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Fighting For Land


new internationalist
issue 200 - October 1989

SANTOS - fighting for land
Did they keep the land they had invaded? Was the group still together?
We sent Honduras-based writer James Pickles to investigate.



[image, unknown]

Santos Hernández and his fellow campesino farmers were one of many Honduran co-operatives who seized land in 1981. But this group was accompanied by NI journalists and a BBC camera crew.

'.I feel like Christopher Columbus, coming into the land that is ours.

'We were fighting with Dona Elsa in Tegucigalpa right up to 1986. In the end we won because I went to the state property register to get her details. She had our land on a 10-year lease from the National Agrarian Institute - but she was six years behind with the rent. She also owned two passenger buses, two other vehicles, and 15 different bits of land.'

Santos Hernández grins wryly. He stands in the midst of a field of strong young rice on the rich land he and his companeros wrested from the rancher, more by doggedness than force, in 1981. Dark eyes twinkle below the brim of the ubiquitous Honduran baseball cap, his compact campesino frame twisting this way and that to survey his little kingdom.

They had a little land before. In 1979 one of Honduras' meagre concessions to land reform had given Santos' group of 16 families a 14-hectare plot on a steep hillside. The land lies between the cities of San Pedro Sula and El Progreso on the Caribbean coast. But that fell far short of the five hectares of decent land needed to support each family. So in 1981, they invaded the cattle ranch of Doña Elsa Castillo. 'Here, if the campesinos don't occupy the land, they don't get it: it's a matter of pressure,' says Francisco Sánchez of the National Campesino Union, to which the group belongs.

Eight years later, the group still has neither a title to the 32 hectares, nor a formal guarantee of its right to occupy: its tenure rests on a letter from the National Agrarian Institute which simply acknowledges its presence. But in practice it is secure so long as it farms the land and avoids bankruptcy.

The co-operative has had its share of problems. Right at the start, one member split off, and managed to get separate recognition of an 11-hectare holding: a quarter of the occupied land. Of the other 16 families who took part in the original occupation, just six are still involved. But those leaving have been replaced and the land has always been fully used.

Such a high turnover is not unusual in Honduras' agrarian-reform settlements. Many co-op members are ex-wage labourers from the banana or sugar plantations or cattle ranches. 'It's not easy to change from having a regular wage to the uncertainty of the co-op,' says Santos. 'We eat when the crops grow. When they don't, we go hungry.

Nor have all the co-op's farming decisions worked out. Apart from the small plots given to each member family for their house and garden, all the land is farmed collectively. Monthly meetings thrash out policy decisions, and a three-person committee is charged with carrying them out.

In 1986 they put much of the land back under cattle, in a project promoted by the Government and the big cattle ranchers, who needed extra capacity for the rearing of young steers. But they got their fingers burned and lost a lot of money. Now they restrict cattle to the original hillside plot.

Their biggest setback was the flooding brought by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. They had rented another 40 hectares because their 52 hectares of valley and mountain holdings still fell well short of their needs. They put the new land under rice, financed with 40,000 lempiras ($15,000) at 17-per-cent interest from a bank. The floods destroyed the crop completely and the debt is equivalent to four years' worth of rice crop.

But in spite of the setbacks, the basic story of the last seven years for these campesinos is one of hard-won progress. They can now plough and harrow with hired machinery. They complain about the expense, but it is still better than the alternative: 'Before, we worked the fields with pure lung power'.

The years since 1981 have seen a steady transformation in the campesinos' lives. Some now have breeze-block houses with zinc roofs, instead of the mud huts they started with - and they've funded them out of their own savings. And now there's electricity in the village, Santos is thinking of getting his house connected. 'Then maybe I could get a fridge on hire purchase.

On the wall of Santos' house hang his children's primary-school leaving certificates. His daughter Marlen is the first child in the group to attend secondary school. It's a considerable sacrifice for her parents, at 60 lempiras ($15) a year in transport and school fees but a real breakthrough for a campesino child.

All in all, they have travelled a long way since that night when Santos led a nervous band of campesinos, complete with a BBC camera crew, onto Doña Elsa's cattle ranch.

And did the film crew make a difference? Santos grins. 'It didn't cause us any problems, and they gave us 1,200 lempiras ($300). Also they had to film us in the dark so they gave us two lamps.

'They said the programme was going to go out all over the world* but we never saw it - we haven't got a TV, you see. Maybe the European Community could send us one, then we could watch it.' He looks up, uncertain if he's being taken seriously. 'That's a joke, you understand - we'd rather have money for a machine.'

* The programme was 'Santos' Story' in the BBC series Global Report which was indeed seen in many countries in December 1981 - but not Hondura. Two NI journalists were also present: Peter Stalker, the programme's researcher. and Peter Adamson, the scriptwriter of the series.

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