Honduran peasants battle Chiquita

Issue 

By Stephen Marks

TACAMICHE — The soldiers at the checkpoints on the road into the village made it obvious that a military occupation was under way here, in the banana plantation heartlands of northern Honduras. Because of overproduction in the banana industry, many plantations are now being used to grow other crops or as sites for the construction of factory sweatshops (maquiladoras), which take advantage of the lowest wages in Central America. During a strike for higher wages in July 1994, the fruit multinational, Chiquita Brands, announced the closure of four of the 26 banana plantations owned by its subsidiary, the Tela Railroad Company.

San Juan, La Curva, Copen and Tacamiche each had about 200 families with their own schools, churches and other social institutions, so many members of the communities decided to resist eviction from what had been home to many of their families for more than 60 years.

The coordinator of the "Campesino Enterprise Association June 28", Luis Roberto Sanchez, showed us where 27 houses, the health post and even the Catholic Church had been taken away or destroyed by the company. The productive infrastructure, such as irrigation equipment, had also been removed. We met with members of the community in an empty shed which had once been the packing house.

Sanchez explained that Chiquita Brands was a direct descendant of the infamous United Fruit Company, which had swallowed up the best lands in Honduras for nominal sums and dominated the political and economic life of the country during the banana boom.

Sanchez claimed that the lands were a governmental concession and therefore belonged to the state. Documents found by the community show that Tela "bought" the lands around Tacamiche in 1936 for US$1.

The community was demanding that the government of President Roberto Reina redistribute the land to the Tacamiche residents under the provisions of the Land Reform Act. National Farm Workers Centre (CNTC) organiser Francisco Rama explained that Honduran campesinos had a strong tradition of land occupations and, despite the fact that many members of the district had never worked for the banana barons, they had every right to claim the land on which they had lived all their lives.

Chiquita initially appeared to ignore the Tacamiche campesinos, and made plans to sow sorghum and then sell the land. When the community started to raise 24 hectares of maize, a traditional staple, Chiquita sent in tractors to crush the ripening crop. In retaliation, the community occupied and planted maize in another 800 hectares. Tela then demanded immediate eviction of the Tacamiche community and appealed for US embassy support.

On July 8 tractors were again sent in to destroy the maize crops. Some 150 soldiers and riot police fired tear gas and warning shots at the campesinos as they tried to protect their crops, injuring a number of men, women and children. When machine planters later went in to sow these lands with sorghum, the campesinos covered their faces and fought back with slingshots and rocks, leading some media commentators to compare the situation with Chiapas.

The militant CNTC, to which the Tacamiche people had affiliated, mobilised support, and 500 reinforcements soon arrived to show solidarity and help tend the community's crops. While I was there, meetings were under way with delegations of campesinos from other parts of the country. Demonstrations in cities helped to gain national attention for the issue, while nearby towns sent foodstuffs and school students took up collections.

Support was also expressed by the newly formed Democratic Unification Party, Catholic Church parishes and the Coordinating Council of Popular Organisations. As part of a newly forged link between the indigenous peoples of Honduras and the social and progressive movements, Tacamiche leaders were invited to accompany a march in July of 2000 indigenous people in the capital, Tegucigalpa.

On July 26, while waiting for a government emissary to discuss a possible settlement, the assembled township was confronted with 600 soldiers and riot police who demanded their immediate eviction with orders signed by President Reina. Once again the community was set upon with tear gas and rubber bullets. One resident, Gloria Murillo, showed me the bruise on her leg where she had been hit by a rubber bullet, and Dominga Espinal showed me the marks left by one of the aluminium baseball bats which Chiquita had provided to the army.

The people resisted with stones and molotov cocktails and slowed the army's advance sufficiently to prompt a truce. After tense negotiations, an agreement was reached and subsequently accepted by a mass meeting of the residents. The 26 campesinos arrested were released and the community was given a reprieve until September 23 while the government looked for other lands for the community. Chiquita would be allowed to grow sorghum without prejudicing any legal claim to the land, and 60 soldiers would stay on the outskirts of Tacamiche while the CNTC withdrew its "reinforcements".

Reina has been concerned not to offend the US, the international financial institutions and Chiquita, whose annual sales exceed the gross national product of Honduras. The violent eviction of Tacamiche was applauded by Chiquita and the US embassy, while the CNTC and other popular organisations accused the government of being "repressive and pro-banana baron".

Despite the fact that the government has ended conscription, campaigned against corruption and investigated the death squads which operated during the 1980s, Tacamiche has considerably damaged Reina's progressive image and reawakened anti-imperialist sentiments traditionally associated with Honduran banana workers and their supporters.

Messages of Solidarity for the Tacamiche community can be sent to the CNTC, fax 504 387 594.