looks like a refugee camp, where children play between rows of huts and chickens peck at garbage heaps. But the farmworkers living here plan to stay, laying claim to land owned by one of the country’s richest men.
At the gate, a handful of men sit guard with shotguns and machetes under a red flag painted with defiant words: “Justice, Liberty, Land.”
“If they give land to the people, the problem can be resolved,” said Marcos Tulio Paredes, one of the community’s leaders.
In the past few weeks, a long-running battle over land in Bajo Aguán, this fertile valley near Honduras’s northern coast, has flared. At least 15 people have been killed in recent weeks alone, including two of the workers’ leaders, and the people here are on edge, fearful that the unrest could spread.
The conflict in Bajo Aguán is the most volatile example of the social divide that burst into view in this tiny impoverished country two years ago, when the country’s power brokers orchestrated a military coup to expel the president at the time.
A veneer of normality has returned. A new president was elected on schedule, and the ousted former president finally returned from exile in May. But the political polarization that the coup revealed and the violence it stoked — including the murders of journalists and government opponents — have persisted, and no place more so than in Bajo Aguán.
“The opportunity was lost to introduce some very significant reforms that were sorely needed in Honduras,” said Kevin Casas-Zamora, an expert on Central America at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Honduras is a country with obscene social imbalances, and very little is being done to address that.”
In Bajo Aguán, where oil palm tree plantations occupy most of the farmland, President Porfirio Lobo has alternated between sending troops and brokering agreements between farmworker groups and the businessmen who own vast sections of the valley. But events rapidly slip beyond the government’s control.
“This is a country where there are no institutions,” said Elvin Hernández, a researcher at the Jesuit-supported Reflection, Research and Communication Team in the city of El Progreso. “It is the law of the strongest and Aguán is the place where you see that most clearly.”
The government appeared to move forward on negotiating a solution last week, when Congress approved a mechanism to guarantee bank loans that would allow the farmworkers to buy land. An estimated 4,000 families will be eligible for 15-year loans to buy more than 11,000 acres.
But the 1,400 families camped on the Marañones plantation since last year have been frozen out of the latest pact. Without a title, they fear they could be evicted at any time.
“It is better to die here,” said one leader, who asked that her name not be used because she had received threats. “We don’t have anywhere else to go. We can’t give up on the struggle. Where would that leave the deaths of our comrades? In vain?”
The presence of hundreds of troops sent here after the latest round of violence could also set off more conflict. “It’s a very critical situation,” said Sandra Ponce, the Honduran attorney general for human rights. “What is latent elsewhere has already developed in Bajo Aguán.”
The conflict here goes back to the early 1990s, when wealthy landowners bought up plantations from farmer cooperatives. Farmworker groups argue that these purchases were illegal because members of the cooperatives were tricked by their leaders or signed deals they did not understand.
The largest single landowner in the region is Corporation Dinant, owned by Miguel Facussé, the octogenarian patriarch of one of the handful of families controlling much of Honduras’s economy. The company owns about one-fifth of all the agricultural land in Bajo Aguán, more than 22,000 acres of well-groomed plantations that supply oil for export and for its snack foods, margarine and cooking oil business. It acquired that land legally, said Roger Pineda, the company’s treasurer.
“The country needs agrarian reform,” Mr. Pineda said. “Too many people don’t have land. But not on the lands that are already under production. It can’t be, ‘I like your car, and then I take it.’ ”
Just days before he was ousted in June 2009, former President Manuel Zelaya intervened in the disputes, signing an agreement to start talks on redistributing land. In December that year, farmworkers staged coordinated land invasions to put pressure on Mr. Lobo.
The occupations cost Dinant $20 million in lost revenue last year, Mr. Pineda said. In addition, pressure by rights groups this year prompted a German investment bank to withdraw a loan, he said.
The choreography of evictions in Bajo Aguán unfolds violently but fails to sap the workers’ resolve.
In June, 300 families who had been living for 11 years on a farm of orange groves outside the hamlet of Rigores were expelled by soldiers and police officers who gave them two hours to gather their possessions. Then the men torched and bulldozed their houses, their two churches and their school. Three days later, the farmworkers came back to the farm and began to rebuild.
Against the backdrop of negotiations, murders have continued. More than 40 people, most of them workers, have been killed in the region since the beginning of last year, said Ms. Ponce, the government’s human rights prosecutor. “Not a single investigation has been concluded,” she said. When impunity is the rule, she added, “it does not contribute to discouraging the violence.”
The workers have accused the landowners’ security guards of carrying out the killings. Mr. Pineda denied that, except in the case of five workers killed by Dinant guards during a land invasion last year.
Adding to the combustible mix is the rise of drug trafficking in the region, which has become an important transshipment point, like much of Central America. Drug traffickers may be encouraging some groups to take over land that could be used for landing strips, Ms. Ponce said.
The latest violence flared up last month when four Dinant security guards, a company employee and a teenager were found dead after an unknown group invaded the Paso de Aguán plantation. Five more people were killed the next day.
In late August, two farmworker leaders, both of them involved in negotiations with the government, were also killed. One of them, Secundino Ruíz Vallecillo, was shot by a motorcyclist as he was driving home after making a withdrawal from the bank. Eliseo Pavón, his close friend and the group’s treasurer, was slightly wounded in the attack.
Mr. Pavón waved off the government’s theory that the motive was robbery and accused the landowners of ordering his friend’s slaying.
“They think that with this they can weaken the group, stop the fight,” he said. “But it won’t happen.”
Posted By Angela Strader at 2:13pm on September 20, 2011
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