Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Land reform, a Vatican document and Honduras

In 1997, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace issued a prophetic document entitled Toward a Better Distribution of the Land: The Challenge of Agrarian Reform.  

The document, reflecting Catholic Social Teaching as well as scriptural teachings on the relation of land and poverty, took a strong stand for serious land reform.

Land is a serious problem in many places in Latin America and especially so here in Honduras. Many campesinos I know may have a few acres of coffee but often don't have land to grow the staple crops of corn and beans. Much of the good land is owned by rich individuals who use it for cattle raising, while campesinos rent land, often on hillsides. 

Recently I have seen a lot of burning of fields and forests on my trips out to the countryside in the Dulce Nombre parish. My guess is that most of the land is not being burned by small farmers but my large landowners who will convert the former forests into pastures for their cattle - or maybe more coffee land. 
Land being burnt June 7, 2011, between Plan Grande and El Zapote

Some landowners put outrageous prices on their lands. Today I heard of a land owner who wants 220,000 lempiras ($11,000) for a piece of coffee land which is about a manzana (1.68 acres). 

But even worse is the conflict over land in the Bajo Aguan in the north of Honduras. One of the richest persons in Honduras, Miguel Facussé, owns land which is being used for African palm, whose oil is being used for biofuels. There are serious legal questions about how he acquired the land. He now seeks to keep campesinos who wish land out by the use of armed security guards who are occasionally assisted by government police or military. 

This has resulted in more than thirty deaths of campesinos. Bishop Luis Santos of the diocese of  Santa Rosa de Copán has accused Facussé of being responsible for deaths. Last year Andrés Pavón, director of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras brought a suit against Facussé for the deaths of 14 campesinos in the Aguan. Not surprisingly, for Honduras, the proof he presented disappeared. 

What has happened? Monday May 30, Facussé's lawyer filed a legal suit against the bishop for defamation. Monday, June 6, the same lawyer filed a legal suit against Andrés Pavón for defamation. On Sunday, June 5, three campesinos were killed in the Bajo Aguan area, as testified by the government director of the National Land Institute [INA], César Ham, who also noted that three campesinos were injured when security guards of Miguel Facussé entered an INA building.

The killings continue. Not much is being done by the government though President Porfirio Lobo is promising to provide a prompt and definitive solution to the "problem." But Facussé's forces continue to threaten, injure and kill poor campesinos and threaten defenders of the poor.

Apropos of the violence and injustice, it might be useful to read paragraph 12 of the Vatican document on Agrarian Reform:

The history of many rural areas has often been marked by conflict, social injustice and uncontrolled forms of violence.
The landowning élite and the large companies involved in exploiting mineral and forest resources have, on many occasions, not hesitated to establish a climate of terror in order to suppress the protests of workers who are forced to work at an inhuman pace for wages that often do not cover their travel and living expenses. Similar tactics have been used in order to overcome conflicts with small farmers who have been farming State or other land for a long time, or in order to take possession of land occupied by indigenous populations.
In these conflicts, intimidation and illegal arrests are used, and, in extreme cases, armed groups are hired to destroy possessions and harvests, deprive community leaders of power, and eliminate people, including those who take up the defence of the weak, among whom many Church leaders.
The representatives of the public authorities are often direct accomplices in such violence. The executors and instigators of the crimes are guaranteed impunity by weaknesses in the administration of justice and the indifference of many States to international juridical instruments concerning respect for human rights.
This was written in 1997. It reads like a commentary on the current situation in Honduras.

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