Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Land issues - again!

I just got back from three days in the municipality of La Unión, Lempira, a very isolated area in the north of the department of Lempira, settled among the mountains.

The first person who visited me in Honduras was Greg McGrath, one of the co-founders of a new organization of young engineers (all Iowa State University grads, I believe): Emerging Opportunities for Sustainability. Through him I learned another organization founded by young college grads (of the university of Michigan) “Unión Microfinanza,” which is beginning work in La Unión on microloans. Some supporters were coming for the weekend and they invited me to come and see the project and its prospects.

We ended up visiting communities, several small coffee fields, and a local coffee processing cooperative– seeing problem and possibilities. The founder, a Michigan doctoral candidate, Derek Stafford, explained the theory behind what they are doing. If things go well, this will be an impressive project to assist 32 rural communities in the La Unión area.

Yesterday at the last village we visited the group got a taste of some of the issues beyond loans and improvement of coffee production.

The town has about 90 families, but only about 20 own enough land for coffee growing. About 80% of the land in their area is owned by a few large coffee plantations and by cattle ranchers who use the land for grazing.

Since many people in the village have little land – one person with less than .4 acres), the group asked them about buying the land.

First of all the land would cost about 80,000 lempiras (about $4234) per manzana (1.68 acres.) That’s about $2574 per acre. I just checked Iowa farm land prices; in 2009 the average value per acre was $4371.

The prices are thus very high – especially for people who for the most part make less than $1200 a year – the average for that area.

But that’s only part of the story. Much of the land is owned by cattle ranchers who use it and they won’t sell to campesinos, the people who work on the land. They will sell to other cattle ranchers but unlikely to sell to the poor, even at these high prices.

One man from another town told us how he wanted to buy a small parcel from a cattle rancher for his horse; he approached the landowner who turned him down and then offered to buy his land.

A question I had was how well the land was being used in terms of cattle raising. I know some talk about overgrazing. The land is poorly used, a young professional noted. The large cattle ranchers people don’t know or don’t good techniques that would respect the land and use it wisely. Instead of putting cattle in corrals, the cattle are allowed to graze large expanses, including hillsides which causes major soil damage on the hills.

As I thought this over I cam back to thinking about my previous post and decided that I needed to do a careful study of Catholic Social Teaching on land reform especially the 1997 statement of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, “Towards a Better Distribution of Land: The Challenge of Agrarian Reform.”

But here are just a few paragraphs from that document for your reflection:

The necessity of land reform:
The social teaching of the Church is very clear on this point, stating that agrarian reform is one of the most urgent reforms and cannot be delayed: "In many situations radical and urgent changes are therefore needed in order to restore to agriculture — and to rural people — their just value as the basis for a healthy economy, within the social community's development as a whole." ¶ 35
The justification of land expropriation:
When large landholdings are insufficiently used, this justifies expropriation of land — with adequate compensation to the owners — so that it can be allocated to those who have none or not enough.
However, it must be emphasized that according to the social teaching, agrarian reform cannot be confined simply to redistribution of the ownership of land.
Expropriation of land and its redistribution are only one aspect — and not the most complex one — of an equitable and effective policy of agrarian reform. ¶ 36
The problem of latifundia: large land holdings:
An agricultural structure marked by the misappropriation and concentration of land in latifundia acts as a major obstacle to a country's economic and social development. In the short term, it inhibits growth of agricultural production and employment, while in the long term, it causes poverty and waste, which tend to be self-perpetuating and to increase.
In the face of such a situation, if the economy and society are to develop harmoniously, a major focus of concern should be an agricultural reform that ensures a different land distribution. ¶42
Relating to the land struggles in Bajo Aguán (see the last blog entry):
Land occupation is often an expression of an intolerable and morally indefensible state of affairs, and is an alarm bell calling for the implementation of effective and equitable solutions on the social and political level. Governments have a special responsibility here, for their will and determination must ensure that no time is lost in providing these solutions. Delays in, or the postponing of, agrarian reform deprive their condemnation and repression of land occupation of any credibility. ¶44
But I have one last personal question:
Why do the cattle ranchers really want to keep buying more land and refuse to sell it to people who could use it for growing food for their families or for small coffee or vegetable farms?
There is a word in Greek, pleonexia, usually translated as "greed," but literally meaning "having more." Dan Mc Lanen describes it as "an insatiable need for more of what I already have." But more pointed are these words of scripture, Colossians 3.5
Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly: immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry.
A message for all of us - especially Honduras and many other poor countries with a scandalous inequitable distribution of land and wealth.

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