Trials and Tenacity in Honduran Women’s Struggle for Land Rights
Despite being denied, again, title to the land on which they have labored, there is no quit in this group of women from El Estribo.
Hurricanes, coups, fire and political manipulation are not stopping Blanca, Helia, Sofia, Narcisa and Maria from working the land left fallow by the Honduran state university and seeking legal title to it.
Their path to achieve right to land has been full of challenges. There were days they went to bed hungry after working all day in the fields. Nevertheless, this group of tireless women had nothing to lose when they decided to occupy a stretch of unproductive land 10 years ago. Like in a loving family, they encouraged each other to stay put, because their struggle had just begun.
Like thousands of others, the women lost their homes when Hurricane Mitch pounded into Honduras in 1998. Together they supported each other by sharing food and the few belonging they savaged from the storm. When the food assistance from the United Nations World Food Programme ended, Blanca, Maria, Sofia, Helia, Narcisa and others planned a fundraising so they could rent land to plant yucca and other crops. But the rent was too high and the group was unable to continue with their project.
Undeterred, they wanted to be able to feed their families with nutritious foods and not be slaves to the global market. “Land is what we want. And it is our right,” says Helia, a small, stout woman with a powerful voice.
For generations, their families had lived on and worked the land without a land title. Their reflection about the root causes of what oppressed them is what the sociologist Paulo Freire would call the first step towards liberation. The next step is action. The group of women remained motivated to take action. In 2001, they identified that the land controlled by the Autonomous University of Honduras (CURLA) had been idle for many years. The area of 45 hectares was supposed to be used by agronomy students for research, but for years the land has been unused. Shrubs and grass grew tall instead of fields of beans, rice and orchards.
The group of 44 women immediately went to work. They occupied the area by building tents and turning up the soil using hoes, and planting seeds of corn, yucca and beans.
The food reserves exhausted before the crops were ready to harvest. The group had two options: beg for food in the city or harvest oranges from CURLA’s neglected orange groove. Sofia and Narcisa recall that oranges lay rotten on the ground when they decided to collect them.
While the women collected the half-spoiled fruits, CURLA security guards fired at them. Narcisa, whose callous hands and sun-burned face speaks volumes about the hard-working life she leads, remembers: “We were hungry. The oranges were not harvested anyway. But, they met us with guns.” As she said that, her teary eyes expressed how shocking that event was for her. She thought it was crime to shoot people who are hungry. In reality, since the women set camp in the land, contrasting the expectations of the powerful, they were called “invaders” in the land they knew well. For many of the women, that derisive term was even more difficult to bear than the violent assault.
Since the first day when some in the group built their own tents using scrap materials, leaves from palm trees and clay, others tried unsuccessfully to meet with CURLA’s rector. From a third party they heard that the rector was intransigent to say the least. “Not even an inch of land for these women,” replied the rector.
Unable to speak directly with CURLA’s representatives, they met several times with peasant organizations, such as Grassroots International’s grantee the National Center of Rural Workers (CNTC). Thanks to the support of CNTC and the Via Campesina, the women were able to meet with members of the Honduras’ National Congress and eventually win support from Congressman José Cecilio Logano. He presented a motion before the main legislative chamber on behalf of the group. The motion was eventually approved, giving a legislative endorsement to their use of the land.
It is hard to believe that a group of peasant women would receive Congressional recognition if they were in fact “invaders” or law-breakers, as claimed by CURLA. The motion approved by the National Congress generated great expectations that their struggle was coming to an end. With the political clout of Congressional support, the women expected the directors of National Agrarian Institute (INA), the government agency responsible for addressing land conflicts, would speed up the outstanding process. Unfortunately, the women experienced yet another setback.
CURLA appealed the case. Along with Cattle Ranchers Association, a powerful agribusinesses lobbyist group, CURLA lobbied Congress to revoke the 2008 decree that would transfer land to 408 peasant groups nationwide. The powerful lobby worked, and 58 peasant groups, including the women from El Estribo, lost their chance to receive land titles.
According to Wendy Cruz, the Via Campesina’s technical advisor, the Congress’ decision created uncertainty for landless families who have been waiting for their land titles, and it potentially could stir land conflicts throughout the country. As the Honduran National Congress changed direction, “the women are left in the cold, without any guarantees” Cruz says.
According to Cruz, the women can be evicted from the land. The women fear most the physical violence from security guards and the police. Without government’s protection, they will be easy targets for physical violence and verbal intimidation. Given their past experience, they have many reasons to be concerned about their safety. In addition to the incident with security guards at the orange grove, a gang of thugs burned down two houses the women had built. “We avoid walking alone, and we leave our houses only in groups,” Sofia said.
Violence against women
In Honduras, femicide, or killings of women, claims the lives of many victims due to intolerance of women’s defiance to patriarchy (and machismo) in everyday life. The victims are wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, neighbors, teachers, co-workers, women’s rights organizers, government officers and human rights defenders. It is worth noting that during and after the 2009 coup in Honduras, women were raped and killed by pro-coup armed forces. None of the murderers were sent to jail. In fact, the Judicial Court acquitted Army generals and soldiers involved in the killing of more than 17 people during the coup.
At the heart of the repression and violence against peasant women are structural inequalities. Without land, peasants are unable to realize their right to food and economic independence. They often ended up working for wealthy families for low wages.
The courageous decision by the women of El Estribo to reclaim their land rights defies the business interests whose political support was essential for the coup government. In exchange of their backing, those wealthy businessmen expect the government to create room for the expansion of agro-fuels plantations and other mega-projects. Given this, the successful lobby by the National Ranchers Association and CURLA to revoke the Congressional decree didn’t come as a surprise, given the tendency of the Honduran government to favor extractive industries and industrial agriculture over food sovereignty and peasants’ rights.
Reversing the current land use policies is critical to the future of peasant communities as well as those who depend on their work. In other words, without protecting peasants’ land rights, we put in jeopardy the supply of healthy foods to local communities. Further, the dependency on food imports and international agribusinesses – a widespread problem in Mesoamerica after the approval of free trade agreements – will worsen the situation of food insecurity in both rural and urban areas. The fight of Sofia, Narcisa, Blanca, Helia, Maria and others to win title to the land, therefore, impacts the lives of several other families in Honduras.
Leoncia Solozarno, the Via Campesina’s Women’s Regional Coordination, explains that women’s participation in land struggles is not anything new. “Women are present in all land occupations. They are the ones who face off the police and in many occasions security forces and the Army. What is happening in El Estribo is that the women decided to have their own land.”
While certainly their own future is at stake, much more is riding on the outcome of the struggle of these women for land and justice.