The Campesinos' Story
Flashing headlights beam down the road and pick out a line of straggling figures in the dark. One after another the cars and trucks rush by. And any one of them could bring disaster - a police jeep or a truck full of soldiers
‘One or two campesinos walking along the road’, says Salvador, ‘They wouldn’t stop just for that But a whole group of us carrying machetes . . . and at four o’clock in the morning...’
People are coming up to us from all sides out of the gloom. Difficult to tell who they are. They could be Dona Elsa’s men. Perhaps she has heard about the land invasion —the village, they say, is full of ‘whisperers’. Salvador looks suspiciously at a couple picking their way down the hillside behind us. Could she have sent her workers to head us off?
‘It’s Epifanio’, he says and breathes again.
Epifanio is the evangelist of the group, usually armed with his bible. Today it is his machete in his hand. His shy fourteen-year old son, Jose, follows quietly behind.
There are few paved roads in Honduras. So it’s ironic and unnerving that we have to make our way in secret along one of them.
Every time the road lights up you can feel the threat But at least the group is growing to a reassuring size. This is Antonio ambling up, a tall angular bearded man who only yesterday showed up at a meeting after a couple of years’ absence. If today’s invasion succeeds, if they manage to keep hold of Dona Elsa’s land, Antonio will have work and food too. It hardly seemed fair.
But now in the dark it is no bad thing to have someone six foot tall. And he has promised to shoulder his share of the group’s debts even if all this gets them nowhere.
Their debts, like most of their problems, have their roots in the land. The ‘Francisco Morazan’ campesino group is made up of twenty-two of the families in La Colorada They named themselves after one of the independence heroes of Honduras. But independence is just what they lack.
They owe the bank for the seeds and fertilizers of the disastrous bean crop last year. The rocky hillside they farm is so steep that manure just slides off it. So their investment just got them into deeper trouble.
But now the tension in the roadside procession makes those depressing weeks seem a long time ago. Santos Hernandez appears. Santos has made several visits to Tegucigalpa, the capital, to try and push their plea for land through legal channels. And he was one of the most vocal speakers at yesterday’s meeting.
‘Yes, yes’, he said, ‘The time is right. Now we have no other choice.’ But he is frightened. He wasn’t even sure if he should come this morning.
‘The rest of you can stick together as a group’, he said, ‘but Dona Elsa knows me too well, she could pick me out. I don’t want to finish up at the bottom of a ditch.’ But he caine anyway. They are all nervous but they all came.
Now there are about twenty people, clustered around Salvador — the group’s secretary— and waiting to make the move. To the left is black silhouette of the steep hillside that they are trying to break away from. From here up to the maize field is an hour’s trek. A narrow winding path leads past Epifanio’s house and then onward and upward in a perilous scramble with a few stunted banana trees to hold onto. Here they can only grow enough food for two or three months. For the rest of the year they must work for the landlords.
The best thing about the maize field is the view. The valley stretches out in front of you — endless plantations of bananas and the vast green acres of Dona Elsa’s ranch, where she raises cattle to send to the Alus meat packing plant. From here frozen boneless beef is shipped to Miami. Only the heads, bones and intestines are left behind.
Santos has worked in the meat-packing plant. ‘All the best meat goes abroad’, he says. As a father it makes me very sad. Children are like plants, they need nourishment to grow. It breaks my heart not to be able to buy them meat.’
Four twenty and it’s still pitch black. The lamps flicker on a couple of dozen anxious faces. Paulino is leading. He’s the group’s president, a short, stocky, mild-mannered man who stood quietly at the meeting while the others were arguing and waving their arms in the air ‘Tomorrow at four!’ ‘Tomorrow at four’, they chorused. Well here they are and there is no going back. Quietly they move through the gate of the hacienda. There’s no sign of the watchman whose house is about fifty yards away. ‘Probably looking from behind the window,’ whispers Salvador. It will be quite a walk across the two or three pastures to the land they plan to claim.
Dona Elsa Castillo lives in the nearby town of Progreso a millionairess according to Santos. She’s the widow of Don Nicolas Castillo, the owner, among many other things, of a fleet of buses. He was shot dead about ten years ago in a feud with another business group in the city, leaving everything — the businesses and the land — to his widow.
‘But it’s our land,’ says Paulino. ‘She doesn’t use it all and she has too much, so the Agrarian Reform Law says it’s ours by right.’
Don Nicolas had leased it from the government but since his death no rent has been paid.
Land reform has been officially under way in Honduras since the early seventies but lethargy and corruption in the National Agrarian Institute have brought the process to a halt. Dona Elsa, they say, has been bribing the officials $500 a year to overlook the campesinos’ claim.
‘The poor don’t have the money to give to the government’, says Santos, ‘and the government has the law in their hands because they have the guns in their hands.’
Exasperation— and desperation— have led to land invasions in many parts of Honduras in recent months, though the campesinos prefer to call them ‘recuperations’ — bringing the land back to life.
Now as we stumble through the grass of the rich pastures the mood is one of elation.
‘I feel like Christopher Columbus,’ says Santos, ‘coming into the land which is ours. Finally we reach the part they plan to cultivate — a large marshy patch of shoulder-high reeds where they hope to plant rice. To stake their claim they want to start work straight away and all are anxious to begin. But Salvador stops them.
‘We are campesinos dispossessed of our land, aren’t we? Form a line! We are going to sing a song because we have decided to take this land again — a song about why we are doing this and what we are really asking for.’
It takes a few minutes to get them assembled again but eventually they are solemnly in a line, machetes at their sides.
‘One. . . two. . . take your hats off!… three.
The audience is no more than a few puzzled cows and the sound drifts away into the low mist that hangs over the fields. But the song has a life of its own.
As the last words die away. Salvador is the first to speak.
‘To work!’ he cries. And after much scraping and sharpening of machetes they set about felling the thick clumps of reeds.
An hour later it is daylight. A lone horserider comes up to investigate. He says nothing but goes back to report.
In the afternoon Dona Elsa is seen in the distance. She too says nothing and goes away again. That night they all sleep out in the open field.
The next morning officials from the National Agrarian Institute come to threaten them with the police if they do not leave quietly.
In the afternoon Salvador leads them out of the hacienda
‘The police’, he says, ‘treat people like animals. There have been deaths among the peasants. Now they say that they will look into our case again if we avoid violence. But if they don’t solve our problem we will invade the land again.’
These events took place on the 18th and 19th of March1981. On the 18th November the Francisco Morazan group were told that they had been allocated their land.