It is my seventh day traveling around Central America and I have filled many, many pages with notes. As much as I want to know, it is impossible to absorb so much information and history in a week. Conversations here are a rich experience often sprinkled with bountiful details of local and Latin American history.
Over the last two days, I have been participating as an observer in the Central American Regional Conference on Agrarian Reform of the Via Campesina at the Francisco Morazan Central American Peasant School, named after the 19th century Central American leader who tried to create a united, progressive Central America.
Located in the outskirts of Nicaragua’s capital Managua, the school is recognized by members of the Via Campesina as an important education center for rural families. Its location in Central America has facilitated the participation of peasants and indigenous people from different countries across the region in trainings organized by the Via Campesina and the CLOC (Latin American Confederation of Peasant Organizations).
Grassroots has been a major supporter of the Via Campesina Central America and the Francisco Morazan Peasant School.
These trainings and events, such as the conference I am attending, are contributing to strengthening leadership among rural people whose rights to education and political participation have been long neglected. People from seven Central American countries regularly come to trainings at the school. The participants then pass on the knowledge gained to their communities.
Julia Margarita Trujillo, the director of the school, pointed out that there are already visible positive impacts, including changes in the way visiting peasants participate in the activities at the school. She observed, too, that there has been a constant rotation of country representatives in the trainings and conferences, thus enabling the development of a larger number of leaders and the increasing participation of women.
This conference, for instance, had more women participants than men. Considering that just a few days back I attended the Via Campesina Latin American women’s conference in El Salvador, it would be reasonable to say that women’s presence in Via Campesina activities is growing.
The organizers called for women’s leadership several times in the meeting. The popular education facilitators, known as “animators,” often repeated the saying, “If the women stay at home, the revolution is delayed.” The revolution, in this case, is much needed agrarian reform.
For the Via Campesina, agrarian reform is much more than the mere redistribution of land. Rafael Alegria, coordinator of the Via’s Global Campaign for Agrarian Reform and a member of the Via’s International Coordinating Committee, emphasized that land distribution in and of itself is not agrarian reform.
“What we want is an agrarian reform that guarantees the land rights of families, dignity and a sustainable livelihood.” That genuine agrarian reform not only ensures land rights but also the means to make a sustainable and dignified living off the land and protects the peasant way of life.
During the two day conference, representatives from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras discussed the pressing issue of land rights of indigenous, Afro-descendent and peasant communities. They concluded that landlessness is a growing problem all across Central America. The following notes on landlessness in Central America summarize the accounts of Via Campesina members at the conference about this growing problem.
Landlessness in Central America
In the early 1980’s, Nicaragua began a full-scale process of land distribution. However, new landowners didn’t receive proper land titles and the previous owners eventually sued to reclaim their land through the courts, which favored traditional large landowners over the peasant beneficiaries of agrarian reform. This so called “contra-reform,” along with other land conflicts, has complicated the incomplete agrarian reform process adding to the number of approximately 100,000 landless families.
According to the Honduran Coordinating Council of Peasant Organizations (COCOCH), the problem of landlessness has grown rapidly in the last few years as a result of the effects of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Today, there are approximately 350,000 landless families in Honduras.
Ironically, since the implementation of CAFTA, more small-scale producers are abandoning their land due to falling crop prices and unfair competition from subsidized international agribusiness. Like other nations in Central America that have signed onto this trade agreement, El Salvador is also dependent on food imports. No data is readily available on the number of landless families in El Salvador. One fact that is often highlighted by peasant organizations is government repression. Street demonstrations in El Salvador are being controlled by government through tougher laws. According to organizers, one can be arrested for “disturbing the peace” and sentenced to up to 10 years in jail.
Mining operations and agribusiness have generated as many landless families as the civil war that displaced 200,000 people. The Guatemalan organizations estimated that more than 60% of rural families are affected by landlessness. Forced to move to cities to find jobs, these families are bearing the brunt of violence that has affected the country.
Landlessness is also a major problem in Costa Rica, mainly because of the recent expansion of agribusinesses. According to the Small-Scale Farmers Association of Costa Rica (ADACORI), multinational corporations are buying land and dismantling rural communities. In Managua, members of ADACORI and the National Confederation of Farmers (UNAC) vowed to work together and to organize a national agrarian reform conference in Costa Rica.
In a region marked by civil wars (that were often superpower proxy wars during the Cold War era) — where governments indebted to and controlled by U.S. interests claimed these wars to be essential to prevent the threat of communism — the land rights and human rights of peasants and indigenous peoples have long been at stake. Central American rural families now find themselves at the epicenter of an expansion of the neoliberal economic model. Free trade agreements like CAFTA and plans for the PPP (Plan Puebla Panama) have destroyed livelihoods and local economies already impoverished by cars and greedy national and international elites.
The final declaration of the First Regional Conference states , “Without agrarian reform there will be no food sovereignty.”
By the same token, it seems that with CAFTA there will be no sovereignty in Central America and without sovereignty, there will be neither peace nor justice in the Americas.