Saturday, April 30, 2011

The struggle for land - 1991 and now

“God left humans on the earth to share it
and to live in peace.”
Felipe Huete
from El Astillero: Massacre y Justicia
In my ministry in the parish of Dulce Nombre and in visits with campesinos there and in other parts of the diocese, the issue of land ownership often comes to the fore. So many people here have an acre or so for coffee but have to rent land to grow the corn and beans they need to sustain their lives – and much of this is marginal land on hillsides.

In the meantime, much of the best land – in the valleys – is used for cattle grazing and other agricultural projects owned by a few land owners who live in nearby towns and cities or even as far away Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula.

Field in Santa Bárbara
According to a recent report I read 70% of the Honduran campesinos lack land. 3% of the land owners control 70% of the arable land. This is worse than the situation was before 1990 when 50% of the campesinos lacked land.

Hillside in Santa Bárbara

 On May 3, 1991, Felipe Huete, a delegate of the words, two family members and two others, were killed while trying to enter lands that had been usurped by a colonel of the Honduras armed forces, in El Astillero, Agua Caliente de Leán, in the municipality of Arizona, in the northern department of Atlantida, Honduras. 
Felipe became an active leader in his local church, a delegate of the word, one authorized by the parish to lead Celebrations of the Word in villages when there was no priest available. The movement of Delegates of the Word began in the diocese of Choluteca in the mid-1960s.

Felipe and his family had emigrated from the southern Honduran department of Choluteca, in response to church leaders who were helping people to populate the village of El Astillero near the north coast. The Church in Choluteca also named Felipe the coordinator of the eight groups who came from the south. He became actively involved in the church in his new home and a leader of those who sought land to sustain their families, land they believed was legally theirs.

In 1975 INA, the Honduran National Agrarian Institute, had given 75 manzanas (about 126 acres) to a group that had organized it.  But it had been illegally sold several times to various people, finally ending up in the hands of Colonel Leonel Galindo.

After he had settled in El Astillero, Felipe Huete’s house was searched at least once by the military who accused him of being a Nicaraguan subversive.

In mid 1990,  an official of the Public Security Force in Mezapa told Felipe and others, “Don’t enter those lands because they belong to Colonel Leonel Galindo.” In the first months of 1991, four unknown assailants machine-gunned Felipe and two others. On May 1, three campesinos receive death threats from military bodyguards. One of them, putting the barrel of his machine gun in Ciriaco Huete’s mouth, told him: “We know the day and the hour when you’ll enter the colonel’s land, a trickle of guts (intestines) will be left there because the colonel is not going to lose the 45 thousand lempiras he has invested." 

On May 3, according to the survivors, an army unit surrounded the campesinos as they sought to enter the land they claimed, and the soldiers unleashed their weapons. They killed five, including Felipe Huete.

Four thousand campesinos came to the site of the killing for a Mass presided over by the bishop of San Pedro Sula and eight priests. 
A statement from the diocese of Choluteca read: “They died, having opted for life, on the feast of the Holy Cross which symbolizes the victory of Christ over death.”

A document signed by Bishop Luís Alfonso Santos of Copán and representatives to the national team for the Celebration of the Word recalls the faith that motivated Felipe Huete:
“The biblical texts chosen by Felipe for the celebration [May 3, entitled ‘From Injustice to Justice’] touched directly on his own situation. On the one hand, he was inspired by the tremendous hope of owning land, not only for himself (Gen. 15:18 and Matt. 5: 1-4). On the other hand, he experienced the strength Christians feel in the midst of persecution and threats from the colonel’s bodyguards: ‘I say to you, my friends, don’t be afraid of those who kill the body and can do no more. I tell you whom you should fear — fear the one who after killing has the power to cast you into hell. Yes, I repeat, fear that one.’”
The circumstances of Felipe Huete’s death call to mind what is happening  today in another part of Honduras, Bajo Aguan, where campesinos are seeking land to sustain their families. There several extremely wealthy investors, including the Honduras Miguel Facusse, lay claim to land that they are using for growing African palms, but which they most likely obtained in underhanded, probably illegal, deals. The situation is complex. But 19 campesinos have been killed there  between January 2010 and early March 2011; in April two more were killed, one of whom was beheaded.  

Land ownership is an international problem as those who seek to sustain their lives find themselves without land while a few with money buy up land and use it to enrich themselves.  As the prophet Micah (2:1-2) wrote more than 2700 years ago,
Woe to those who plan iniquity, and work out evil on their couches;
In the morning light they accomplish it when it lies within their power.
They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and they take them;
They cheat an owner of his house, a man of his inheritance.

And, as blessed Pope John Paul II said in Brazil on July 4, 1980:
The earth is a gift of God, a gift He made for all humanity, men and women, whom he wishes united in a single family, joined together with each other with a fraternal spirit. It is not just, then, because it is not in agreement with God’s plan, to use this gift in such a way that the benefits favor only a very few, leaving excluded the others, the vast majority.
"The land for those who work it" is a slogan I've seen in several places in Central America. Sadly it is not a reality for millions of campesinos here and throughout the world.


Parts of this entry are translated and adapted from Elias Ruiz,  El Astillero: Masacre y Justicia (Editorial Guaymuras, 1992) and the page on Felipe Huete in the Latin American martyrology of Servicios Koinonia.

Addendum: A portion of the book mentioned above,  El Astillero,  is available here on Scribd.

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