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Life, Death and Bravery in Central America

January 2014

A version of this piece originally appeared in Foot*Notes, Volume 31, Issue 4 (December 2013).

Barbara Polk traveled with other Grassroots International supporters to Honduras and Guatemala in the fall of 2013. The article below provides an overview of the trip and her experiences.

I met so many wonderful people—especially strong, articulate, and dedicated peasant women—on my recent trip to Honduras and Guatemala that I want to tell the world about them and their struggles. But I find myself tied up in anger at the U.S. Government’s long—and current—involvement in gradually displacing them from the lands and way of life they have had for centuries.

I traveled with a delegation of six donors to Grassroots International, an organization that works to create a just and sustainable world by providing grants to help support local projects in the Global South, with a primary focus on land, water and food as human rights, and by nourishing the political struggle necessary to achieve these rights. We visited four “umbrella organizations” that coordinate several other organizations or communities who briefed us on issues in their country or community and introduced us to the various projects that are underway. The most interesting part of the trip was our visit to eight villages carrying out projects with support from those organizations and from Grassroots International. Almost all of the local agricultural projects are carried out mostly by women, because the men have emigrated elsewhere to find work, do odd jobs in town to earn money, or have been incarcerated or assassinated. All groups reported facing death threats, seeing some of their people killed, and being called terrorists for organizing to retain their land and opposing the neo-liberal model of development promoted by the United States through the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).

All the groups welcomed us, some quite elaborately, and we met with gatherings of 20 to 90 people, many of whom took turns telling us their stories.

In Honduras and Guatemala, the major problem facing people is land rights. One group we visited, after a four hour drive, punctuated by repeated military road blocks, and a half hour walk through the woods and underbrush, had been told they could settle again on land that their ancestors had farmed.

They had built their homes and planted their crops, only to have the police come and burn them all down just as the crops ripened! They were moved to a new area where they rebuilt and replanted, but someone had burned one of the houses a few days before we arrived. They told us that there is a man who wants the land for a palm oil plantation and is trying to drive them off. They are determined to stay. One woman told us, “Women fighting is the only way to get agrarian reform.”

Another group, on the Caribbean coast of Honduras, had finally won the return of a portion of their land which the government had pushed them from 12 years earlier to lease to the university (which had done nothing with it). Eighty families now farm the land, divided into six collectives—each focusing on a different crop or food animal that is shared among the families. However, they still don’t own the land, and the university has filed suit against them for $1.2 million! “Without land, we are nothing,” one woman said.

A nearby community of Garifuna people (descendants of Africans who escaped from slave ships about 300 years ago and intermarried with the Arawak natives of the Caribbean islands) greeted us with an elaborate potluck lunch and with music and dance before we settled in to talk. Their land had been protected by law until quite recently, when the Honduran military regime changed the law to be able to sell or lease the land for resort and other development. One resort has been built, cutting part of the community off from the sea, where they depend on fishing for a major part of their livelihood. Last year, the Garifuna women tore down part of the wall surrounding the resort as a protest. The newly “elected” president of Honduras reportedly has already signed an agreement with China to build a private, for-profit model city on their land, to “eliminate poverty.” (He has suggested that Arnold Schwarzenegger be invited to be mayor!).

In Guatemala, we were told of the many groups that came together to hold a 200 kilometer march in 2012 to protest the forced eviction of 800 families from a valley—houses and crops burned—so that a multinational company could plant African palms. After a year’s planning, about 900 people started the march, with women taking over leadership after the national press opined that they were either prostitutes or had been forced to participate by their husbands. By the time they marched into Guatemala City, 15,000 people had joined them! The organizers had drawn up a list of demands, some of which are being met, including restoring land to the families, rebuilding their houses, schools, markets, and hospitals, and providing food for a year.

In one rural area of Guatemala, we visited a site that the government had leased to a mining company, without required discussion with [and consent from] the community. The chemicals from the mine would poison the water supply and destroy the livelihood of the people in several nearby villages. They had organized to block the road leading to the proposed mine, with a rotation system that kept a group of people there 24 hours a day. Women have lain down in the road to block bulldozers, and also to block a large group of police in riot gear! So far, they have blocked access to the mine area for almost two years!

We visited two Mayan communities where land rights are not an immediate problem, but malnutrition is, now that, under CAFTA, much of Guatemala’s land is again used for large plantations of export crops, while the U.S. no longer exports much corn, since it is used for ethanol. Both groups greeted us in traditional costume and with traditional Mayan ceremonies. To combat hunger and poverty, the communities are using new sustainable agricultural methods, especially making and using compost instead of commercial fertilizers, and finding that they grow better crops that way. They showed us around their farms, with fields of inter-planted corn, bean, and squash, in the traditional manner, along with fields of several varieties of vegetables. In addition to farming, the women are developing products to sell—honey, natural dyed yarn, jewelry, weavings—but they have inadequate access to markets, so middle-men get much of the possible profit.

We ended our Central America visit with a Mayan ceremony at sunset on a sacred promontory overlooking Lake Atitlan. It left us with much to think about—here I’ve only touched on what I learned. Overall, I was horrified by the enormous obstacles these people are facing, but amazed at the strength, dedication, spirit and bravery of these amazing women!

The limited successes these groups have achieved have come about in part because they have been able to tell their story internationally and depend on thousands of people worldwide contacting their own governments and the Central American leaders to support the grassroots communities when they are under threat. If you are interested in learning more, or lending your support, here’s the Grassroots International website: .

A retired University of Hawaii administrator, Barbara Polk is currently on the boards of Americans for Democratic Action/Hawaii and Common Cause Hawaii and has testified at the state Legislature on good government and other issues on behalf of these organizations for the past several years.

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