This is second blog in the Field Notes series by Saulo Araujo, Grassroots International’s Program Coordinator for Latin America. Read Saulo’s first post about the Central America Peasant School.
Along with members of the Via Campesina‘s Women’s Regional Commission for Central America, I traveled to Choluteca department (or state) in the southern region of Honduras. My travel companions are Wendy Cruz, technical adviser for Via Campesina in Central America, Carmelina Perez, regional coordinator for the National Office of Rural Workers (CNTC), and Esperanza Cardona, a member of the national coordinating committee of the National Peasant Association of Honduras (ANACH).
We are visiting the community of El Estribo, where a group of approximately 20 peasant women have decided to occupy a piece of land to grow food. What has motivated them to make such radical decision? Why are the men not joining them? These questions pop into my mind when I first hear about them.
As in other countries, peasant women in Honduras are all-too-common targets of violence generated by hunger, landlessness and machismo. Living in a small village with no paved roads, tap water or health clinics, they also don’t own land to generate income and achieve their own economic development. The majority of the men from El Estribo left the area to find work in the United States and Mexico. Most never came back and the women are left to raise their families alone.
Despite the many challenges they face, this small group of peasant women decided to push forward for their own economic survival and independence. They met several times to plan an occupation of 10 hectares of farmland belonging to the government of Honduras. For years, the land was not used until a businesswoman requested the land from the government administrator in order to create a cooperative. Needless to say, no individual should own a cooperative.
According to the community, this empresaria (businesswoman) paid for the signatures that were listed in the founding document of the cooperative. (Note: all but three men that signed the document are currently working in the United States and Mexico). With this fictitious document in hand, she partnered with another businessman to install a sugar cane plantation on the land. According to women in the community, however, she rented the land and never cultivated a square yard of sugar cane.
Knowing the facts about the land, the group of landless young and adult women decided to occupy the land on their own. Without any support, they were easily evicted by 50 armed police officers. As they walked out peacefully carrying their children and few belongings, the police destroyed the crops that they had planted and burned down the camp.
Wendy starts the meeting with the group by explaining the goals of our visit. She describes La Via Campesina and its Women’s Commission, and the rights of women to land and a dignified life. Wendy’s words are kind and encouraging, and the women receive them like rain on a thirsty garden.
«This process is in your hands,» she tells them. «Don’t feel discouraged.»
The work of La Via Campesina’s Women’s Commission is critical for groups like this one. They provide technical and legal support to peasant women who want to occupy, or are already occupying, land to claim their land rights. Grassroots supports both La Via Campesina’s Women’s Regional Commission (Central America) and the Global Campaign for Agrarian Reform, whose goals are to defend women’s rights to land and food. Currently in Latin America, many Indigenous and peasant women endure poor living conditions because they do not have land to cultivate food or to develop their cultural beliefs and economic rights and independence.
Maria Ines, 47, is an example of that. She lives in El Estribo with her seven children. Her husband left her when she was pregnant with their youngest child. «I am mother and father for my children,» she says.
How does she feed them? She explains that she is always looking for work. Most of the work she finds is temporary, for wealthy landowners and far from her house and family.
«When I am working, I leave at 4 AM and return from work at 5 PM. It concerns me that I have to leave my children alone,» she reports. As a landless peasant, Maria has to find work – any work – to feed her family. Her last job as a farmworker on a melon plantation required 11 back-breaking hours of transplanting seedlings, weeding and tending them. After working in the field, she helped in the warehouse washing fruits or cleaning the facility.
Currently unemployed, Maria scrambles to buy food and medicine. «I know that to find another job I will have to leave the community, because here in this place there are no jobs,» she says. Occasionally, when she has savings, Maria rents land to grow corn, beans and cassava. But usually she doesn’t have any money left, and Maria is forced to ask neighbors for permission to cultivate any land they will not use. Few families here in El Estribo have land to share, even if it involves a sharecropping arrangement.
From what I hear, land in El Estribo is not cheap for unemployed people like Maria. Maribel Castillo, a young peasant married with three young kids, says that she has to pay roughly $25 for one-third of a hectare – hardly enough land to produce much. In Honduras, the minimum wage is $35 per month.
Knowing Their Rights
It seems to me that La Via Campesina folks arrived at the right moment. The group was discouraged after the eviction and needed support from other women. Carmelina shared her life experience with them.
«I was in the same situation before,» she shared. «I did not know that I had rights. And it seems to me that you need training, support from others to achieve your goals.»
The group agreed. «We were very scared when the police evicted us,» said a woman in her late 40s. She added, «I am afraid that if I go to jail, who is going to defend me?»
Maria Ines talked about police brutality and how women like her are afraid of participating in a new occupation. «Many comrades are afraid. They think we are not capable of confronting the police.»
Wendy interjected, «We women are not fragile. We have faced bigger challenges than this! We are not incapable.»
Carmelina agreed and explained how to create a safety net if they ever decided to occupy the land again. «Sisters, we shouldn’t be afraid. You have us to help you out,» Carmelina explained. «You should look for support from peasant organizations. If something happens, you should call on the National Office of Rural Workers, the National Peasant Association of Honduras and La Via Campesina to provide you with lawyers and organizing training.»
Esperanza, another experienced leader and land rights organizer, added her perspective and humor. «I am also another comrade of yours. Land is very important for me. If somebody asks me what it is more important, the land or my husband, I would say the land,» she said smilingly. «We fight for land, because we – peasants – can’t exist without land. We need land to grow our food and provide a good future for our children. Occupying land from the powerful is not easy. That’s why we need to be conscious that our struggle will take years. We should be prepared. After we win the land, we will need to continue working to end machismo in our communities.»
The group left the meeting in better spirits than when it arrived. As follow-up, they will meet to decide if they will occupy the same piece of land or not. Based on my conversation with Maria Ines after the meeting, it seems that the group will continue pursuing their dreams for land.
«We are poor and need land,» said Maria Ines. «And until today, we haven’t accomplished our goal. That’s why we will continue fighting for land.»
PHOTO: El Estribo women’s group in Honduras