Saturday, March 6, 2010

Agrarian Activism, Agrarian Reform and Agrarian Law in Honduras

At the center of the conflict in the Bajo Aguan is the Instituto Nacional Agrario, INA, a semi-autonomous government agency whose mission is to
carry out the process of agrarian reform in completion of the national agrarian policy put forth by the Government, with the aim to accomplish the transformation of the agrarian structure of the country and incorporate the rural population in the integral development of the Nation.

INA came into being in 1961 through Decreto 69, charged to write a Law of Agrarian Reform, which was eventually passed as the Ley de la Reforma Agraria, Decreto 2 of 1962. This is part of the history of INA to be read on the website established under the Zelaya administration, which remains posted on the internet. What that website doesn't point out is that advancing agrarian reform, with a modest total of 1500 hectares distributed, contributed to the coup d'etat of 1963 which threw President Ramón Villeda Morales out of office, ending the first attempt at distributing under-used land to
campesino groups.

The next step in land reform, ironically, took place under the military dictatorships that succeeded. The US government country study of Honduras explains the situation in the 1970s like this:
Lacking even modest government-directed land reforms [after the 1963 coup], illegal squatting became the primary means for poor people to gain land throughout the early 1970s. These actions spurred the [military dictatorship] to institute new agrarian reforms in 1972 and 1975. Although all lands planted in export crops were exempted from reform, about 120,000 hectares were, nevertheless, divided among 35,000 poor families.

Decreto No. 8 of 1972, which took effect in 1973, established a law on "Uso temporal de tierras" (temporary use of lands). INA describes the goal of this law as "to assist in the short term the solution of the most pressing needs of the inhabitants of the country settled in the countryside" to lead to their incorporation in development. INA was authorized to determine when lands were under-utilized, and the owners of such lands in theory would be obligated to sign contracts with INA through which these lands would be made available "voluntarily, temporarily, and without compensation" for INA to assign to cooperatives. Under this law, cooperatives received terms of use of land, not titles to that land.

A new Ley de Reforma Agraria was issued as Decreto No. 170 of 1974, taking effect in January of 1975. Under this law, as described on INA's website, the goals were outlined as
to transform the agrarian structure of the country, destined to substitute for latifundio and minifundio a system of ownership, tenancy, and exploitation of the land that will guarantee social justice in the field and will augment the production and productivity of the farming and livestock sector...

For the purposes of Agrarian Reform lands expropriated in conformity with the law, national or ejidal lands, rural land in the possession of state entities, and those that the same entitites shall acquire for the same purpose
will be dedicated.

(Latifundia and minifundia are legal terms for large- and small- landholding.)

Remarkably, as the US Honduras country study shows, there was more continuity of agrarian policy than change with the move to constitutional government in the 1980s, and agrarian reform actually slowed:
By 1975 the pendulum had swung back, and agrarian reform was all but halted. From 1975 through the 1980s, illegal occupations of unused land increased once again. The need for land reform was addressed mostly by laws directed at granting titles to squatters and other landholders, permitting them to sell their land or to use it as collateral for loans.

This was the period during which we first began our research in Honduras, and in the fertile landscape around San Pedro Sula, large tracts of under-used land (in theory for grazing cattle, but often left overgrown) were invaded by peasant groups who took possession and waited uneasily to be challenged. Often we began our work by meeting with the councils of such groups out in the field, explaining how our work had no potential to affect their claims for land. In other cases, we found the land in possession of cooperatives who proudly displayed their legal claim by naming the cooperativa with the date they were given the right to occupy the land: 21 de Septiembre, 2 de Marzo, and so on.

But regardless of the stability of their claim to the land, these coops struggled under an even greater burden: agrarian policy throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s pushed for recipients of land to produce export crops to contribute to external trade. Cooperativistas with whom I talked were vividly aware of the contradiction presented: on the one hand, they had land; but they could not afford to work that land simply to produce the basic grains needed for the support of their own families. Most worked small plots of land near their houses after their long days cultivating sugar cane or bananas, the major crops grown in the terrains where I worked.

The US country study of Honduras outlines the failure of the 1974 Agrarian Reform Law and the heightened tensions about land reform that reached a head in the early 1990s in confrontations between unarmed peasants and members of the military:
An agrarian pact, signed by landowners and peasant organizations in August 1990, remained underfunded and largely unimplemented. Furthermore, violence erupted as discharged members of the Honduran military forcibly tried to claim land that had already been awarded to the peasant organization Anach in 1976. In May 1991, violence initiated by members of the Honduran military resulted in the deaths of eight farmers. To keep similar situations around the country from escalating into violence, the government promised to parcel out land belonging to the National Corporation for Investment (Corporación Nacional de Inversiones--Conadin). The government also pledged to return to peasants land that had been confiscated by the Honduran military in 1983.

But what actually happened was the passage of Decreto No. 31-92, a new law, the "Ley para la Modernización y Desarrollo del Sector Agrícola" (LMDSA). The key change made was to allow individual members of cooperatives to alienate land, selling their individual plots to large land-owners, something never before permitted under the existing agrarian reform policy. While claiming to continue every part of the original Decreto 170 of 1974 that did not "contradict" the new law, the LMDSA radically altered the structure of land-tenancy, as well as the rationale for land reform. The new LDMSA was openly based in the desire for "agricultural modernization", "increasing production", "commercialization", "the development of agro-industry", "the rational use of natural resources" and "agroindustrial development and exportation of agricultural products".

The current Director of INA is former presidential candidate for the UD party, César Ham. The conflict over the Bajo Aguan that he inherited has some of the deepest historical roots in the 20th century process of agrarian reform. As noted on INA's own website, the original impetus for reform came after the great Honduran labor strike of 1954, when unemployed banana workers began the process of taking over land marginal for banana production that the international companies were leaving unused.

One of the places where colonization of land took place before the first Law of Agrarian Reform was the Aguan, in 1955. In 1970, a formal agrarian effort called the Proyecto Bajo Aguán began.

By the time Mark Ruhl wrote about Honduran land reform in 1984 in the
Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, he could report that the Bajo Aguan was the site of 14% of the participating beneficiaries of land reform, and 31% of the land that had been distributed, with 80 cooperatives comprising 4,000 families in place by 1977 (cited by Charles Brockett in 1987 in the Journal of Latin American Studies).

On the other side of this history, in 1975 the first plant to extract palm oil from African oil palms began operating in the Bajo Aguan.

Thus were set in motion the causes of the present conflict.

For further reading, in addition to the articles cited above, Spanish speakers can consult

Un plan de desarrollo regional: el Bajo Aguán en Honduras by Angel Augusto Castro Rubio (1994: Universidad Iberoamericana).

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