by Sandra Cuffe - December 17, 2009
Two active members of the Aguan Farmworkers Unification Movement (MUCA) were detained at approximately 11am yesterday, December 16th when they left a land recuperation in the department of Colon, in northeastern Honduras.
Osman Alexis Ulloa Flores and Mario René Ayala were taken to the police station in Tocoa and remain in detention in the city. Local police authorities refused to comment via telephone on the arrest or charges. However, the local district attorney was able to confirm that the men have been charged with land usurpation, while resistance lawyers in the region confirmed that the accusing party is the Cressida Corporation owned by powerful businessman and landowner Miguel Facussé Barjum.
[update, 6:30pm Dec. 17th: Late this afternoon, Ulloa Flores and Ayala were released with conditions after their appearance before a judge. They must appear in court every two weeks until their trial.]
One week prior to the detentions, approximately one thousand families belonging to MUCA staged two simultaneous recuperations of contested lands in Colon. Claimed by Miguel Facussé, the La Confianza Cooperative in the municipality of Tocoa includes a producing African palm plantation. The San Esteban Cooperative in the municipality of Trujillo, meanwhile, is claimed by Nicaraguan landowner René Morales. Prior to the mid-1990s, a period commonly referred to as the ‘agrarian counter-reform’ of Honduras, the lands in question belonged to agricultural cooperatives co-owned by many of the very same farmworkers now involved in the MUCA actions.
The land ownership by farmworker cooperatives was largely dismantled after the Agricultural Sector Modernization and Development Law came was passed in 1992, during the Callejas administration. The law enabled the division and sale of the cooperative landholdings previously established as inalienable under the agrarian reform policies of the 1960s and 70s. While many cooperative members still possess definitive land titles granted by the National Agrarian Institute, the farmworkers’ movements have long denounced the acquisition of cooperative lands by large landowners as a process rife with threats, coercion, fraud, irregularities, and other abuses, committed both by the State and the landowners themselves.
“They took over the lands,” exclaimed Joni Rivas, a local leader and MUCA member speaking from the La Confianza recuperation, “and we demanded clarification.”
The 28 smaller groups that now conform MUCA began to organize together for land and justice in the Aguan region seven years ago, explained Rivas. The struggle for the La Confianza and San Esteban cooperative lands gained momentum during the presidency of Manuel Zelaya, when MUCA resorted to protest actions to highlight the urgency of the families’ demands for an investigation into the controversial land claims and transactions. MUCA’s February 2006 peaceful demonstration blocking the main highway along northern Honduras was met with a rapid response by a government commission, promising to address the issue. Countless months passed, however, with no concrete results.
Earlier this year, on June 8th, 2009, MUCA blocked the access road to Miguel Facussé’s African palm oil processing plant in the contested lands. On June 12th, a high-level governmental commission and MUCA reached another agreement, which was then endorsed and signed by President Manuel Zelaya himself in front of the affected families one week later, on June 19th. Once again involving a commitment by the Honduran government to fully investigate and clarify the conflict over land titles in the area, the new agreement included a strict deadline. MUCA would lift the protest actions during the government investigation, but point number six established that these would resume if the government did not keep up its end of the bargain by July 10th 2009 at the absolute latest.
“Then came the coup d’état,” lamented Rivas.
The government of Manuel Zelaya was overthrown by a military coup on June 28th, shattering democracy and constitutional order in Honduras, as well as the agreement between the Zelaya administration and MUCA. More than five months of daily resistance and repression later, the thousand families struggling for land in the lower Aguan region were back to square one.
“The coup was also a product of that,” explained a community leader from the neighbouring Aguan Farmworkers Movement (MCA), referring to the potential threat the government investigation posed to the powerful interests of Facussé and other landowners in the region. With its own long experience of occupying the lands of a former Cold War era regional military training center and establishing the community of Guadalupe Carney in the area, the MCA also actively participated in the national resistance movement to the coup. Similar to resistance mobilizations around the country, frequent blockades of the highway between Tocoa and Trujillo throughout the latter half of 2009 were met with the massive displacement of State security forces, including both police and army.
All of the country’s farmworkers federations participated in the resistance to the coup, and many movements were the targets of severe repression, including threats, arrests, physical attacks, and evictions. Unknown assailants shot at the Via Campesina office in Tegucigalpa the night of August 11th, only weeks after well-known coordinator Rafael Alegría was arrested. On September 30th, after an executive decree essentially declared a state of siege and suspended many basic rights and freedoms, the army evicted the three month-long occupation of the National Agrarian Institute (INA) in Tegucigalpa, arresting over fifty farmworkers. One of the main reasons cited by farmworker federations for the sustained action was their fear that crucial land documentation would disappear in the hands of the de facto government. Later on November 28th, only one day before elections, State security forces illegally raided the installations of the alternative trade and rural commercialization network Red COMAL in Siguatepeque, Comayagua.
Back in the Aguan, the threat of repression is much more immediate. MUCA has received reports that eviction orders have been drawn up, along with news of extraordinary police movement in the area. The arrests of Osman Alexis Ulloa Flores and Mario René Ayala shortly after they left the recuperation would seem to indicate that the police are closely monitoring activity. The Committee of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), a well-known human rights organization, denounced reports of arrest warrants issued for MUCA activists Miguel Ángel Funes, Jorge Antonio Rivas López, Pedro Marcial Zambrano, Luciano Erazo Carbajal, Ángel María Guevara, Maximiliano Ramírez, Magdiel López, José Castillo, Pedro Castillo, and Santos Menjivar.
“We are worried about people being detained, given that the judicial system is now on holidays,” explained COFADEH lawyer Carol Cardenas, as she prepared an habeas corpus writ shortly after the detention of Ulloa Flores and Ayala by masked men in an unmarked car was reported in the Aguan. The entire judicial system of Honduras is on vacation from December 15th until January 2nd, with courts and offices minimally staffed by a rotating roster of judicial employees.
“We condemn any act of repression by the repressive State apparatus,” said Rivas back in La Confianza, “and hold [landowners] Facussé, Morales, and Canales responsible for anything that might happen to us.”
“We want the world to know that we no longer withstand the conditions under which we have been forced to live.”
Sandra Cuffe is a freelance journalist reporting from Honduras.